Family Entertainment Series

Bindlestiff Cirkus to connect all ages to ‘world of joy & wonder’

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Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

Stacey Federoff
Staff writer

Starting out in the mid-1990s at dive bars and punk-rock venues, Keith Nelson, co-founder of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, said performing for late-night crowds compared to families has one major difference.

“Six-year-olds will let you know if they don’t like it immediately,” he said.

The universal appeal of traditional circus is what has helped the production become one of the longest-running in New York. 

The Bindlestiff Cirkus will come to town at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater as part of the Family Entertainment Series and Old First Night celebrations. 

Despite this age of shorter attention spans and more competition for entertainment, Nelson said the circus endures because it reminds people of the magic of live performance.

“People sitting in a circle with entertainment and communication is one of the oldest things in humanity,” he said. “Watching amazing human potential is … the oldest art form.”

Acts planned for the evening include wirewalker Logan Kerr, who started out years ago working behind-the-scenes for the troupe.

“She pretty much grew up with Bindlestiff,” Nelson said. “It’s been amazing to watch her go from a really good stagehand to now being an amazing performer.”

Other acts include acrobat Ermiyas Muluken, juggler Kyle Driggs and aerialist Kylie Webb.

Driggs is best known for juggling umbrellas, which could prove to be a bit of an extra challenge in the open-air Amp, Nelson said.

“We’re hoping we’re not dealing with crosscurrents,” he said.

As the ringmaster, or master of ceremonies, Nelson said he ushers people from an everyday mindset to the fantastical one created by the circus.

“My role is to connect to the people and help them on their journey into this world of joy and wonder,” he said.

In terms of guiding people, the circus and Chautauqua have something in common, Nelson said. Both draw people together for a short time to “explode in magic,” then allow them to grow from it.

“Chautauqua, historically, is one of those magic meccas, and … it’s amazing to be a part of,” he said.

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus was set to perform last year on the grounds, but the performance on Aug. 12, 2022, was canceled following the attack on author Salman Rushdie earlier that same day.

“To be able to come back on to the grounds and do the show that we wanted to do will be an amazing moment,” Nelson said.

At its heart, the circus encourages people to take risks and “try the impossible,” even if it means an “exquisite failure,” he said.

“Failure moves us (forward) in life,” Nelson said. “Circus is one of those art forms where there are so many hours of failure before what you’re seeing in that ring. We would not be where we are as a society without tons of failure.”

Doktor Kaboom! returns with educational, explosive comedy

Doktor Kaboom! brings audience member Anderson Birkett on stage for an experiment on Aug. 3, 2021, in the Amphitheater. The good Doktor returns to Chautauqua with a peformance at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Amp. Kristen Triplett/Daily file photo

Mariia Novoselia
Staff Writer

What do you get when you mix science and comedy? Kaboom! Or, Doktor Kaboom!, that is.

“Doktor Kaboom! is a German scientist who has an over-the-top passion for both the subject and the audience,” said David Epley, who created the character more than a decade ago with a mission to change the way people view science. 

He will perform a comedic routine full of science demonstrations at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater as part of the Family Entertainment Series. 

Epley said his shows always include “a lot of character-driven improvisation” and interaction between the exuberant Doktor and the audience. One of the props – or scientific utensils, if you will – that Doktor Kaboom! will employ in his show is a vortex generator that used to be a 55-gallon drum. Another, which he calls his favorite experiment, involves a catapult, testing the hypothesis that “the catapult was not invented for war, but as a way to feed people.”

To test it, as with many of his experiments, he invites a child onstage. Making them “the hero of the moment” is how Epley implements personal empowerment into his shows. 

“I look for any opportunity to teach children to speak well of themselves, to think well of themselves and to understand that science is for everybody,” he said.

Epley said he had initially made a promise not to do routines that he thought were “too common.” Yet, he soon realized a significant number of people have not seen “the most basic of science demonstrations” they have read about them, but not carried the experiments out themselves. This, he said, may be because “culturally, we believe that science is only for certain people,” which is damaging. While some may believe that science is hard, Epley disagrees. He said it takes effort. 

“We’ve started thinking … as things have become easier and easier, that if we have to work at something that means it’s difficult. … I think that just means it’s worth doing,” he said.

The props Dr. Kaboom! uses in his shows are all made by the doctor himself, by hand. One of Epley’s ambitions is to make people want to redo the experiments on their own. 

“Science is like Shakespeare – it’s not meant to be read; it’s meant to be done,” he said.

Through interactions on Facebook, where he usually connects with audiences after his shows, Epley said he has learned that a lot of children and their parents try out his experiments, with some creating their own routines and others dressing up as Dr. Kaboom! for Halloween.  

One of the features that makes Dr. Kaboom! stand out is his German accent. Epley said when he first began performing 16 years ago, he wanted the character to be “bigger than life,” more memorable than Epley himself. 

Nothing “jumped out as energetic and huge” as a German-sounding scientist, he said. Since that time, countless exclamations of “Ja!” and “Kaboom!” are an indispensable part of his show.     

