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Philharmonic Teams up with Circus Clowns, Aerialists, Jugglers, and Steel Band for Avant-Garde Revival


By Ilene Dube, JerseyArts.com

originally published: 04/04/2024

Philharmonic Teams up with Circus Clowns, Aerialists, Jugglers, and Steel Band for Avant-Garde Revival

Trenton native George Antheil was called the “bad boy” of music. After dropping out of high school in his home city, he went to make music in Paris and in 1920 lived in an apartment over Shakespeare and Company, the famed bookstore run by Sylvia Beach. Antheil found himself in the Parisian art milieu among James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, and Erik Satie, among others.

Ballet Mecanique, Antheil’s most renowned musical composition, was originally conceived for a Dadaist film co-directed by artist Fernand Léger, with cinematography by Man Ray. But the score grew to be larger than the film itself and premiered as an independent composition in 1924. It excited audiences to riot in the streets.

Back in Antheil’s hometown, Capital City Philharmonic Music Director Daniel Spalding is a champion of his work, having recorded Ballet Mecanique, with its blend of pianos, percussion, sirens, bells, and airplane propellers, on the Naxos label. On April 20, for the work’s centenary, members of the orchestra will revive Antheil’s most lauded work in a version for four pianos and 11 percussionists. The CPNJ performance will take place at the Roebling Machine Shop, along with a live performance by the Trenton Circus Squad.

In his memoir titled “Bad Boy of Music,” Antheil — a Renaissance man who wrote music reviews and mystery novels, history books and syndicated columns, and with the actress Hedy Lamarr patented an early form of radio frequency communications — reflected on his upbringing near a noisy machine shop during the capital city’s industrial heyday.

Philharmonic Teams up with Circus Clowns, Aerialists, Jugglers, and Steel Band for Avant-Garde Revival

In his memoir titled “Bad Boy of Music,” Antheil — a Renaissance man who wrote music reviews and mystery novels, history books and syndicated columns, and with the actress Hedy Lamarr patented an early form of radio frequency communications — reflected on his upbringing near a noisy machine shop during the capital city’s industrial heyday.



 
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Could it have been the Roebling Machine Shop? That’s where John A. Roebling & Sons manufactured wire rope for the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, Otis elevators, and cable cars. In recent times the building has been home to Art All Day and the Punk Rock Flea Market, and in 2017, the building was turned into a performance space. McArthur “genius” and composer Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields, an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble that addressed issues of labor and industry in turn-of-the-20th-century Northeastern Pennsylvania, was performed in the historic structure. It was anthracite coal that fueled the furnaces that allowed Roebling to make the steel that built America.

Owned by the City of Trenton, the enormous red brick building is today home to the Trenton Circus Squad. It has been enhanced in recent years by the art installations of Eva Mantell and Joel Beck, who together call themselves Greenworldx2. Brightly colored banners fill the windows and drape from the cavernous ceiling spaces, almost becoming characters themselves in performances.

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the Capital Philharmonic, and CPNJ has taken the year to expand its reach, partnering with other Trenton-based arts organizations: Artworks Trenton, Passage Theatre Co., the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, and the State Museum Theater.

Philharmonic Teams up with Circus Clowns, Aerialists, Jugglers, and Steel Band for Avant-Garde Revival

Image courtesy of Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey.

It was conductor Spalding who came up with the idea to perform Ballet Mecanique. CPNJ Executive Director Jill Aguayo, who has been at the helm for a year and a half, says the idea for the partnership with TCS came about when CPNJ trustee John Hatch. An architect who has worked on various historic preservation and redevelopment projects, including the Roebling Complex Redevelopment and Roebling Lofts, Hatch suggested performing at the Roebling Machine Shop, since the piece celebrates Trenton’s industrial past. When it dawned on them that the Machine Shop was also the home of Trenton Circus Squad, everything fell into place. The Squad, as the TCS performers are known, will do their thing during interludes in the music.

CPNJ will be renting four grand pianos to bring into the space, and the Plenty Pepper Band will perform on steel drums. “When Ballet Mecanique was first performed a century ago, it was considered avant-garde,” says Aguayo. “It still is today. This is the crown jewel of our partnerships.”

