by Kirby Lindsay Laney, posted 7 April 2017
This act usually starts with Carlo and Orlene Gentile, a very young-looking couple, performing what is called ‘Antipodism’: the foot-juggling of objects. They juggle balls, jars, and a table, leaving audiences shocked at the deftness of their feet, and the strength of their skill.
Yet, when their children – Gianluca, Giulia, Gioia, and Giuseppina – join them on-stage, the surprise really begins. This is when the Gentiles, one of the very few circus acts in the world currently performing both types of foot juggling – switch to ‘Icarian’ or ‘Risley’: the juggling of humans.
The Beginning Of Famiglia Gentile
Carlo and Orlene met while in college, on a production of ‘West Side Story.’ Carlo majored in Italian, as a way to learn more about his heritage, but he also worked in the theatre department. Orlene had studied dance since age 3, and had thought about joining the ballet, yet she majored in biology and earned a Masters in Conservation Biology & Sustainable Development.
For four years, mostly covering Orlene’s time at graduate school, the couple dated, writing letters (this was before e-mail) until Carlo moved to Wisconsin to be nearer to Orlene. (Carlo was from St. Louis, and Orlene L.A.) After Orlene graduated, they began to plan their wedding and decide what kind of life they wanted to build together, and where.
This is when they decided to buy a trailer and join the circus.
When questioned, 19 years later, the couple admit that the decision wasn’t as out-of-left-field as it sounds now. “We both always knew we wanted to perform,” Orlene explained, “We both loved to travel. We both had that wanderlust.” With the money from their wedding gifts, they traveled for six months. “We’d always talked about traveling as a lifestyle,” Orlene observed, and that first journey included performing as street buskers, learning and practicing Thai Massage, living in an Ashram, and generally absorbing the culture wherever they went.
Before he’d gone to college, “I had done circus,” Carlo explained. He’d toured for two years, in his teens, until his parents offered to help with college, and Carlo decided it would be good to take a break, “to see if I really wanted to do circus, and if I’d choose to come back to it.” After all, he had no real circus training, and no family connection to it.
The newly married couple worked on building an act, while they worked. “We were both performing,” Orlene explained, “I learned how to juggle.” They performed, and they taught, helping start a circus school in California. Eventually though, as Carlo pointed out, “we had said we wanted to perform,” and Orlene explained, “we wanted to learn new skills.”
They tried aerial, but neither thought they were built for that kind of work, or were keen to train to get those bodies. “In high school, Carlo learned to juggle,” and he can manage the diabolo, Orlene explained, “I learned to pass clubs.” They knew they could learn more, she said, “and we could do it well, and do it together.”
Finding An Act
In 2001, the Gentiles saw Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco, and Les Castors. “I saw these three brothers, tossing around the youngest on their feet,” Carlo recalled, “I thought, ‘this is it!’” For Carlo, this was something both he and Orlene could learn, and do, and someday incorporate the rest of the family if their children chose to join them. Plus, watching the Castors Brothers, Carlo saw a rare seen act performed by three men in their 50s.
“What was really unique about The Castors is that they did both,” Carlo explained. They perform both Antipodism and Risley. “I’d kind of studied other performers,” admitted the husband and father, “and I thought that was what we should do.” The couple spoke with Charley Castor, who recommended his brother Anatole (‘Toly’) train them. “Over a couple of years we set up lessons, when Toly had time,” Carlo recalled, “and we were doing it, but it wasn’t coming together.”
In 2003, Carlo got work as a rigger in China. “We didn’t have trinka,” Orlene explained, referring to the central piece of equipment required for foot juggling. This is a platform, a bench, where the juggler lays down, for support of their back and braces for their shoulders. In the U.S. they’d priced trinkas for $700, but they knew they could better in China. Carlo did. Carlo not only found the pair of trinkas they still use today, but also an instructor.
The instructor promised that he could teach them an act in 6 months. As they had a contract to perform in 3 months, Carlo accepted the offer and called for Orlene to join him. The instructor’s English extended as far as the word ‘Okay’, but they still managed to put something together. “We only learned the jar,” Carlo admitted, but they built an act. Today they still use the skills, although it only occupies about 30 seconds, in their 10 minute act at Moisture Festival.
In 2006, they returned for more training – the full six months. “We had so much planned,” Orlene said, as they looked forward to perfecting their act and absorbing more culture. “I think we tried too much,” she says now, straight-faced, “I got pregnant a month and a half into it, and was miserable.”
