Eric Newton teaches dancers, acrobats and ordinary slobs like me to perform flips, drops and spinning dives on a bar suspended from the ceiling by two straight ropes, an apparatus known in the circus world as a single-static trapeze. If that were all there were to say about him, that would almost be enough. Because under his disciplined watch at the Hollywood Aerial Arts in Inglewood, people with no prior skills rise to performance level in a matter of months, and Newton is not one of those teachers who worry whether his students excel beyond him.
But more than all that, Newton, a veteran of Cirque du Soleil who studied acrobatics with Chinese master Lu Yi, defies that old canard about teaching and doing with a vengeance: With his own Eye of Newt circus and the Burning Man–affiliated Cirque Bezerk, he performs single- and double-static acts that don’t look like dance routines, don’t look like a bunch of dangerous tricks strung together, don’t look, in fact, like anything you’ve ever seen anybody else do on a trapeze. His routines play like small narratives contained in four minutes of extraordinary feats. When Newton hangs at 25 feet from the instep of one foot, or circles backward around the bar, or drops suddenly from the ropes to hang from his ankles, you don’t just ooh and ah at his strength, or marvel at how difficult and scary that must be. You think about what it all means.
On Thursday nights at the White Lotus in Hollywood, Newton sometimes plays a waiter in glasses and a starched white shirt who stumbles across a trapeze and begins to play, pratfalling and spinning in spite of himself — a familiar slapstick scenario he reinvigorates with new tricks and timing. But more moving are his dramatic routines, like the one he did with his frequent performing partner, Sagiv Ben Binyamin, at a 2004 benefit for John Kerry. Watching that one, I remember thinking (perhaps too grandly before the presidential election) that I’d just glimpsed a shred of hope for global salvation. (Another nice thing about Newton — he lives on his physicality in the air, but he still has enough brain space to have smart opinions about Supreme Court conservatives and spineless Democrats.) And then there’s the one he did for free under the Cirque Bezerk big top at last summer’s Burning Man, where people crawled over each other to get a better view of the generous performance for which he’d written an entire backstory about man’s redemption.
“Your face,” I stuttered, stabbing at a wise critique after the show, “at one point, when you reached out into the air, it was .?.?. uh, what’s the word .?.?.”
“Beatific?” he offered.
“Oh, good,” he nodded, satisfied that I’d picked up on his theme. “That’s what I was after.”
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