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Author: Vickie Schlegel. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 8, 2000. All rights
In One Ring, Less Is More
Forget about three rings. Forget about lions, tigers
and bears, oh my. Forget scary clowns in garish paint who might make
toddlers cry. The Big Apple Circus is coming to Bridgewater from March
11 through 26, and it’s coming to remind us of the original spirit
of the circus: intimacy, not intimidation; skill, not overkill.
Don’t misunderstand — the Big Apple Circus’s single ring is bursting
with circus delights. You will still see world-class feats to make
you gasp: twirling aerial acts, high human pyramids and unthinkable
balancing acts on perilous perches. You’ll be enthralled by stiltwalkers
daintily stepping over powerful horses, by brilliantly costumed acrobats
twisting through the air, majestic elephants and the hilarious antics
Yet while it has all the elements of a typical circus, the spirit
of Big Apple Circus is rooted in another time.
"This is a classic circus the way it was done 200 years ago or
more," says Paul Binder, founder and artistic director of Big
"The intimacy of the environment," he explains, "creates
a huge difference from what we’re used to in this form. Circus means
circle — and you can’t have a circle in a giant sports arena."
The effect of a single ring on the atmosphere of the show cannot be
underestimated. It intensifies tension — there are no distractions
as the audience watches an acrobat flip through the air. Will he make
it to the top of the four-man-high human pyramid? There is nothing
to distract from the drama and daring of the moment.
The smaller space narrows the focus to artistry and subtlety rather
than flash and dash. In one ring, audience and performers are so close
you can appreciate the deftness of an acrobat’s footwork, catch the
quick interplay between horse and trainer, and the sparkly details
of a juggler’s costume.
As Binder emphasizes, one of the most important elements is the ever-changing
relationship between artists and audience. In fact, he says, "You
literally collaborate with the audience." During the 38-week season,
the music, tempo, costumes, lighting, and even the ordering of the
show may change in response to audience reaction.
The clowns are different, too. Sure, they’re funny, but as in the
19th-century circus, these clowns are also serious circus athletes.
This all-new Big Apple production, "Bello and Friends" stars
the award-winning Bello Nock, a seventh-generation Swiss clown with
gravity-defying hair. Bello’s most recent thriller was a high-wire
walk, 600 feet above Paterson Falls. Imagine Bozo trying that.
The show also boasts the French clown, Francesco, and a Russian flying
trapeze act, the Jokers, both seen in America for the first time.
Other acts come from Hungary, China, and Mongolia.
Binder created Big Apple with his friend, Michael Christensen, in
1977, after they had become captivated by the European circus during
an 18-month jaunt abroad as comic street jugglers. From the first,
they decided on a mission that further sets Big Apple Circus apart:
their circus would be a nonprofit venture, dedicated to making kids
Although Binder earned his MBA from Columbia in 1965, he never thought
he would use it. The attraction for him, both before and during his
college years, was always show business. After college, the part-time
actor and entertainer became a full-time performer. Now he spends
his days tending to the business details of the circus.
"There is no typical day for me. This is a 19th-century business
in the 21st century — it requires an enormous amount of maintenance
and daily care. It is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year
Since the first big top went up, circus acts have been
a family business. Binder’s wife, Katja Schumann (the Swedish Schumanns
are one of the oldest circus families in the world), came to the circus
in 1981 with an equestrian show — and ran off with the ringmaster.
Her father, Max, and the Binders’ kids, Katherine and Max, all perform.
In one act, Katherine, age 14, is held aloft by a partner’s one-armed
embrace and hand clasp. Her dad swears this does not inspire parental
anxiety, but maybe that’s because her mother trained her.
Binder does admit that the intensity of living and performing with
family creates challenges most people don’t experience. "For us
it is a constant process of rethinking and reinventing how we treat
each other — it’s more like a 19th-century family in an agricultural
economy with the whole family contributing to the work. We spend a
lot of time together."
Yet new performers may be tossed into the concentrated community of
trailers and big top with co-workers who don’t speak their language.
There are over 23 nationalities represented in the Big Apple this
year alone, which might seem like a tough juggling act for a manager
— even one who used to be a juggler.
Binder claims that there is no formal management theory behind his
commonsense approach. He looks for performers who love what they do,
and the rest, he says, tumbles into place. "I go out and find
the best people I can, and keep them focused on their work. I have
a friend who studied the circus, especially the animal acts. She asked
a trainer how he got a little dog to do a trick, and he answered:
`First, find the right dog.’ You can’t expect a Great Dane to do a
somersault. It’s the same thing in searching for and hiring acts."
There are no understudies. Who could stand in for Anna May, for example?
The veteran circus and TV star is a 54-year-old performing elephant,
who will be greatly missed when she retires, to move to pasture at
the home of trainer Bill Woodcock. The two partners grew up together
and they will retire together. This kind of connection with fellow
creatures is typical among Big Apple’s trainers, who live, work, and
play with their "animal partners."
In a time of increased animal rights awareness, the Big Apple Circus
is careful to explain its animal advocacy policies. The circus trains
animals with positive reinforcement, and only uses species with a
history of work or domestic relationships with humans. So along with
the elephants, you can expect to see dextrous horses, and dogs and
cats — of the domestic, not the jungle, variety.
Though the circus is small and intimate, each day its influence is
felt across the country through extensive outreach programs. Over
85 clowns in its Clown Care Unit program, for instance, work full-time
tending to the funny bones of seriously ill children in pediatric
hospitals from Miami, Florida, to Seattle, Washington.
Add to that the Circus of the Senses, which entertains visually or
hearing impaired kids, the Circus For All program, which distributes
tickets to economically- and physically-challenged kids, and the Beyond
the Ring program, which trains inner-city students in circus arts
like juggling and stilt-walking, and Big Apple begins to emerge as
more of a "five-ring" circus in scope.
Beyond the Ring was Big Apple’s first outreach project, founded in
1979. "We have had graduates of that program in our circus, but
that’s not the objective," says Binder. "We teach kids the
discipline to create circus skills which translates to discipline
they can use in the rest of their life."
Big Apple’s community outreach personally engages kids
and so does the circus itself. While electronic playmates beep at
children, while boob tubes babysit — while most modern entertainment
encourages passivity and short attention spans — the Big Apple
Circus might seem like too much of an anachronism to keep kids interested.
You’d be wrong to think so. The "special effects" are everywhere,
but they are based on technique instead of technology. They happen
in real time, in real life, with an authenticity that is all the more
vibrant for its scarcity.
"We are interested in giving the audience a satisfying emotional
experience," says Binder. "We can see every face in the audience.
That matters! Then we’re clearly human beings who see each other —
and we are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The message
is that you too are capable of extraordinary things, and this is the
heart of the attraction.
"We compete by being the antidote to MTV, by insisting on the
quality standard that we set, and not underestimating the intelligence
of our audience. By not being the biggest, but by being the best."
— Vickie Schlegel
800-922-3772. Box officeopens at the big top Saturday, March 11. Ticket
also at Somerset Hills YMCA , 140 Mount Airy Road, Basking Ridge,
and Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100. Web: www.bigapplecircus.org.
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