Phantasmagoria Revives Classic Circus Sideshow in Northern Liberties

By Jessica Herring
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Sep. 21, 2011

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“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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 5 of 5
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1. Umber said... on Sep 22, 2011 at 09:00PM

“Seedy? Seriously? When was the last time you were at Ruba Club-Studios, the 80's? BTW it's at 416 Green.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Sep 23, 2011 at 11:23AM

“Ruba is not Ukrainian, seedy or at 414 Green St.

Where do you get your facts??

Phantasmagoria is awesome. . . .

Dont bash this FORMER RUSSIAN..NON PROFIT ORGANIZATION..AT 416 GREEN STREET.

...that they LOVE to perform at.

DO MORE RESEARCH !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Sep 27, 2011 at 03:36PM

“While I love seeing sideshow, fire, and object manipulation thrive and grow in Philadelphia, I have a hard time dealing with the attitude of this group. They're painting a rather reckless picture of sideshow by talking about how if you do it, you are bound to be injured. As someone who has been performing in this scene for almost a decade and trained by old school sideshow masters, the last thing you want to do is encourage your public audience to teach themselves dangerous acts with the expectation of injury. Sideshow is something that SHOULD be taught, not pulled out of one's ass. It's techniques are ancient and have been handed down from generation to generation. When done properly, a performer should be able to complete their acts unscathed. A level of mystique should be maintained to leave your audience wondering whether or not what they saw was real or a trick. Instead, this group is disrespecting the art by making it seem like so long as you don't give a shit about your bo”

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4. Anonymous said... on Sep 27, 2011 at 03:37PM

“dy, you can do sideshow. Yes - this is true... But for how long? Perhaps Phantasmagoria will learn their lesson after they burn down the BOOK WAREHOUSE they love performing fire in...

My recommendation - Don't be so damn cocky and take a lesson or two from those who have come before you.

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5. Anonymous said... on Sep 27, 2011 at 04:34PM

“Proof in the pudding which I missed my first read through the article...

"The eclectic gathering glows luminously in white inside the capacious belly of Bookspace, a used-bookstore recently prohibited by the fire marshal from hosting performances due to a lack of a special assembly permit.

The crowd stares as DuBois, the master of ceremonies, begins the show..."

This means Phantasmagoria is already doing damage. By not following proper procedures (getting permits) and performing in a space which is not suitable for such a show (old warehouse full of paper and "overhanging fabric"), the space has been "prohibited by the fire marshal from hosting performances." Good job, guys... Way to ruin a venue. Keep up this pace and you'll get fire and sideshow banned in the city all together. All it takes is one stupid accident getting out of hand (like dropping a torch between pallets in a book warehouse) to kill a bunch of people and make us all look bad.”

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