Epley said Dr. Kaboom! was inspired by three people: 1950s kids’ TV host Mr. Wizard, Mister Rogers who, taught people “how to be decent human beings, or how to remember to be human beings,” and his high-school physics professor at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.  

It was there where Epley nurtured his passion for science with a bit of whimsy, since the campus had the internet “before the internet” and the mascot was a unicorn.

Being Dr. Kaboom! and teaching science through comedy has been the most fulfilling work he has ever done.

Just like science, comedy is also for everyone, not just for kids.

“I will make sure that everybody who comes to my show will laugh and learn something,” Epley said.

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus to bring lively variety show to Family Entertainment Series in Amp

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Keith Nelson puts the “K” in Cirkus.

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the company Nelson co-founded with his partner Stephanie Monseu in New York City in 1995, aims to respect the history of the circus tradition while bringing fresh takes to the art form.

“You definitely have a world of traditional circus fans who are like, ‘If it’s not in a tent, if it doesn’t have elephants, it’s not a circus,’ ” Nelson said. “Our spelling, the ‘K,’ gives us a little bit of freedom to play with that.”

The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus might not be bringing an elephant to the grounds, but they will perform a variety show as part of the Family Entertainment Series at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater. In the nearly three decades since its founding, Bindlestiff has brought its sense of play to stages across the country and the world. In its early days, from its inception up until the economic strain of the 2008 financial crash, Nelson estimated that the Cirkus spent three to six months out of the year on the road.

“From early on, Bindlestiff saw the need to get artists moving around,” Nelson said. “We’ve really connected to other regional artists, and in making shows, sometimes we would try to hire a couple of acts locally and work with various venues around the country. Circus, as a form, has always been known to travel the country, and we really took that to heart.”

The Cirkus will be bringing a regional connection to Chautauqua. Gretchen In Motion, a circus artist from Utica, New York, will be presenting a handstand act. 

The show will also feature performers with whom Nelson and Monseu have long-standing relationships — Ethiopian acrobat Ermiyas Muluken will perform an unsupported ladder act, while Dextre Tripp will walk on a suspended wire and perform an act involving a dog.

Muluken has been involved with the Cirkus since before the pandemic, while Nelson has known Tripp for over 20 years.

“The circus world is a beautifully small one where we all know each other,” Nelson said. 

Nowadays, Nelson and Monseu generally take on administrative and production-oriented roles. Monseu is focused on education and outreach, and introducing the next generation to the circus world. Nelson produces many of the Cirkus’ shows, and will be emceeing the Amp performance. He casually mentioned that he will also be swallowing some swords. The variety show will also feature unicycling, juggling and plate-spinning.

Nelson is excited to be performing live again. He noted that there may be some young children in the Chautauqua audience who have never attended a live show before due to growing up in the pandemic.

“For humanity to continue in the beautiful ways of social connection, just getting out there again is more important now than ever before,” Nelson said. “Because we have to kind of retrain ourselves to smile, whether it’s masked or not, and just to be around each other, celebrating and sharing a moment — our mission is bringing that moment for people to share.”

Editor’s note: This event did not take place as scheduled, as many Institution events were canceled following an incident in the Amphitheater on Friday, August 12.

Trefzger will bring colorful characters to Family Entertainment Series


At the tender age of 9, Lynn Trefzger received her first puppet as a gift. That gift would change everything. 

“I was very shy when I was little, so it was just a fun thing to have because the attention was taken off of me and put on this puppet,” Trefzger said. “I guess I got away with saying a lot of things, and I realized that I had a sense of humor.”

In the intervening decades, Trefzger has mastered the arts of puppetry and ventriloquy, and leveraged that sense of humor into an expansive career. She was named Funniest Female by Campus Activities Magazine and has received awards and nominations such as Variety Entertainer of the Year and the American Comedy Awards.

Trefzger is a mainstage performer with Disney Cruise Lines and has performed all over the world in assorted venues, including casinos, birthday parties and corporate events.

Trefzger will return to Chautauqua’s Family Entertainment Series with her show entitled “The Vocal Illusions of Lynn Trefzger.” She will give two performances, one at 5 p.m. and one at 7 p.m. today at Smith Wilkes Hall. 

Her first character, a scamp named Simon, is still with her to this day. Although he has taken the form of different puppets throughout the years, his character has been by her side from the very beginning.

“He’s your typical boy, smart-alecky type,” Trefzger said.

Other puppets in Trefzger’s repertoire include a curmudgeonly old man named Judd, a goofy camel named Camelot and a precocious 3-year-old girl puppet named Chloe. Trefzger finds inspiration for her routine from her five humorous children. The character of Chloe, a perennial audience favorite, is especially inspired by Trefzger’s family.

“I think why she appeals to so many people is because me being a mom and having little kids, a lot of the things that my puppet Chloe says are things that my kids have said,” Trefzger said.

Trefzger has a set show, but it develops over time and sometimes includes the introduction of new characters. Her newest puppet is a rat, which she emphasized is a cute rat, not an ugly one. 

When Trefzger is workshopping new material, she integrates it into her set and lets the audience know that she’s trying things out. She gets their reactions and feedback and applies that to the development of her character.

Although she has plenty of characters in her collection, Trefzger’s favorite part of the show is audience participation. She brings people up on stage and uses her vocal illusions to make them talk.

“I call them human dummies or human puppets,” Trefzger said. “That’s always fun. It’s kind of my signature thing. I’ve been doing that for years and it’s always different, no matter how many times I’ve done it.”

Trefzger is fascinated by the whimsy of how people connect with puppets. Children readily talk to her puppets, of course, but so do CEOs at Trefzger’s corporate events, which she finds charming and funny. 

“People just feel comfortable around puppets,” Trefzger said.

Silliness and laughter is to be expected at Trefzger’s show, but she also has a playful warning for audiences.

“Be prepared,” she said. “You never know if you’re going to be asked to come up on stage.”

Peking Acrobats return for Family Entertainment to round out Old First Night festivities


The Stars of the Peking Acrobats will return to Chautauqua’s Family Entertainment Series with a fresh, new show.

The troupe recently joined forces with the Shanghai Circus to create a program that Cynthia Hughes of IAI Presentations, who has been co-producing the Peking Acrobats’ shows for over 30 years, said will excite and thrill spectators.

“We’re producing a whole new show that’s full of youth and vitality, while still holding on to the traditions of Chinese acrobatics,” Hughes said.

The Peking Acrobats were founded in 1986 and have astounded international audiences with their array of stunning acts for decades. They will perform following the Institution’s Old First Night celebration at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2 in the Amphitheater.

Hughes said that her late husband, Don, traveled to China in 1986 with the idea of creative cultural exchange. He connected with the China Performing Arts Agency and searched for performers across the country, and thus, the Peking Acrobats were born.

“Don saw an opening, with the opening up of China, to break down barriers between cultures and bring the youths of China to the youth and the people of America so that we would have a better understanding between cultures,” Hughes said.

Over the years, the Peking Acrobats have made their mark on popular culture and shattered world records. They have appeared on television in programs such as Nickelodeon’s preteen comedy Unfabulous and NBC’s Ring in the New Year Holiday Special, to name a few. In the realm of film, the acrobats played a role in Steven Soderbergh’s popular Ocean’s trilogy.

One of the Peking Acrobats’ death-defying stunts landed them a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 1999, they performed their Human Chair Stack act on Fox Network, featuring six chairs stacked nearly 20 feet in the air with six performers balancing on top of them.

The 10 performers in the current ensemble will perform a variety of tricks that incorporate a blend of traditional and modern Chinese music and costumes. There will be balancing acts galore, clowns, jugglers, hoop diving and a contortionist.

Also, the chair stack act, which Hughes described as thrilling and breathtaking, will hit the Amp stage. A performer will ascend a towering heap of chairs and perform acrobatic tricks on the precipice.

“It’s sort of like a Chinese carnival, or a circus without the animals,” Hughes said.

Hughes emphasized that the show will surprise and delight audiences of all ages.

“It’s a fun show, it’s a family show, it’s accessible for everyone,” Hughes said. “Whether you’re 6 or 60, or 3 or 80, you’re going to love the show. There’s something for everyone.”

David Gonzalez returns to FES with signature, goofy brand of storytelling


Multidisciplinary artist and storyteller David Gonzalez is a former class clown who has found his way back to his silly roots. 

“As a musician, I’m a little more introspective, and as a storyteller, I’m an extrovert,” Gonzalez said. “It’s kind of, perhaps, an unusual profile, but that’s just the way it is. Onstage as a performer, I’m a goof.”

Gonzalez will channel that goofy spirit for his return to Chautauqua’s Family Entertainment Series. He will bring his one-man show, “Talking Birds and Golden Fish,” a collection of folktales from around the world, to life at 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 26, in Smith Wilkes Hall.

In the early days of his career, Gonzalez worked as a music therapist. He used the power of music and creativity to work with people in various states of crisis, from pediatric hospice patients to adults in psychiatric care. He considers himself a social artist.

“That’s really the wind beneath my wings: that face-to-face, hand-to-hand community service,” Gonzalez said.

While working in music therapy, Gonzalez discovered the work of Joseph Campbell, a scholar, writer and teacher of comparative mythology. Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, theorized the archetypal hero’s journey, a prevalent cross-cultural mythological theme. Gonzalez was inspired by Campbell’s work and began incorporating storytelling into his music therapy practice.

As he dove into the rich canon of world mythologies, Gonzalez, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, explored his cultural roots. One of his previous shows at Chautauqua was called “Cuento: Tales from the Latinx World.”

“Talking Birds and Golden Fish” draws on a globe-trotting array of folktales, including the Persian story “The Raven and the Pigeon” and the Dominican tale “Margarita and the Golden Fish.” Gonzalez said that these stories reflect universal values such as cooperation and staying true to one’s self.

