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Author: Vickie Schlegel. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 8, 2000. All rights

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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

of clowns.

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

Apple.

"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

happy.

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

commitment."

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

The Big Apple Circus, Somerset Ballpark, Route 287, Bridgewater,

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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