A familiar blue tent is cozied amidst the daunting buildings of Lincoln Center. The Big Apple Circus has returned to Damrosch Park for a 41st season!
It was a perfectly crisp fall evening. As I crossed Broadway, I smiled. My annual sojourn to the Big Apple Circus is one of my favorite nights of the year. I felt gratitude to those who have resurrected and excited that a new generation gets to sit under the big top. A mother said to her daughter, “You know how long it’s been since I saw the circus? Years! Since I was little, like you. Now I’m bringing you…your first time to the circus!” My heart melted a bit, and I felt the great importance of this national pastime. Yes! We need traditional circus! In a country where identity and customs are often piecemeal, our national traditions are precious. The tent is bright with promise, but real weight sits upon this season’s show.
A fall is serious in the circus, and when Big Apple Circus tumbled into bankruptcy in 2016, the future of traditional American circus was looking grave. Deep pockets have remounted the iconic single ring as a for-profit corporation. It was questionable whether those pockets were deep enough to sustain more than a single season comeback, but here we are. This is season two under new ownership, and Big Apple Circus is going strong.
A small cast of incredibly peppy and youthful actors embodying their name tags: magician, stilt walker, psychic, acrobat, strolled the lobby. The concession stands have had a significant makeover. Enticing treats are printed across a red and gold facade. Polite ushers escorted me directly to my seat accompanied by a playlist of the latest pop hits. A wonderfully eclectic New York City crowd filled the house. Parents with children, middle aged couples here for a night out, tourists, older folks, and cool teenagers getting tugged back into a bit of childhood. We were of all shades, shapes and sizes, a true sampling of an American city that has people from all corners of the world.
Mark Gindick wearing a smart, grey suit stumbled on stage lost in texting. We learn that we will follow Gindick’s journey from regular guy to circus clown. Resident clown Adam Kuchler snags the cell phone and Gindick is whisked into the chaotic colorful world. He is quickly ping-ponged through a classic Charivari montage of skills where acrobats whip and whirl through the space. He gets trapped in a juggling club pass. Traditional circus props fly around him in a one time cameo: hula hoops, rolla bolla, Cyr wheel, aerialists in silks and harnesses and juggling rings. It’s a circus amuse bouche on fast forward that ends in an evenly spaced tableau of spins, flips and smiles.
The rest of Gindick’s journey is clearly marked by costume changes rather than acquired skills. Besides a misplaced bell, he rarely fails or struggles. His spritely demeanor and willingness to try is the magic ticket to clown success. While his roller coaster and waterfall antics are spot on, it isn’t until he and co-clown Kuchler “successfully erect” the flying trapeze net that he wins his coat tails. These events felt mis-ordered, and his character had no substantial arch. This type of disjointed artistic direction was an unfortunate constant in the show.
The designers crafted each act well. Rob Slowik led an impeccable band through a poppy jazz score that felt distinctly cinematic. Jeff Croiter’s lighting was even keeled throughout, never too sharp but always clear in mood and focus. Amy Clark’s costume designs were noticeably stylishly in cut and color. The Big Apple Circus crew, those unsung heroes of the circus, were expeditious.
The opener, Emil Faltyny, had a steady, infectious concentration peppered with a few winks at the audience while he ascended through an inventive ladder act. The apparatus morphed until an impressive finale that won Mr. Faltyny international accolades and uproarious cheers from our crowd.
What would Big Apple Circus be without Jenny Vidbel? Always charismatic and genuinely joyful, her horse and dog acts this season were delightful. There was a noticeable lack of animals on stage compared to years past. A handful of horses, three star dogs and a cameo from an adorable pig made for two separate feature acts with very minimal props. While not unsatisfying, it was obvious that this is one area the new ownership has decided to scale back.
Juggler Gamal Garcia’s entrance was shot out of a canon. He maintained lighting speed through a series of club passes. His impressive agility and spatial patterns were topped by bounce juggling a seven ball cascade down a short staircase. Clearly a stand in for MIA horizontal juggler Victor Moiseev, Garcia’s act was not quite as rehearsed as needed and is a repeat from last year’s program.
Desire of Flight,a straps act originally performed by Valeriy Sychev and Melvina Abakarova is also a returning act to the Big Apple Circus ring. Abakarova has passed the role on to her daughter Ekaterina Stepanova, who performs the exact same acts as her mother did for Big Apple Circus in 2012. The act is stunning especially at such close proximity. The choreography is crafted with simple but beautiful shapes which are constantly raised and lowered in sweeping orbits through the tent. Two moments drew breath from the audience, a sudden release in mid orbit leaving Stepanova dangling by her armpits on Sychev’s feet and a dramatic slide into a foot to foot hold. Despite this, were it not for the emotionally laden music it would be a flat demonstration of highly impressive and technical aerial work. Abakarova’s fiery charisma was desperately missing.
