Cirque-style theater reimagines a Greek myth


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From enacting scenes and juggling to trapeze swinging and aerial acrobatics, Pandora’s Circus performers seem to laugh freely in the face of gravity as they break its laws.

“I will be doing some special circus apparatuses, the Lyra, which is a hanging metal hoop and also, the Cyr wheel, which is a large metal wheel that you spin and roll in,” performer Kelly Jo said.

Through these sets of skills, members of Pandora’s Circus bring the legend of Pandora’s Box — and the underlying moral of the danger of curiosity — to life.

Most know the Greek story of the beautiful box that, when opened, unleashed every form of evil into the world, the key to it in the trembling hands of a horror-stricken girl. Beginning Friday night, this myth will appear on stage for three days in a row.

The circus will perform at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St. at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Nov. 23. Despite the name Pandora’s Circus, creator Laura Ernst said the show goes far beyond common knowledge of the famous tale.

Ernst said the opening of the box is only the beginning of Pandora’s excursion. She is then dragged into an underworld in which she faces trials and tribulations in order to overcome the newly freed evils using the one tool left at the bottom of the box — hope.

“It’s sort of turned into a hero’s journey,” Ernst said. “Throughout the whole production, there’s a red balloon that appears each time there’s hope, and they accumulate over time.”

Pandora’s Circus answers the question of what happened to Pandora after she unleashed the contents of the box. Dancers, acrobats, and various other performers work together with mood-setting music and lighting to tell a story of triumph and overcoming fears.

The show’s technical director, Brent Houck, said the lighting in particular plays a large role in the feeling of the production.

“The show has no dialogue,” he said. “So everything has to be done through movement and visuals. I have to make up for the things that there is no vocal explanation for.”

Because most of the communication during the show is nonverbal, audiences have to be engaged in what appears onstage. Jo, one of the main characters in the performance as the future version of Pandora, said the lack of dialogue gives more agency to the performers.

“In every cirque show, like Cirque du Soleil or the Ringling Bros.’s Circus, there’s typically not anything verbal in there,” Jo said. “Usually, in theater productions where you have dialogue, that’s what the audience is relying on, but this leaves interpretation up to the audience, which is really kind of special.”

Stilt walker Ken Logan shared similar beliefs about the absence of conversation and what this means for the audience.

“If someone is only relying on words, they’re going to miss out on a lot of communication,” Logan said. “This show opens up your senses to everything else that is going on.”

Audience members are encouraged to tune their senses before watching Pandora’s Circus to fully receive the message the performers and Ernst are trying to convey. Ernst — a world-class juggler who performed in a hamster ball on the fifth season of “America’s Got Talent” — said the theme of conquering fear and regaining control isn’t only intended to encourage viewers.

“I tell the circus, too, ‘OK, overcome your fear of gravity, your fear of failing, your fear of looking silly,’ ” she said. “I just hope that everyone comes away from the show inspired.”

While the message behind art is always important, that is not the only thing Ernst hopes moves audiences. Considering the awe and fascination circuses often spark in crowds, keeping the attention on the production shouldn’t be a difficult task. In fact, it is this magical and inviting nature that first drew Ernst to the idea of creating her own show.

“I’ve just always been in love with how circus can inspire wonder,” she said. “It makes people think that there’s more possible in the world than they may have previously imagined, and I love that. The gasps, the applause — it’s all wonderful.”

The Pandora’s Circus performers are sure to relish every gasp and round of applause Friday, because the Coralville show is the very first performance. The location also holds special interest for most of the cast; Jo, who flew from Baltimore specifically to participate in Pandora’s Circus, said she may be the only one who isn’t from Iowa, and Ernst resides in Des Moines. The members deemed it a fitting start to have all of their long hours and hard work come together for the first time in their home state.

“Growing up, I always wanted to run away and join the circus, so I guess this is my chance to sort of run — not very far — and join the circus,” Logan said and laughed. “It’s nice to have a local show with roots in the Heartland.”

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