“These are stories which I love, and I join them together because they’re thematically related,” Gonzalez said. “Right now in my life, I’m working on a few projects which celebrate the natural world. I’m doing what I can to bring attention and care to ecological themes of our time, which are vital and critical.”

“Talking Birds and Golden Fish” features casual and simple staging. Gonzalez will be onstage with a headset microphone, using all of the tools at his disposal to weave his tales.

“I’m very physical, and my little tagline is just funky, fun, physical storytelling,” Gonzalez said. “I call this the poor theater of one, where my voice is the orchestra, my words are the libretto, my body is the dance ensemble, and the goal is to conjure a world.” 

Puppeteers ready to spark wonder, spin tales in Smith Wilkes

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As far as reasons for running five minutes behind, procuring vintage Japanese rod puppets is a better one than most.

Chad Williams, co-founder of WonderSpark Puppets, was at a Springville, New York, flea market when he spotted the vintage treasures, and he simply had to have them. His alarm was going off for a call with The Chautauquan Daily, but he seized on the opportunity.

“That was crazy, but I got them,” Williams said.

WonderSpark Puppets, a New York City-based puppetry company founded in 2009 by Williams and his wife Z. Briggs, will perform their show “Fox Fables” as part of the Institution’s Family Entertainment Series. They will have two shows, one at 5 p.m. and one at 7 p.m., Tuesday, July 19, at Smith Wilkes Hall.

Puppets are their passion. Briggs, who is the manager for The Jim Henson Foundation in addition to her role with WonderSpark Puppets, has been in puppetry for years — she’s what Williams calls a “lifer.” Meanwhile, he came to the craft a little later on, after working as a filmmaker.

“(Briggs) needed a second hand with a puppet show,” Williams said. “I needed a career change. And so we went up to Vermont and performed a show together, and everyone was super-supportive, and I don’t know, it just really clicked.”

In developing shows, Williams and Briggs often draw inspiration from traditional fables and folktales. “Fox Fables” is based on a number of Aesop’s fables, including one about a fox who loses his tail, which they used for the structure for the show.

“The story itself is a story about loss, losing something very special, something that comprised a lot of your identity and then asking the question, ‘Are you the same afterwards?’ ” Williams said.

The fox goes on a journey of self-discovery. While that narrative serves as the emotional core of the story, Williams emphasized that WonderSpark leans into the silliness, blending whimsy with heart.

“Fox Fables” also has Jewish roots. In addition to the original fable, the show is inspired by Rabbi Berechiah ha-Nakdan, who historians think lived in the 12th or 13th century. The rabbi wove Aesop’s fables into his sermons and wrote, translated and compiled a collection of fables, titled Mishlè Shu’alim, which translates to “Fox Fables.” Briggs and the couple’s children are Jewish, and Williams said that Jewish audiences throughout New York recognize the reference.

WonderSpark specializes in hand puppetry, a tradition that goes back centuries. Williams draws inspiration from international and historical styles and is always striving to hone his technique.

“Every show I’m trying to get better, trying to perfect every single tiny motion and give meaning to every movement that each puppet does,” Williams said. “I have two puppets up at once, so I’m constantly shifting my consciousness between each puppet while keeping the other one alive. If I do a good enough job, the audience will believe that these characters are real and talking and walking.”

Williams said that a puppetry renaissance is sweeping the nation. Puppets are on Broadway, in film and TV, in schools, and more.

“There’s something really powerful about the art form that everybody connects with,” Williams said. “For us, it’s an easy way to tell very interesting, specific stories that you just can’t do with actors on a stage.”

Renowned acrobat Li Liu returns to Smith Wilkes


Award-winning acrobat Li Liu was born in northeast China and began her career at only 6 years old. Both her parents were also acrobats, and they brought her into the familial and cultural fold. 

At age 7, she was selected for the prestigious Chinese National Circus School and moved to Beijing. There, she trained for 8 hours a day in hand balancing, traditional Chinese dance, ballet and more. It was an intense schedule, but her parents wanted her to develop a special skill to give her more opportunities.

ERIN CLARK / daily file photo Chinese acrobat Li Liu invites children to dance with ribbons during her performance July 18, 2017, in Smith Wilkes Hall.

“You’re learning those things, and the point is, your parents are trying to give you a better life,” Liu said.

Liu, who last performed at Chautauqua in 2017, will perform as part of the Family Entertainment Series at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 5, in Smith Wilkes Hall. 

Liu used to perform a duo act with her sister Ying Liu, coached by their father. The Liu sisters won the Golden Lion Award for their hand balancing act in 1995 at the Wuqiao International Circus Festival. 

Although Liu has traveled all over the world, performing in countries such as the Netherlands, South Africa and Singapore, she calls the United States her home.

“I’ve been to a lot of different countries, and I like visiting them, but I wouldn’t like to live there,” Liu said. “Here, I feel more freedom, and I feel very happy.”

