“I have scars all over my knees. You can see the pattern of the nails. But I love it,” Moltov says. “‘Cause when I bleed on that bed of nails, it shows my passion. I bleed the circus when I lie on that bed of nails.”
Mystique, the most soft-spoken of the group with dark eyes and flowing dark hair, heartedly agrees with her partners. She perhaps feels even more consistent aches than the others, yet swallows her pain as readily as DuBois swallows lighter fluid.
“Our apparatuses are all fairly dangerous. I have a huge rope burn right here, and on my neck,” says Mystique, wearing matching knee braces. “But it’s the nature of the art. It’s temporary discomfort that is worthwhile if you really, really love what you’re doing.”
“We’re all injured,” Moltov chimes in. “I have a hurt shoulder … he [DuBois] has a concussion. But they’re just…
“Circus kisses,” finishes Mystique.
Like DuBois, Moltov’s and Mystique’s genuine passion for the circus was planted at a young age. Moltov attended “freak” sideshows as a pre-teen, and by the tender age of 14 she was painting her face with white and red paint to assume a clown identity.
“It’s just 100 percent natural,” says Moltov about her love of circus. “It’s in my DNA. I love being a clown. I love my red nose,” continues Moltov. “It’s who I am. The person you see on stage is definitely a part of me.”
Mystique’s love of circus also started when she saw sideshow acts in Philly, and was instantly drawn to the aerial trapeze. The Phoenix-feather tattoo sprawled across her chest and shoulder symbolizes her birdlike spirit, which always longs to be soaring in midair.
“There’s this one story by [writer Franz] Kafka called First Sorrow ,” says Mystique. “It’s about an aerialist who … performs on the trapeze, and at very end of it, you see the aerialist on a train … in the coat rack, way up high, just curled into a ball, crying. And the other character asks, ‘Why are you cying?’ And she’s like, ‘I just want to be in the air!’ I just want to fly!”
Although they all have very different acts, the theme is always cohesive, and changes with every new show. Yet, they have a consistent 18th-century, Vaudevillian theme that recalls the darker, edgier circuses of yore. They frequently don French-style masks, and Moltov wears traditional French clown makeup and performs Parisian-style burlesque. The show’s moodiness and eroticism is layered with what Moltov describes as “a little black magic sprinkled on top.”
Such vintage circus art is enjoying a revival, with circus education, like the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, and smaller-scale troupes, like Philadelphia’s Olde City Sideshow. DuBois cites the poor economy as a reason for the resurgence of scrappy, independent circus acts, while Mystique attributes it to a collective nostalgia.
“It seems like everything in this country is basically mimicking the ’20s,” Mystique says. “So there’s a Vaudevillian resurgence in general.”
That evening, sparkling “White Night” held on to Phantasmagoria’s signature vintage sexiness, with hints of darkness. After DuBois’ intro, Moltov kicks off the night with a sexy burlesque number, but cleverly in reverse: She comes out in underwear and pasties, and teasingly puts her clothes back on. Then some other circus members perform, including a mesmerizing performance by Lilith, an aerialist who swirls in mid-air on a swath of black fabric, and a sultry belly dance by Queen Yareli. Then, in one of the most memorable acts, they accept donations in a fittingly freak-show way: Audience members staple $10 and $20 dollar bills to Moltov’s bare skin. Ignoring the audience’s shouts of disbelief, DuBois uses the staple gun on himself—to staple his balls. A series of other acts follow that elicit awe and recoiling from the audience, including stepping on broken glass and the infamous bed-of-nails act (during which Moltov simultaneously hula-hoops with her leg.)
The troupe then moves outside, where Moltov resembles a spinning top, gyrating inside a hula-hoop as dots of fire around its perimeter whip around at warp speed. DuBois then lunges forward, pours a transparent liquid into his mouth, and parts his lips to consume a raging flame. In a split second, a fluorescent explosion of fire springs from his mouth as if he were a ferocious mythical dragon.
After going back into Bookspace, Mystique takes to the air, twirling gracefully on the mid-air trapeze, seemingly weightless, resembling an exotic bird in a white feathered mask.
Despite Phantasmagoria’s antiquarian darkness, the night ends as lightheartedly as White Night intended to be, with balloons falling from the ceiling and a drunken dance party to the heavy beats of techno.
Although White Night was not as G-rated as some might expect, Phantasmagoria took darkness to a whole other level at RUBA Club on Aug. 20 with White Night’s evil twin, “Black Night.” RUBA, a slightly seedy after-hours Russian and Ukrainian bar on 414 Green St., is the group’s new permanent venue for future First Friday performances.
Once again, DuBois entered the stage, only this time he put on the mask, the sinister face of his inner stranger.
“Tonight we celebrate the darkness,” he begins. “The darkness that resides within all of us.”
Black Night was an erotic exploration of inner devilry, complete with nudity, razor-blade swallowing and simulations of rape. The group will surely live up to their reputation for being outrageous at their upcoming Halloween performance, taking place at the Media Bureau on N. Fourth Street. And the venues keep getting bigger: They’ll be performing at the Franklin Institute on Nov. 11. Each show is proof that Phantasmagoria is constantly evolving, and never failing to shock audiences with each new permutation. They’re bringing circus back with an audaciously fiery vengeance.
Dear culture vultures: For months we scoured the city to bring you the best of what Philly has to offer this season, and we think we’ve done a damn good job of bringing something for everyone. Into art? You should know that curators and artists everywhere are doing their best to take art out of their galleries and into your community. Want theater? We found a scrappy, independent circus troupe whose stunts you should never try at home. There’s also a roundup of what’s on tap for our favorite stages. If comedy is your thing, we've got a list of the season's best events (like a tribute to the late Mitch Hedberg, he of the famous one-line zingers). Music? Check. Dance? The Russian ballet awaits you on. We even examine the state of storytelling, which, of course, is the world's oldest favorite pastime yet somehow a "novelty" in today's world. Enjoy all this and more!
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide