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Sunday, July 20, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Behind the Scenes

Teatro ZinZanni trapeze duo Sabine Maier and Joachim Mohr

Seattle Times theater critic

Who they are: Sabine Maier and Joachim Mohr are the two acrobatic German clowns who constitute Die Maiers, a hilarious trapeze duo currently playing in the Teatro ZinZanni show, "Love, Chaos & Dinner." (You may also have caught their act a couple of years ago at Bumbershoot.)

A Die Maiers performance has nothing to do with those mythic images of sleek, graceful young men and women on the flying trapeze. Since they teamed up and married in the late 1980s, the pair have been perfecting a routine that makes them look like regular, unathletic folk who just stumble their way onto a 15-foot high swing, and practically kill each other trying not to free fall.

As they grab one another by the hand, the waist, the foot, in a frantic effort to stay aloft, it becomes a mirthful metaphor for the perils and teamwork of coupledom.

The pair have developed and refined their shtick in small circuses around Europe, and in Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco. They'll be here in Seattle in "Love, Chaos & Dinner" through Aug. 18; for information, call 206-802-0015.

How it all started: Sabine and Joachim met in Germany in 1987, and made the mutual decision to become vagabond circus performers.

"We developed an act, and did walking on the rope, juggling, acrobatics together," recalls Sabine. "The trapeze part was only two minutes, but right from the beginning it was very funny. So we worked more and more with that."

Says Joachim, "Always the characters came first for us, not the technique. We were never just acrobats doing tricks."

How they developed their ZinZanni characters: "It's a dinner show that takes place in a restaurant," explains Joachim, "so when we came to ZinZanni, our first idea was to be regular waiters."

But over time, the roles evolved. "Now I try to be a waiter who really cares for the people, but he's not very good. He should be getting drinks, and other important things, but he keeps making a big thing about all these candle lights on the table. He wants to be nice but just makes everything worse."

Sabine's character is less of a klutz, and unfazed by the comic mayhem around her. "I try to be a very normal person, in a very normal restaurant," she says. "But I'm not behaving normally. In the beginning I serve water, but just a few drops to each person. When they call me back, I give a few drops more."

On getting airborne: When they finally sneak up a ladder and grab onto the trapeze, the duo make a highly dexterous stunt look — well, really difficult. When you know both are 47 years old, it looks even tougher.

Aren't they afraid up there, climbing over and around one another, and coming very close to crashing down into the audience's laps?

"No, not really," Joachim answers. "The only thing is that it's hot up there, we're sweating and it gets very slippery. We're up about 10 minutes, a long time. But if we have tricks that scare us, we cut them out. We don't want to take away the freedom of playing, of acting because of fear."

As for keeping in shape, the two swear they don't do anything but rehearse often — no heavy gym workouts, no lifting weights.

"Joachim is my weight!" declares Sabine. Adds her husband, "Going to a gym in Germany is something different than here. You meet really strange people there, all those muscle-packed human beings pretending to be Superman. The gym is not a nice atmosphere, like it is in this country."

On life in the circus: Joachim and Sabine have a home in Berlin. But they're often on the road in Europe, or on the Pacific Coast.

Joachim says they love the "tent and trailer" life of the roving circus entertainer, but "we were never interested in traditional circuses, just the smaller, alternative ones. With the big circuses, I think it's pretty sad about the animals."

The couple don't seem worried about getting too old to do their demanding act. They are friends with other circus artists who've keep it up well beyond middle age.

But they're concerned now about stable schooling for the oldest of their two children, 7-year old Luca. (They also have a 4-year-old, Branca.)

"It's very hard to find producers who are kid-friendly, but everyone in Teatro ZinZanni likes kids," says Joachim. "It's very professional, but also relaxed because it's nonprofit and they aren't concerned with making lots of money."

Sabine says she wants her children to make their own decisions about what line of work to go into, but recently Luca surprised her with an announcement.

"She said she'd decided to become something very normal, so I asked her, 'What is that?,' " Sabine reports. "And she answered, 'A trapeze artist.' We laughed very, very hard about that."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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