Parked outside the Bowery Arts gallery in lower Manhattan last Friday afternoon, a dozen guys in lime-green jumpsuits and purple headbands stood with black golf balls. Their day job is the works of Salvatore Calabrese, who invented the parachute jump 30 years ago, combining old circus tricks with human spirals. Calabrese has graced several stage performances over the years, but he is never more theatrical than when he’s standing on a platform with an orange balloon hanging from his shoulders. Dressed all in black, wearing military-style boots and gloves, he is in keeping with the carnival vibe of the concert.
One after another, guest acts (the Blue City Royalty, Ghostwalld, Buke and Gase) stepped out onto the stage. These are known in folk circles as amateurs – in fact, no professional musicians are in attendance – but even without professional musicians, Calabrese’s show is remarkable for its range of instrumentation. The sky bursts with strings, percussion, brass and bamboo, as Calabrese stands and balances atop these speakers, standing both aloft and somewhere below, much to the delight of the audience.
His “leap of faith” is a confessional performance that includes many photographs of himself in costume, a loincloth that acts as a prop. “I didn’t realize I was killing myself,” he says. “I’m just an artist; I really don’t give a shit about doing anything right.”
At one point, he disappears from view for about 20 seconds, and the crowd takes out their smartphones and begins a collective hunger strike. A hotel executive arrives on stage to great applause and begins to wipe his rearside. Another long pause is followed by a break in the action, and then a stagehand enters the frame with a chair and plunges it into a pit, where Calabrese sits and waits. He is not alone. He is joined by five clowns who have been invited onstage. Moments later they pop their heads out, wearing bright red face paint and unfurling a blue, inflatable tent.
This show is at least partially about medicine – Calabrese aims to investigate the mechanism behind hang gliding and parachute jumping, and a surgical mask covers his nose. It is an important aspect of the circus: an act you believe exists, that you can see in real time. It is very much a performance, but also something that exists on a stage. The clowns are mechanical and rickety. They know when to stop and embrace, and they know when to fly on, or risk to fall out of the sky. Their destinies are determined by the whims of the audience. “I am like a chemistry experiment with social anxiety,” Calabrese says.