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A circus tale

07 Mar 2016
Danny Ronaldo shares how six generations of his family circus history began, as he and his brother David present 'La Cucina dell’Arte' at Auckland Arts Festival.

“He was a boy of only 15 years and he fell in love,” says Danny Ronaldo. It’s a romantic start to our conversation but it wasn’t a person that charmed the young lad. The young Peter Adolf, Ronaldo’s great-grandfather’s grandfather, was seduced by none other than the eternal allure of the circus.  

“He helped break down the tents and then he left with them – he never saw his mother again and his life, well it changed, forever.” 

Interestingly Ronaldo is sharing this story after having just finished a show in the very place where his predecessor’s journey began – Ghent. It’s just past midnight in East Flanders and the Flemish artist and Dione Joseph connected across multiple time zones in the lead up to their arrival in NZ for La Cucina dell’Arte, on now at Auckland Arts Festival.

It’s a perfect time for musings and even as we begin Ronaldo’s voice takes on a reflective tone. “It’s a story for me to think about quite deeply,” says Ronaldo. “He was someone who chose the mystery of the unknown, experiences unknown. There was a tension, a desire even you could say, and that desire stayed in the family – and it’s more than a desire just to play and perform, it’s for a particular kind of atmosphere a special connection that can only happen when people come together.”

Although Ronaldo is performing (in a different theatre show) in Ghent, he’s very aware this was the city that Peter Adolf left to go and chase a dream. “The feeling that surrounds me is that he never belonged to this city – that’s why he left. He smelt things that called him away. The circus and its magic, the tent and the world it opened up, that’s what pulled him out of this city.”

It’s easy to hear the gentle passion Ronaldo has for circus and the performance tradition of circus theatre. He has been steeped in it for six generations and is quietly proud of the fact that each new generation brought a new spin to the family tradition. From humble beginnings with acrobats on horseback and then segueing into theatre, fusing the two art forms, returning back to circus and then subsequently theatre, each generation always had ‘a unique fantasy’. Danny and his brother David have continued that tradition right into 2016.

La Cucina dell’Arte is a simple yet clever name for a work that harks back to old traditions, classic archetypal figures and of course the family gathering environment of the kitchen.

“I like old tradition because there are so many truths in it,” says Ronaldo. “I like to show an audience that as people, both in the belly and in the heart, we are all the same.”

“If you go to the time of Shakespeare or Moliere or now, things are still the same. Falling in love doesn’t change.  Today you have technology so the practicalities of love have changed and you can just call someone in the past however you were happy just if your letter arrived in the mail!”

But laughs aside, Ronaldo is touching upon a fine balance of truths that he explains both to his work’s aesthetic but also to how he and his brother see the world. “In the end if love doesn’t work out what hurts in the end is the same - the pain is the same. That’s why I love the old fashioned look of a show and the combination with actors who are of flesh and blood  - through their eyes people can recognise their own feelings. It’s like a kind of connection you make with the past, present and future and if you have all three happening it’s a magical thing.”

In an industry where emphasis is often placed on generating ‘new’ work and keeping up-to-date with the latest technological advances to produce financially profitable productions, it’s refreshing to hear an unadulterated emphasis on story. Not just any story but awareness that the stories we tell are old stories that have been taking place for generations.

“It’s all old stories and old problems. The master and the slave, it’s a classic dynamic in commedia dell’arte and you laugh because it’s true, because it’s right there before your eyes but also because you know it’s a human condition. Audiences recognise this, your blood recognises this, it is an atmosphere that we already know and I find that very interesting.”

It’s a dynamic that all takes place beneath the magic of the big top and the Ronaldo brothers will be performing in their own tent this year at the festival.

“It is very old, this family tent and has no plastic or aluminium just very good fabric and lots of wood. We feel very lucky to be bringing this work to Auckland.  My parents also performed in this tent and it sounds a bit ridiculous but the ghosts of my family are inside, even the audience can feel it.”

Audiences are also in for a special treat, not just to be inside the family owned tent, but to watch the wizardry of the duo’s pizza-dough juggling.

“I like pizza so much,” laughs Ronaldo. "When  my brother and I were on this little terrace one time in Italy we could see the pizzaiolo throwing the dough in the air and we said wow and decided to do a show about it."

But it didn’t stop there. Ronaldo went and found the best pizza-dough juggling champion he could and ended up in a Sicilian chef’s kitchen learning not just the skills but absorbing the atmosphere as well.

“It was a fascinating world for clowns,” reminisces Ronaldo. “How staff shouted to each other in the restaurant, the speed at which things happen, filled with orders from the chef and yes, there are a lot of metaphors for society right there – and that’s what we want to bring, to share with people, that world.”

It’s a world that promises to impress, provide a rumble of laughs and if Ronaldo’s reflections are anything to go by some rather special experiences beneath the big top.