By Robert del Valle

Watching Satori Circus perform is a pleasure, a revelation, and illuminating to the nth degree. Writing about Satori Circus – and doing  justice to the man’s creative vision and talent – is a little like writing a Hallmark card with hieroglyphics. Even if you get the message across, there’s always that nagging thought in the back of your skull that you should have used the vulture instead of the snake to start the second sentence.

So … let’s start with a few basic things. Satori Circus is not a clown and he ain’t no mime. The latter part of his stage name would imply that we’re talking about an ensemble, but he’s essentially a solo act in the spotlight – albeit one frequently assisted  from time to time by equally talented friends. 

You don’t need an advanced degree in semiotics to “get” his shows and the fact that several of his physical antics struck one reviewer as being “blissfully Nietzschean” should not alarm you unduly. 

Heck, Satori Circus even has a real name – and ANOTHER fictional alter ego who performs from time to time. But if you want those details, do your own digging and research.

Free Bird | Image by Mike Woods

Satori Circus is the actor and the act. He is a one-man orchestration who takes a few strings from a discarded lyre and proceeds to fashion an invisible instrument that plays a jarring melody of new and old notes. His performances draw upon the most familiar elements of theater and the wildest improvisations of borderline anarchy. He is so dark and so damn funny that you just might get vertigo while sitting down.

This man delivers a cosmic cabaret to the masses – and the fact that those masses have gotten more massive and appreciative over the years is a more convincing verdict and endorsement than these words we’ve written.

And how many years are we talking about here? 

Three decades.

That’s right.

And on September 28th and 29th  the Tangent Gallery/Hastings Street Ballroom will be the appropriate venue for an event that is being modestly and succinctly titled Satori Circus Presents: 30th Anniversary Performances.

Satori Circus by Satori Circus

The 30th Anniversary shindig will feature vignettes from such past shows as “EQUILBRIUM”, “MOSES:39”, “Child-Proof”, “Funy As Hell”, “Twilight Barks”, “63mins (of random balance)”, “…poems we tell ourselves…” and Satori’s most recent performance piece, “Stroke”.

There will even be a few surprise selections from the myriad guest appearances he’s made over the years at Theatre Bizarre (Det.), DAMNED (Det.), Dirty Show (Det.), Michigan Burlesque Festival (Det.), Atrocity (Pittsburgh), WIZBANG (Cleveland & Det.), Performance Art Festival (Cleveland) and the Erotic Poetry & Music Festival (Det.).

The maestro took a few minutes to chat with us and reminisce. But before we get to the polite interrogation, we want to print a few salutary remarks made people who’ve known him well over the years.

Sue Static:   Who is Satori Circus? He is hard to define. He is not a band, not a clown, not a mime. He is a unique artist with a fantastic vision. His performances will make you laugh, make you think, make you question. One thing is for sure. His performances are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and they are performance you won’t forget

Brian Dambacher: Satori Circus is the epitome of boundless creativity, being yourself and doing your own thing. He is a rare breed of performer who continues to create, innovate, and conceive the unexpected. In his home town of Detroit, and beyond, he has touched and inspired many – collaborating with him for the past 25 years, I am privileged to be one of them. 

Satir Circus in the Fields by Rick Bielaczyc

Okay, we’re calling this the “What Have You Learned, Dorothy?” question … Thirty years ago you became the grease-painted avatar of enlightenment and angst we all know and love today.  What did those three decades taught you? 

They have taught me to be resilient and steadfast to my dreams and my goals. They taught me to make myself happy first. They taught me that no one else is to blame when you mess up as long as you’re committed once you walk into the light. Cause there ain’t no turning back. And when you have conviction, there isn’t too much you can’t do!

The first decade was finding myself, what my worth is, how to recreate and create on a shoe-string budget and how to pay attention to myself and the characters I was inhabiting. It was a riot! The first decade also saw me being accepted into the school of art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, into the graduate program. A new program that enabled the graduates to seek other opportunities that weren’t immediately apparent in the curriculum. Crossing boundaries or borders as it were. The gentleman chiefly responsible is my dear friend Ed West. He saw something in me that some saw, but he had the ability to get me there. To get me out of my comfort zone. He saw a great need in me to explore and jump off the dock into the water. No matter the depth. I guess, I wasn’t that afraid.