Liu first traveled to the United States in 2000 with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After touring the country with the circus for three years, she decided to settle down and stay. Liu said that experiencing the world and living here has taught her a great deal and changed her for the better.

“People here are so warm,” she said. “I can walk down the street and say ‘hi,’ talk to people, even if I don’t know them. I think when you can connect with other people, it makes you happy.”

Over four decades into her career, Liu is going strong. She now performs a solo act, which she loves, because it allows her creative control.

Her act involves a number of eye-popping feats. Liu spins six plates at a time, three on each hand, and performs gravity-defying hand balancing tricks. She juggles diabolos, or Chinese yo-yos, and celebrates her culture with a traditional Chinese ribbon dance.

Now, many of Liu’s shows are for families and children. She invites audience participants on stage and teaches them some of her dances. She enjoys the proximity of attendees at schools, libraries and other family entertainment venues.

“I feel you have a connection with the audience,” Liu said.

Theater artist Doug Berky to bring dizzying array of skills to Smith Wilkes

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Doug Berky readily admits that he has a short attention span.

The physical theater artist has a dizzying array of skills — from mask-making to unicycle-riding — and influences, from famous mime Marcel Marceau to his resilient mother. Berky will give two Family Entertainment Series performances at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, in Smith Wilkes Hall. When he was learning the tricks of the trade at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, he was exposed to a wide range of intriguing practices, such as juggling and clowning, and he was inspired to learn a variety of skills rather than zeroing in on one specialty.

Doug Berky

“I’ve found sort of a toolbox that I can use to entertain people, and I draw from the different tools to interest them,” Berky said.

The piece he is bringing to Chautauqua, titled “No Show,” displays many of those tools. It’s just one of the shows that he has personally devised from the ground up. Berky was originally following the variety show format, but he decided he ought to develop a show with a story.

The premise of Berky’s “No Show” is that an audience gathers to see a show, with props and costumes ready and waiting, but the performers don’t show up. Berky, masquerading as an audience member, goes up on stage and begins exploring the onstage elements, like unicycles and a sousaphone. False starts and pratfalls abound. The piece relies on Berky’s improvisation skills and invites the audience to participate, resulting in different outcomes every time.

“The show is improvisational in the sense that with each audience, how it develops and how long it goes really depends on how involved the audience gets,” Berky said. “So it’s really a show of discovery for me, and for them.”

Berky has traveled the country and the world with his act, performing and teaching in Oregon, South Carolina, Cuba and Denmark, to name a few. He appreciates that audiences connect with certain aspects of his repertoire regardless of geographical location.

“Because my work is so visual, I can go to places that I don’t have language for, and the humor transcends our cultures,” Berky said. “There’s some humor that is cultural, but there’s a good core of physical humor that is universal.”  

Although some of Berky’s acts are geared toward adults, like the Leo Tolstoy short story-inspired show he created during the pandemic, he has a special place in his heart for family audiences.

“There are different levels of humor, where the kids see things that the
parents don’t, and the parents see things that the kids don’t,” Berky said. “That is something that families share together, and they’re able to discover things differently.” 

R&B Artist Alex Harris to Perform as Part of Family Entertainment Series



For Alex Harris, music is more than a form of entertainment.

Since he was 7, the rhythm and blues artist has had a passion for the way that music can speak when other words fail. Whether it’s through his chart-topping soul songs that soothe the spirits of his listeners, or through efforts like founding the Arts Conservatory for Teens — which seeks to improve the lives of young artists throughout his home state of Florida — Harris has wielded music as a tool for good.

Now, Harris is bringing his musical stylings and soulful energy to Chautauqua Institution as a part of the Family Entertainment Series, in partnership with the African American Heritage House. He’ll be taking the stage at 6 p.m. Tuesday, August 20 in Smith Wilkes Hall, and providing audiences with an assortment of songs in his smooth, Southern style.

As an artist who is well-versed working with young people and performing for a crowd, Harris will fuse his two passions to bring Chautauquans a family-friendly show aimed at feeding the soul.

In one of his behind-the-scenes videos on his website, Harris said his music draws inspiration from his experiences growing up around church music.

“What I like to express is my own, personal experience,” Harris said in the video. “That experience runs deep with my roots in gospel; growing up in church, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, tambourine, shouting, ‘Amen, hallelujah.’ ”

He went on to say that the community-building hymns of churches share some similarities with the R&B and soul music he makes now.

“It’s just great music that ‘feeds’ the soul of anyone who listens,” Harris said in 2016, ahead of a performance at the Palladium in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Having opened for performers like Al Green and Aretha Franklin, Harris’ music has been enjoyed across the country by young and old alike. He’s capable of covering famous pieces like the works of Otis Redding and Ray Charles, while also producing original songs that have topped the American Blues Network Charts and landed in the top 20 songs nationwide.

Harris said being able to mix existing work and personal experience is part and parcel of an artist’s job.

“As artists, we are re-creators of what’s already been created,” Harris said in his behind-the-scenes video. “We’re taking words, we’re taking experiences and we’re observing and participating.” 