They trained for 9 hours a day, six days a week, and for the first 2 months of the pregnancy the couple didn’t tell their instructor. “He just thought I was lazy,” Orlene explained. When the truth came out, the instructor took the news in stride, but they decided that the act would no longer involve Carlo juggling Orlene.
Bringing On The Famiglia
“I had always hoped my children would be receptive,” Carlo said. With their first child (and only son,) “he was always around.” Gianluca traveled with them, in the trailer, surrounded by circus, performers and audiences. Around age 3, they started training with him, and he took to it naturally. “All he would do is stand on my feet,” Carlo said, underplaying that this required the 3-year old to be lifted up on to his father’s feet and stand perfectly still, while Dad lay on his back.
“I don’t know what goes on in his mind,” Carlo said of his son’s performing, “It’s kind of like there is an on-off switch. We can have five days of training,” where Gianluca barely pays attention, apparently unfocused and almost uncooperative, “and if even one person comes in and watches us perform, he turns it on!”
As their daughters have come along, each has joined the act as much, or as little, as they like, with 1-year-old Giuseppina joining them at Moisture Festival – although her part consists of little more than an adorable, joyful grin.
“It’s always an open invitation,” Carlo said. The children know they can say no, and occasionally they do – usually until they see their siblings up on stage, performing with mom and dad, and earning appreciative applause. “Every single show they have that choice,” Carlo observed, “I don’t ever want to force them.” Although, Orlene also noted, “they know you can only do so much without the training,” so when they balk at practicing, again, it cuts into their share of performances.
A benefit of being a family act, the Gentiles observed, is the ability to adapt. “We might cut some things,” from the act, Orlene explained, “if someone is asleep, we won’t wake them up. We’ll cut that part out.” Carlo acknowledged, “There’s a lot of fluidity.” Before they appeared at Moisture Festival last time, Carlo hurt his back and while he took ibuprofen, they cut down their training and some of the act.
As to styling, and showmanship, “we give them zero coaching,” Carlo said. Watching the Familiga Gentile, you’d never know it, the kids look like professionals. “I’ve seen them looking bored,” Orlene admitted, “and I’ve tried to talk to them.” Gioia likes to run and, for the last couple of years, most of her part of the act involved running around the stage while her parents juggled her older siblings.
The family practice together, but they also home school, with Orlene emphasizing the math and sciences and Carlo covering literature, along English, Italian and, someday, the Mandarin he’s learned.
A Residency In Seattle, And Circus Here
Since October, the Famiglia Gentile have been living at SANCA (the School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts) in Georgetown. “They’ve been great hosts for us,” Carlo said, with Orlene adding, “They’ve been doing all they can to make us comfortable.”
The Residency at SANCA lasts until May, and they teach and perform there – including the SASS show on April 8th & 9th. Although, “one of the reasons we wanted to come here,” Orlene acknowledged, “we wanted to be in a place where the kids can move up in their levels.” In addition to training with their parents, the whole Famiglia has been able to train here with Charley Castors, who now teaches at SANCA.
SANCA also offers the Gentile children daily interaction, and play, with other kids, and to work with other acts. Gianluca has been learning the unicycle and hand juggling. The two older girls, Giulia and Gioia have taken an interest in aerial. The parents also get the kids up on the trampolines to teach them ‘air awareness’.
While here, Famiglia Gentile were also able to return to Moisture Festival for a second time. “It’s a great time for seeing old friends, making new friends and seeing some amazing acts,” Carlo observed, “and they feed you really well!”
“The audiences want to love you,” Orlene praised the crowds at Hale’s Palladium, “if you’ve really done something, they will tell you. They are really appreciative.” She’s also been overwhelmed at the talent that finds its way to Moisture Fest, from Avner The Eccentric to The Bobs. As for the kids, “I think it is great for them to see the variety,” of performers, their Mom observed.
Only one more chance remains to see Famiglia Gentile at the 2017 Moisture Fest – on April 9th at the final show. Visit Moisture Festival.org to find out about tickets and when they, and other performers, will be on stage. Or stop by SANCA, and say hello before this amazing, and surprising, family travels on to their next show!
- Duo Madrona & The Lure Of The Circus
- by Kirby Lindsay, June 28, 2013
- Celebrate 10 Years Of SANCA!!
- by Kirby Lindsay, March 28, 2014
- How Moisture Brings In The Clowns
- by Kirby Lindsay Laney, March 30, 2015
- Isak Moon & A Moisture Festival Life
- by Kirby Lindsay Laney, March 16, 2017
©2017 Kirby Laney. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.