The second decade was a bit slower. I did performances here and there, but life in the real world was raising its nasty head, and I had to really work. Like as in a J.O.B. 

I was married and wanted those adult things  that supposedly life is made of or from. But unfortunately a lot of real-world things weren’t in the cards. Some of it seemed to backfire on me. I divorced, and moved out of Detroit. Took a job in Indiana and worked for an education company. And that  was cool. I traveled a great deal  and still managed to play hockey, which I’ve done since I was 9. I was down there for about 4 years. I did very little performing. I drew, wrote, worked out, played slapshot with college kids and worked. Then I had this epiphany and saw myself doing bigger things. That is, I wanted to perform again. I wanted to be by my aging parents more and I wanted to see my sister’s boys grow. I wasn’t lonely – I had just had enough. The job was great, but there’s always something else for us out there. You just have to open your eyes and trust yourself. So I moved back in 2005 and by 2006 had a full performance art piece to unleash on Detroit. Now, granted I had been off the scene for a while. Things change. Memories fade and I was basically starting over. But I didn’t care. ‘MOSES:39’ was me being back!!

The last decade has seen me everywhere from New Mexico, Pittsburgh, NYC, LA, Vegas, Cleveland, Chicago and all over Detroit and even on America’s Got Talent. Performing in drag shows, cabaret shows with Torch with a Twist, burlesque with the wonderful ladies of SPAG, DAMNED, Theatre Bizarre, erotic performances, Erotic Poetry and Music Festival, children’s themed shows, MC-ing, busking…you name it and I’ve probably done it. All genres of performance weren’t really around when I left. Wasn’t at all around when I started. If it was, and I can honestly say all of it could have been, I just wasn’t keeping my eyes open.

In the last decade I have written and co-written many performance art pieces. Some for specific shows like Atrocity in Pittsburgh and some conceptual projects. After ‘MOSES:39’ I wrote with dear friends Dave and Brian Dambacher, ‘Funy As Hell’. Funy (pronounced as Funny)…inside joke. ‘Child-Proof’ for a kids show, of which ‘I Got Friends’ has become an adult fav and probably my most notable piece. ‘Twilight Barks’ which was a very dark piece about loneliness and depression. ‘Umbra’, a completely silent piece with movement that was about memory and suicide. ‘Odditorium’ was written with the talented Marcus Concernicus, about a writer who suffers from writers block and is trying to write about his beloved who’s gone. ‘63mins (of random balance)’ was a hark back to the old days of SC, and was the celebration of 25 years on the scene. We were allowed to perform at the DIA/DFT with this piece. I was floored. Still scratch my head over that one. Haha…the DIA!!! And most recent ‘Stroke’. A piece about an artist from the turn of the century who’s aloof to the world around him. Trying to find himself in the art world. So yeah, I’ve been busy.

Where have you been and where are you now?

Well, most of it is in the above question about where I’ve been. Where I am now? I’m still reinventing myself, challenging myself, pushing myself, and developing myself. The world is out there if you want it. And Europe still doesn’t know me!

And we will call this The Wayback Machine question (and one we’ve been dying to ask for years): When was Satori Circus born?

I’d say the beginning of 1988 … somewhere. And it was on paper, or in my head, or in musical sketches. I can’t recall if it was September or October of that year, and I’m a bit foggy as to WHERE he was born. It was either at Michigan Gallery through Karl Kamalski, or at 1515 Broadway with Chris Jaszczak.  Both were massively influential in my creation and development over the years. And eventually I become the “house artist in residence” at 1515 Broadway.

