Circo Zero’s astonishing ‘Sol Niger’

CircoZeroIt was a total eclipse of the heart, just as choreographer/circus master Keith Hennessy sang during a raucous number on opening night in San Francisco of Circo Zero’s “Sol Niger”.

A seemingly moonlit stage at the venerable alternative art space Theatre Artaud served well to showcase a troupe of five performers and the lighting designs of Max, a true master of projections, illuminating a combination of dazzling aerial acrobatics and sophisticated modern dance played out to a wild, original, funky piano/percussion/electronic loop symphony created by a lone, lean, muscular, long-haired musician with a dynamic flair.

Circus master Keith Hennessy has created a masterpiece with “Sol Negro,” his latest in a long line of increasingly sophisticated circus productions. This time he pulled off a total winner, a blend of physical daring on the ropes, modern dance, balancing on a ball, mime, visual projections, and manic piano playing.

Sean Feit, the dazzing pianist, took the keyboard to a whole new level of brilliant if seemingly demented playing, the instruments hammers exposed for extra effect. His playing was muscular, and with his shirt off, it was his rippling back that as much as anything grabbed our attention as he pounded the keys, seemingly intent on destroying the instrument. I half expcted it to fall apart under the onslaught, but all that intense energy, and Feit’s more subtle sound effects tricks, transferred to the other artists, who responded with astonishing artistry.

Aerialists Emily Leap and Brett Womack, dangling from ropes, captured our hearts and made us catch our breaths with their high-level risk taking. Leap, in her most breathtaking segment, dropped precipitously and flailed around on the ropes like a demented rag doll. We watched her fling herself about above the floor as Hennessy belayed her, and it seemed impossible she didn’t fall but in fact she was precise in every move, a masterful aerialist.

Brett Womack captured our hearts with his breathtaking beauty and imposibly perfect, seemingly effortless athleticism and grace. Of all the aerial artists I’ve seen, from Ringling Brothers to Cirque du Soleil, he is absolutely the finest, most flawless. He perched on the ropes like a cheetah stretching out on a branch, pouncing abruptly to startle us. He climbed up the ropes with the effortlessness of a monkey, then would fly down them and swing around with the surety and strength of a mountaineer.

Meanwhile Seth Eisen played the clown, a mime in bizarre drag, always lurking about in the background, ironing dolls, making faces, his white-face a Marcel Marceau mask, his arms akimbo, his expressions a commentary on the politics of the piece. And politics is precisely what pulled the whole production together and made it cohere. As always Hennessy had a point to make, and he made it well with monologues and singing, referring to the insanity of our war-for-profit, oil-drenched world, the insanity of it all. The beauty of the aerialists, the complexity and intrigue of the music soundscape, the dour antics of the disturbed clown, and the circus master control and command of Hennessy all combined to make a statement of what it means to be living in a world gone awry. Amidst the insanity, there is humanity, a realm of wonder worth inhabiting.

Circo Zero’s “Sol Nigher” plays through September 29 at Project Artaud Theatre, 450 Florida St. @ 17th St. in San Francisco. Tickets are $25 (and well worth it!). Shows are at 8pm. Tix:, or 800-838-3006. Info: 415-255-2500.


This article appeared on, September 23, 2007.