Those interested in seeing Harris perform are in for an evening of rhythm, blues and tapping their shoes.

“Expect to experience something you have never experienced before,” Harris said before his 2016 Palladium show. “It’s fun, it’s magical, it’s soul.”

More than Magic: Illusionist Bill Blagg to Take Amp Audiences on Mystical Journey in Family Entertainment Series Show


A magician never reveals his secrets, but for Bill Blagg, the reason magic continues to interest and engage audiences isn’t a secret at all.

“It’s the fascination of the impossible,” Blagg said. “Magic is something that everyone experiences at some point in their lives. When people see it, they either say, ‘Oh, how did you do that?’ or they don’t even care; they’re just fascinated by the impossibility of it.”

Blagg, an entertainer and acclaimed illusionist, will be bringing his mystifying magic to Chautauqua at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 14 on the Amphitheater stage, as part of the Family Entertainment Series.

Performing at Chautauqua will be an experience unlike any of his previous performances, Blagg said.

The unique setup of the Amp means Blagg will be creating and presenting a show that is fundamentally different than the performances he gives in theaters and showrooms.

Blagg said the unique opportunity is one he’s looking forward to.

“Bringing magic into this type of venue is going to be a new experience for us,” Blagg said. “We’ll be creating a custom performance, so to speak, for Chautauqua.”

Within that custom performance, Blagg plans to astound and amaze audience members with a variety of illusions. From making members of the crowd levitate to reading their minds onstage, to shrinking himself down to 6 inches tall, Blagg said there will be something for everyone to enjoy.

“I tell people all the time that if you don’t like magic, come to this show,” Blagg said. “And if you do like magic, come to this show, because it’s more than just a magic show; it’s a journey that forms a connection between the audience and the performer. The audience is genuinely and truly a significant part of how the show unfolds.”

For those hesitant to attend and experience a traditional magic show, Blagg said there’s nothing to worry about. According to Blagg, the show is different from the standard razzle-dazzle of most magic performances. It is highly interactive and forges a unique connection between audience and performer, Blagg said.

“No two shows are the same,” Blagg said. “We’re not the typical, standard magic show. It’s more of an interactive experience that feeds off of the audience and magic actually happens to people in the audience. I walk away feeling like I’ve formed a bond and a friendship with audience members, and that’s what makes it really unique.”

Throughout his time as a performer, Blagg has pulled off hundreds of successful illusions and delighted thousands of engaged audiences. But despite his extensive history in the industry, Blagg said the thrill never gets old.   

“What I look forward to most is just thinking, ‘What new things will tonight bring?’ ” he said.

Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet to Connect with Young Family Entertainment Series Audience


Dancers from the Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet perform Tzigane during CRYB’s Spring Gala on June 14 in the Amphitheater. CRYB will open its Family Entertainment Series performance at 6 p.m. tonight in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall with Tzigane. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Throughout the course of the season, the Family Entertainment Series has provided engaging acts and energetic evenings that cater to younger Chautauquans.

But more often than not, the performers are adults, stepping over the age barrier to provide content that resonates with an audience far younger than themselves.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, August 13 in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, that barrier won’t exist at all.

As the dancers from the Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet spin and leap onto the stage, the age difference between the performers and some of their young audience members is, at times, only a handful of years.

But despite their ages, the members of CRYB deliver professional-quality performances that take audiences on journeys through a variety of dance styles and music genres.

Maya Swanson, one of the dancers who will be performing in tonight’s show, said that the program the ballet puts on for the FES is a unique one. 

“The audience will see a more intimate ballet performance,” Swanson said. “We are closer to the audience than we are in a typical performance without the lights and extra effects. It’s a more raw performance.”

As the ballerinas and ballerinos dance their way through Lenna Hall, they’ll be performing numbers from a variety of sources. According to CRYB Executive Director Elizabeth Bush, the night will include excerpts from The Nutcracker ballet and Swan Lake, as well as dances set to music from several notable composers. 

“The program contains primarily classical repertoire,” Bush said. “However, the opening number, Tzigane, is a contemporary ballet work choreographed for us by alumna Brittany Bush. … The closing number is always a crowd pleaser — it is a modern dance work by Dara Swisher to music by Philip Glass.”

Cate Walter, another of the evening’s performers, said she’s looking forward to the up-close and personal nature of the show.

“The Institution is so beautiful, and performing in Lenna Hall is always an intimate experience,” Walter said. “It’s fun to be able to see the audience members for a change.”

Bush, Walter and Swanson all agreed that performing for an FES audience is a fun, rewarding experience.

“(The audience is) very enthusiastic and appreciative, which of course is wonderful for the dancers,” Bush said. “After the performance, many of the children like to come up and take photos with the dancers. We hopefully might inspire a future dancer or two that night.”

Japanese Drum Group Taikoza to Take Stage in Old First Night’s Family Entertainment Series Act



The weather forecast for today calls for thunderstorms in the evening, but the rhythmic rumbling that emanates from the Amphitheater won’t be coming from the clouds.