The name? Well, let’s say it came from a Buddhist term meaning pure light and pure truth and the fact that I fell in love with it through a favorite goth band at the time called Bauhaus. It was in the title of one of their songs. Plus, I later discovered Jack Kerouac used it in the title of a novella of his when he went to France to find his heritage – Satori in Paris. Read the back of that book for his description of what he thought ‘Satori’ really meant. Pretty perfect for me! Where did he first step out on the stage? What was the reaction? Like I said above, my memory is a tad foggy. But the two places I mentioned allowed me to create just about anything over the years. I was first introduced to Michigan Gallery through art school at Wayne State. I even had the opportunity to perform there in a band called Fugitive Poetry. It was a wonderful time for a 20-year-old! And it was at 1515 Broadway that I met Chris for the first time. Fugitive Poetry’s name was passed on to him by George Tysh. We met with Chris at St. Andrews to discuss future shows and then BOOM! we got a gig opening up for John Sinclair and Jane Cortez and the Firespitters. It was amazing! Still resonates in my head to this day! As far as reaction, I think we did very well because we earned a few more gigs afterwards. This was about 1986. And before my dear friend Rick Maertens was stricken by cancer. But Chris remembered me as part of that group and gave me a chance as Satori Circus. It’s been an amazing road to travel. I dig all the bumps and hills and branches hitting me in the face.

Why – even after all these years – do people STILL have to be reminded or told that you are neither a clown nor a mime, but a performance artist? Let’s turn to you for a proper definition: What is a performance artist?

Ha! There are so many definitions of what one is and what one isn’t. I go old school or I turn to what I learned when I went back to school. It’s a combination of things. A hybrid of the arts all pulled together in one large mixing bowl. Like what “the happenings” were about back in the 60’s. Or the ladies who recreated the art landscape of NYC during the early 60’s and 70’s at the Judson church. Groups like the Dadaists, Fluxus, and so forth. It’s a hard-line to figure out. Really! I just consider myself the old school of performance artist because of my siphoning from the arts around me – music, vaudeville, slapstick, German theatre, movement, sound, poetry, lyrics, film, puppets ….and the list just goes on. I enjoy them all, so I utilize what I can from them all. It may not be apparent in each vignette or character sketch I do, but it’s there. Maybe not overtly, but certainly in spirit and inspiration.

Your performances obviously require a great deal of thoughtful preparation and creative imagining. How long does it usually take for you to go from the light bulb in your head to the footlights of the stage?

It completely varies. There’s no formula set in stone, that’s for sure. There have been pieces that popped up in a performance that was fleshed out a day before. Even the day of. Mainly because I felt that strongly about what it was, what it had to offer. It’s uniqueness. But most of the time it gets developed through a bunch of writing and sketching and chatting. sometimes its weeks before its solid, even months. But not years. I love spontaneity, improvisation, absurdity, high energy…so even if I think a piece is ready or not to hit the stage, I hit the stage with it, just to see what happens naturally in front of an audience. It’s a marvelous feeling to throw yourself out there not knowing what’s going to happen, other than the movie that played in your head a million times. It’s dangerous and I like it!

A Wayne State professor once said you were an eerie cross between W.C. Fields and Antonin Artaud. It’s a flattering and accurate comparison in many ways, but DO you draw upon other entertainers or performance artists in your works? Name the people who have influenced you the most.

I’ll take Artaud for $1,000, Alex. Not that he was in a lot for me to see, but just for his writings and how he influenced so many generations in music and the theatrical arts. David Bowie, of course. John Lennon. Captain Kangaroo to some degree. Monty Python without a doubt. 60’s television variety shows like Ed Sullivan, Laugh-In, Smothers Brothers. My blood dad. All genres of music from chamber, to punk, to sounds. Dick Butkus. Three Stooges. Abbott and Costello. The Marx Brothers. Charlie Chaplin. Phyliss Diller. Gracie Allen. Emma Peel. Kabuki Theatre. Noh Theatre. Butoh Dance. Andy Warhol. Super physical things like hockey, football, gymnastics, dance. My mother. Students I had in class when I was an elementary teacher. And my all time fave is Buster Keaton! I know I’m leaving a ton out, but this gives you the gist.

Robert del Valle is a journalist and editor who studied at Oakland University and Cranbrook Kingswood. And, he smiles, but not as Sultans smile …