ArtSEA: A floating circus cruises into Seattle waterways

Plus: A SeaTac earthwork gets honored, dance pops up in Seattle parks and a new labyrinth lands at National Nordic Museum.

The Flotsam River Circus docks in Ballard. The talented troupe of musicians, puppeteers, actors and acrobats is performing in waterways around Seattle this week. (Flotsam)

How best to commemorate the last August weekend of a very strange summer — one that began with high hopes and is ending with renewed perils? The only answer is a floating circus, sea monsters included.

The Flotsam River Circus — performing around Seattle waterways this week — arrives on a ramshackle raft that looks something like the legendary Kon-Tiki Expedition, combining the ingenuity of The Swiss Family Robinson with the environmental urgency of Waterworld (and adding feats of derring-do!). The small crew of musicians, puppeteers, aerialists and vaudevillians wear mostly pirate stripes, except for the captain, dressed in a Gorton Fisherman yellow slicker.


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As the stage rocks in the waves, the scene is set: In the not-too-distant future, the temperature has risen, and water levels, too. “It’s a hard time for humans,” the cue cards tell us, “but a glorious time to be … invasive mutant fish!”

You’ll spot a few of those creatures during the ensuing performance, which features a series of charming circus acts strung together as loosely as milfoil strands sliding across your legs in a lake: musical skits by the onboard band, hula hoop hoopla, juggling and puppetry, a trapeze duet done whilst dangling above the water, tricks of the eye and trap doors and tap dance in swim fins (which I guess would be flap dance?).

I saw the show on the shore of Magnuson Park Beach, where several dozen people gathered to watch on the dried-out yellow grass underneath a grove of gnarled crabapple trees. Lake Washington served as a stage behind the stage, where in-water onlookers included swim-capped lap swimmers, speedboats slowing down, a sheriff boat surveying and a flock of Canadian geese sweeping in to take a gander.

Kids danced and yelled spontaneous warnings to the crew (“Look behind you!!”), but grown-ups like me were equally enchanted by the shenanigans of the talented performers.

The ragtag Flotsam crew performs a flap dance on board. (Flotsam)

The ragtag Flotsam crew performs a flap dance on board. (Flotsam)

Flotsam is the brainchild of musician/composer Jason Webley, an Everett-based University of Washington alum whom I first encountered via his late-2000s concert tour, Monsters of Accordion. He set sail with Flotsam in the summer of 2019, with stops along the Willamette River, but this summer it has jumped the banks and headed north to Washington.

Before arriving at Magnuson, the raft had pulled up for a performance in Everett, then motored down Puget Sound and through the Ballard Locks (a feat of its own, given that this vessel does not appear terribly seaworthy). 

There will be more performances around Lake Washington and Lake Union, in “secret” locations available online (Aug. 26-29, 6 p.m.). It all depends on weather and whether the raft breaks down, not to mention the welcoming spirit of landlubbers ashore (at the Magnuson performance, Webley said Flotsam had been refused harbor in Kirkland and Mercer Island).

But it’s totally worth trying to catch this wild rumpus, this children’s book come alive and afloat — for the songs and silliness, for the eight-breasted evil mermaid and for the surprisingly moving acrobatic scene at the end (I won’t spoil it) that ferried me entirely away from worries and into that rare sea called wonder.

Seattle dance company Whim W'Him performed in local parks last summer (Ashley Green pictured, 2020). They're at it again this weekend with all new, locally created choreography. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Seattle dance company Whim W'Him performed in local parks last summer (Ashley Green pictured, 2020). They're at it again this weekend with all new, locally created choreography. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

For those planning to suck the marrow out of summer, there are a few more opportunities for outdoor magic.

Local dance company Whim W’Him, which provided a series of lovely pop-up park performances when we desperately needed them last summer, is at it again. This year’s free sunset events (Aug. 26, 8 p.m., South Fountain Lawn at Seattle Center; Aug. 27, 8 p.m., AIDS Memorial Pathway Plaza on Capitol Hill) feature all new choreography by Whim W’Him dancers Michael Arellano, Ashley Green and Andrew McShea.

In the Chinatown-International District, the Hai! Japantown festival continues this weekend, with food tours and historic walking tours and a special opportunity to get inside the “secret space” known as Chiyo’s Garden. Located off Jackson Street in Nihonmachi Alley, the artful gated garden will host a pop-up (Aug. 28, 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.), with Pioneer Barber Co. selling Harajuku style Tokyo streetwear, and MOMOrabilia offering collectibles, found objects and other treasures courtesy of the dearly departed Chinatown-International District shop.

A celebratory jaunt to SeaTac might be in order, to visit the Robert Morris Earthwork (21610 37th Place S., open dawn to dusk). This month, the internationally acclaimed piece of land art — built in 1979 on an abandoned industrial gravel pit — earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Inspired by ancient terraces in Peru, the downward-circling 3.7-acre spot is recognized as the first permanent land reclamation sculpture in the nation.

Finally, the National Nordic Museum unveiled a new permanent artwork last week: A 32-by-35-foot labyrinth based on traditional Nordic designs and Viking Age sites in Ireland. Created by California-based artist Gordon Huether, this alternative take on land art was etched into the Fisherman’s Sun Terrace just outside the museum.

I haven’t walked the Nordic Museum’s labyrinth yet, but I’ve checked out enough of them to recognize their meditative power. Whether it’s the forest-surrounded stone mosaic labyrinth at Halls Hill Lookout on Bainbridge Island, or the tourist-surrounded asphalt labyrinth outside MoPOP at Seattle Center, there’s something special about following the pathway around and around. Like the Flotsam River Circus, a labyrinth can feel like a series of visual tricks — but in the end the center is revealed.

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