Dynamic drummers from the musical ensemble Taikoza will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 6 as a percussive part of the Family Entertainment Series.

As their name suggests, Taikoza is a group of drummers who specialize in Taiko drumming, a style that originated in Japan and involves elaborately choreographed movements and large, ornate drums.

Roughly translated from Japanese, Taiko means “big drums,” and it’s a name that certainly doesn’t lie. Each polished drum stands several feet tall, allowing for a deep and powerful sound to rumble from the instruments with each strike.

Marco Lienhard, Taikoza’s musical director, said that energy and excitement play central parts in each performance.

“I always try to bring the energy that Taiko generates to our audiences,” Lienhard said. “We try to energize audiences through lively drumming and music.”

According to Lienhard, audiences usually get pretty energetic. The adults in the crowd tend to tap their feet and clap along, while the children typically demonstrate even more enthusiasm, often expressing their excitement in gasps of “oohs” and “aahs.”

In addition to the powerful percussion, Taikoza’s evening performance will feature woodwind music as well. Members of the group play different kinds of fue (Japanese for flute), including the shakuhachi, a long, end-blown bamboo flute.

Lienhard said audiences can expect a show that entertains them visually as well as aurally. Each Taikoza performance features large, choreographed movements as the drummers strike their drums in unison. According to Lienhard, the show has elements of an elaborate, synchronized dance as much as it does a musical performance.

When these factors come together, Lienhard said, audiences often find themselves swept up in the moment.

“People tend to forget themselves in the show and just enjoy the sheer energy that these drums and the music brings,” Lienhard said. “I like it when audiences just let themselves be taken on a journey to discover new sensations and feelings.”

Lienhard said he enjoys seeing how each performance resonates with audience members. To him, a Taikoza performance is more than a piece of entertainment; it’s an unspoken conversation.

“(Taiko has) the ability to communicate with people without actually using words,” Lienhard said. “This power and energy of the music unites people in a good way. In general, all music has that power, but Taiko seems to have an extra level to it.”

Through connecting with the music and the energy onstage, Lienhard said audiences will also witness an experience steeped in centuries of culture. Taiko drumming has been around as early as the sixth century C.E., and Lienhard said the group is committed to honoring the history and tradition of the emphatic art form.

“(Audiences are in for) something that they will never forget,” Lienhard said. “They’ll get a glimpse of ancestral culture that is still very alive, but also very modern as well; just sheer enjoyment I think.”

Artist Paige Hernandez to Combine Culture & Confidence in Musical FES Performance


In a time of Snapchat filters and social media scrutiny, inspiring self-confidence in children isn’t always an easy task. But that’s exactly what artist and director Paige Hernandez has been doing since 2008, with her original show “Havana Hop: A Children’s Tale of Culture and Confidence.”

“Havana Hop” comes to the Chautauqua stage at 5 and 7 p.m. tonight, July 30, in Smith Wilkes Hall, as part of the Institution’s Family Entertainment Series.

Taking the stage solo, Hernandez takes on the personas of three generations of women. The story follows a young girl named Yelia as she musters up the courage to attend an audition for a chance to dance at the White House, only to be told she isn’t unique enough to make the cut. 

Yelia turns to her mother for inspiration, and in turn, her mother decides to help Yelia connect with her cultural roots, via a trip to visit her grandmother in Cuba.

According to Hernandez, the show was inspired by her own experiences growing up. Her father is partially of Cuban descent, and Hernandez said that living in the United States and not being able to connect with her heritage in Cuba was something she struggled with.

The show was commissioned in 2008, as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative and inspired by President Barack Obama’s message of hope and change.

Now, Hernandez is using “Havana Hop” as a way to encourage young audiences to embrace their cultural heritage and to help them find more confidence in who they are. Hernandez said through art, children can discover how to be themselves.

“Arts are the best way for them to express themselves,” Hernandez said in a 2017 interview with The Huffington Post. “I can sing a song and do a dance and all they have to do is clap their hands and tap their feet. They feel so accomplished. It empowers them.”

Hernandez’s performance is highly interactive. The show features a number of call-and-response segments, and the children in the audience are encouraged to sing along and engage with the show as much as possible.

By connecting with her young audience, Hernandez said she hopes to leave them with an understanding that if they believe in themselves and embrace who they are, they’ll be rewarded many times over.

“I want all of the audience to walk away knowing that identifying who you are and what makes you unique, even if that means digging within your own family background and culture, can really help you feel grounded and find your ultimate confidence,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said being able to provide that message of confidence and empowerment is something incredible. But she also said that her relationship with her young audience isn’t just a one-way street.

“Performing for children is really great,” Hernandez said. “What the children who are watching me might not know is that they inspire me as much as I hope I inspire them.”

Jabali African Acrobats to Swing, Flip, Twirl onto Amphitheater Stage

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Jela Latham / design editor

They fly through the air with the greatest of ease, but it’s all on their own; they don’t need a trapeze.

