Four-string circus: Quartet evokes magic of the travelling show • Brooklyn Paper

Four-string circus: Quartet evokes magic of the travelling show

String quartet: The group Ethel will perform its newest show “Circus: Wandering City,” about the lives of circus folk, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starting on Nov. 14.
Frank Atura

The circus is coming to town!

A string quartet will pay homage to the scrappy men and women behind the greasepaint, elephants, and flying trapeze, in an energetic and beautiful multimedia show opening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Nov. 14. The orchestral group Ethel was inspired to create “Circus: Wandering City” by the lives of those who lived and breathed the big top, according to the director.

“We’re telling a story about the lives behind the music of the circus,” said Grant McDonald, the show’s director. “We focused on the tenacity behind the human spirit to create something beautiful.”

The show will feature original music performed by the four members of Ethel, who will dress as iconic circus figures — clown, ringmaster, and acrobats — while sketches, photographs, and movie clips of the circus are projected onto huge screens behind them. The costumes and projections help to turn a simple music show into a full-fledged three-ring circus, said McDonald.

“The design team curated an experience as if it were a theatrical production,” he said. “We’re not approaching it as if it’s just music. The music is the script and a character in the show.”

McDonald and his team spent four years digging through the archives of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in order to create the piece, finding artifacts that inspired their music. The team also digitized sketches, photos, and other materials from the 1930s to the ’70s to screen behind the performers.

Spotlight: Dorothy Lawson, one of the members of Ethel, plays an original tune inspired by the archives in the Ringling Museum.
Frank Atura

The members of Ethel — Ralph Farris, Dorothy Lawson, Kip Jones, and Corin Lee — have been playing together since 1998. The group’s original music gives the show a life and energy equal to the greatest show on earth, according to McDonald.

“They’re rock stars,” he said. “[The music] knocks you to your core and sits you in your seat and says ‘Come play with us.’ ”

The welcoming message of the circus is especially relevant in today’s political climate, said McDonald, because the big top brought in people from all backgrounds and walks of life, creating a sense of family as they worked together to put on an amazing show.

“In a deeply divided time, the circus community shows us that our differences are beautiful and to be celebrated, that strength and grace are not mutually exclusive, that human limitations can be overcome,” said McDonald.

“Circus: Wandering City” at BAM Harvey Theater [651 Fulton St. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org]. Nov. 14–17 at 7:30 pm. $25–$40.

Years of training: Ethel created the show over the course of four years, using the Ringling archives to inspire the music in the show.
Frank Atura

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