“This is the greatest thing ever,” says TCS Executive Director Tom von Oehsen. “What excites me is being able to partner with another Trenton-based arts organization and expose the Squad and coaches to amazing art being produced in the city, and to perform to live music. That it’s an orchestra is even better – we’ve never performed with an orchestra before.”

Philharmonic Teams up with Circus Clowns, Aerialists, Jugglers, and Steel Band for Avant-Garde Revival

Image courtesy of Trenton Circus Squad.

TCS classes in the circus arts – juggling, unicycling, clowning, aerial acrobatics – are offered for free to 12- to 18-year-olds, and in turn students become coaches and teach the next generation of performers. All of them speak about TCS being one large family. Co-founded by von Oehsen, the non-profit helps young people find their individual modes of expression.



 
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Von Oehsen is excited about the opportunity to show off the space that TCS calls home. “What’s charming is the history, and the high ceilings and the cathedral vibe it gives off,” he says.

Greenworldx2 installations, made from brightly painted Tyvek, are also part of that charm. Describing the origin story of the partnership, von Oehsen says “they showed up out of blue. We need that in our lives; the state of the world is bringing us down and we need some joy. Using our mutual creativity we are tapping into each other’s joyful vibe. It’s a typical Squad story: artists show up and want to be involved and absorb each other’s joy and happiness and laughter.”

In addition to set pieces, Greenworldx2 will be creating costumes.

Mantell, of Greenworldx2, first met von Oehsen when the two were students at Princeton Day School, and over the years she has created artwork for benefits. With work that has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum and P.S.1, among other venues, Mantell has taught at Rutgers, Princeton Adult School, and the Arts Council of Princeton’s Arts Exchange Program. That program, in partnership with HomeFront, offers social services including art instruction to children and teens living in transitional housing. The Arts Exchange students grew up and became members of the Squad.

“It’s a joy a joy to see them grow into leadership roles and become stars of the show,” says Mantell.

Both Greenworldx2 and the Squad like to improvise. “We found the things they use in their rehearsal and practices – brightly colored mats, pads, and boxes — echo the geometric ideas of 1930s and 40s Parisian modern art,” says Beck, the other half of Greenworldx2.

Mantell was excited to discover a digitally restored version of the original 1924 Ballet Mecanique. “That whole period of art history was really interesting, how artists responded to the machine age. They were very experimental, that’s what I love about it.”

Philharmonic Teams up with Circus Clowns, Aerialists, Jugglers, and Steel Band for Avant-Garde Revival

Costume sketch. Courtesy of Greenworldx2/Eva Mantell

Having designed garments for performance pieces, Mantell finds that costumes are like a sculpture that moves with the wearer. “The costumes will have to work for gymnastic-type movements.”

In playing with the spirit of the machine age Trenton, “We are looking to the industrial era for fabrics to blend into props and have a bit of machine action so that the performers become part of the props, without constricting how they move, and their idea of performance,” says Beck.

“It’s interesting to think of George Antheil as a young man walking by this building when it was a factory,” continues Beck, “hearing the sounds he put into his composition, and today, 100 years later, we are creating new art from it.”



 
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There will be a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 given by Rider University musicologist Joel Phillips about the music’s background and Antheil’s life in Trenton. Spalding will provide further insights during the performance. Additional compositions by Lou Harrison, John Cage, J.S. Bach, and conductor Spalding will be performed.

Antheil, who wrote that he couldn’t work in any American city other than Trenton, with its beautiful river and scenery, died in 1959. He is buried in the city’s Riverview Cemetery.

Trenton, NJ | April 20, 2024 @ 7:30 PM. Click here for tickets.




About the author: Driven by her love of the arts, and how it can make us better human beings, Ilene Dube has written for JerseyArts, Hyperallergic, WHYY Philadelphia, Sculpture Magazine, Princeton Magazine, U.S. 1, Huffington Post, the Princeton Packet, and many others. She has produced short documentaries on the arts of central New Jersey, as well as segments for State of the Arts, and has curated exhibitions at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie and Morven Museum in Princeton, among others. Her own artwork has garnered awards in regional exhibitions and her short stories have appeared in dozens of literary journals. A life-long practitioner of plant-based eating, she can be found stocking up on fresh veggies at the West Windsor Farmers Market.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.




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