At 7:30 p.m. tonight, July 24, in the Amphitheater, the Jabali African Acrobats will swing and jump their way onto the stage as part of Chautauqua’s Family Entertainment Series.

The troupe mixes the techniques of both Chinese and African acrobatics to produce a dynamic, energetic show complete with tumbling, flipping, dancing and swinging. Past performances have featured acts like the Congo Snake Dance, the Flaming Limbo Bar Dance and their signature Skip Rope Footwork.

Rosemary Hable, president of Class Act Performing Artists and Speakers, said the performance is one-of-a-kind. Class Act is the organization that connects the Jabali Acrobats to audiences in the United States.

“I think audiences who come see the show are in for an awe-inspiring performance,” Hable said. “Even now, when I see the show, I’m amazed at the talent and skill on display; it’s truly something you won’t find anywhere else.”

According to Hable, the Jabali performers bring a unique twist to the traditional acrobatics show. She said that in addition to feats of juggling, flipping and twirling, the performers add acts like chair stacking and complex rope-skipping footwork that is entirely unique to their troupe.

Hable said that despite the focus and intensity the acrobats pour into their moves, they also add an element of comedy to each show to ensure that audiences will be entertained in a multitude of ways.

One of the goals of the FES is to provide Chautauquans with experiences that will broaden their horizons and connect them with acts they might not be able to see anywhere else. Hable said that for those goals, the Jabali acrobats definitely fit the bill.

“It’s a uniquely cultural experience,” Hable said. “I think that audience members today, children especially, don’t get the chance to be exposed to African culture very often. (The Jabali acrobats) bring a great chance for people to come and connect with a great source of some amazing culture.”

The acrobats train at a school in Mombasa, Kenya, where they master their craft and form connections with one another. After members of the school graduate, they travel around Kenya, performing at various venues and, through companies like Class Act, even bring their talents to international stages.

Hable said the show will be suitable for audience members of all ages, and that the performance will be one that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.

“I encourage anyone with even a small interest in the show to come out,” Hable said. “It really is an amazing, exciting performance.”

Sing-a-Long-a ‘Sound of Music’ to Bring Classic Movie Musical to Chautauqua

sound of music


In 1965, Julie Andrews graced the big screen with her iconic voice and taught the world about a few of her “Favorite Things.”

By November 1966, “The Sound of Music” had become the highest-grossing movie of all time and received five Academy Awards. Directed by Robert Wise, the film remains a musical lover’s staple with songs that people of all ages recognize.

At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 17 in the Amphitheater, the movie musical will return to the big screen, and the Amp will be alive with “The Sound of Music” in the Sing-a-Long-a Sound of Music event as part of the Family Entertainment Series.

In Sing-a-Long-a events, a host leads the audience in vocal warmups and the use of their fun packs. The former Vice President and Director of Programming Marty W. Merkley will serve as host and lead “The Sound of Music” fans through their “magic moments fun pack.”

The fun packs will be given to the first 1,500 people to be used during the event.

Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, said she is excited to have Merkley as host, particularly because of his musical background.

Marty is a singer,” Moore said. “So he will lead pre-show fun and activities, including walking the audience through what all of their participation points will be and how to use their audience fun pack.

Moore said that putting on this show, where costumes are encouraged, was an easy decision.

“I decided to have the show because it’s a great community-building event,” Moore said. “Chautauqua is the right place to celebrate and love ‘The Sound of Music.’ ”

The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, set in Austria in the late 1930s, follows a young novice named Maria, played by Andrews, as she becomes a governess for the seven children of Captain von Trapp, played by Christopher Plummer.

From rolling hills outside the Nonnberg Abbey to extravagant mansion parties with Austria’s elite, Maria is whisked away into a new world. Her free spirit sparks trouble for her in her new post, as well as interest from Captain von Trapp.

Maria teaches the children to sing, bringing music back into the house years after their mother died. 

“The Sound of Music” is based on a true story — Maria von Trapp’s memoir, which was published in 1949 to help promote her family’s singing group. In 1956, German producer Wolfgang Liebeneiner released his film, “The Trapp Family,” which was a major success. After he released a sequel called “The Trapp Family in America,” the story made its way to American film and musical producers.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical hit the Broadway stage in 1959 and won five Tony Awards. In 1960, the story made its way into a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, with one actress in mind for the role of Maria — Andrews.

Since its release on March 2, 1965, “The Sound of Music” has remained a top musical classic for both stage and screen. Now, Sing-a-long-a events sell out at the Hollywood Bowl each year, according to Moore.

“It happens in several different places all throughout the country,” Moore said. “It’s hugely popular.”

Audiences will get to cheer for their favorite characters and sing along to their favorite songs like “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “So Long, Farewell,” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” and many others. Moore said she hopes Chautauquans will enjoy an evening of musical fun.

They’re going to get to applaud for their favorite characters and hiss for those they don’t like, and be a part of one of America’s favorite movies,” Moore said.
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