Spicy Circus performed a well crafted tramp wall act thick with joy and energy. They expertly executed a weaving pattern through the plexiglass cubed wall that sat between two trampolines. Solo passes of back flips and layouts were complicated with extra twists and topped off with huge smiles and the classic “ta-da” pose allowing the audience to release the applause we’d been holding back so we didn’t miss what came next. Their website gives the impression that the troupe (founded by École nationale de cirque graduate Andréanne Quintal) would feature a majority of female artists– a composition sorely needed in the circus community. Alas, it was four men to one woman, an all too common ratio. To its credit, the troupe did have the show’s sole African American performer.
This Big Apple Circus season falls short of hiring a truly diverse cast. Despite having artists from a smattering of South American countries, a very strong North American representation and only a few performers from Europe, Russia and South Africa, the fabulous diversity of the New York City audience was not mirrored by this year’s cast. Can the new Big Apple Circus survive if it doesn’t keep up with modern audiences in all regards?
In addition, this season’s publicity campaign touted the achievements of the production’s Wonder Women, yet the cast’s female talent was rarely in the spotlight. The only act that truly upheld the marketing promise was hand to hand couple Duo Fusion with Virginia Tuells in the majority of astounding basing positions while Ihosvanys Perez expertly flew.
Stephanie Monseu is stunning and reverent in her role as Ringmaster. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel this historic, fire eating, whip wielding, dare devil of an entertainer had been stripped of her potential for huge charisma. Monseu’s script was disappointingly simple, and her delivery was molded into the hollow, affected tones I associate with previous ringmaster John Kennedy Kane. I was left wanting to see much more of Monseu.
Monseu’s character isn’t the only thing Big Apple Circus has sucked the history from. The revised website has no archives, no photos or list of past productions and no origin story. It’s as if the previous 40 seasons of Big Apple Circus never existed. This hit me hard. In a country where we are struggling to keep traditional circus alive, where contemporary circus hasn’t quite found its footing and where artists are fighting for circus to be recognized as a legitimate art form, it would serve the community well for one of the most well known circuses to honor its history.
I was particularly puzzled by this since the show pats itself on the back for upholding circus traditions. Ringmaster Monseu introduced Vidbal’s equestrian act by explaining that the magic of the circus started with only a horse and a ring, and “Big Apple Circus is keeping this tradition alive and well.” The audience is primed for Ammed Tuniziani’s quadrupal somersault with an announcement that we are about to witness circus history. And we quickly did –Tuniziani was easily snagged by catcher Adriano DeQuadra on the first try. The announcement certainly succeeded in perking the audience’s attention. Personally, I got a little misty eyed. I thought of Jules Leotard, inventor of the flying trapeze, Lena Jordan, the first to complete a triple somersault, and all the flyers of the past that paved the way for this feat I was about to witness. If Big Apple Circus is going to pride themselves on bringing historical acts to the ring, their website could be an excellent place to further educate audiences. I would think it could only boost ticket sales if people can put the headlines into context.
I am curious to know writer/ director Mark Lonergan’s concept for this year’s production. The transitions are tight, cut and paste together with lightning quick exchanges from scene to scene. The acts themselves are concise and nearly flawless, yet were clearly untouched from their original form. While this is acceptable and expected in a variety show, I ask, how do we see the craft and artistry of the director in this format? In years past, costuming, segues, set pieces and props were shaped to fit a unifying theme or location. This year, I failed to see any visual or thematic cohesion, which distanced me from the ring. Lonegan is an acclaimed physical theater director that has worked with Big Apple Circus before. So I was surprised that the show felt like a circus sampler rather than a comprehensive entity. I couldn’t dig into a world or character and fall in love with it.
The sole exception to this was Kuchler’s delightful clowning. As a lover of simplicity and minimalism, Kuchler’s performance nailed it. He carried the show from beginning to end with just the right balance of outstanding skills and quippy personality. His cigar box juggling is some of the best I’ve ever seen. As he stacks umpteen boxes in a horizontal line, a seemingly impossible task, he snags the audience’s empathy hook line and sinker every step of the way. In the goofiest of moments, struggles to teach the audience a simple call and response or success at perfectly catching a Hail Mary hat toss, there is never a reaction that feels disingenuous. Of all the performers, I got to know KuchlerAdam best.
Albeit disjointed, Big Apple Circus 2018 is two cheery hours of circus success, but is this a sustainable formula for the company? I found myself asking, where was the tragic? Where was the sadness? Where was the commentary on the failures life hands us? Where was the humanity Gindick as the Regular Guy is far too bold and skillful to be an accurate representation of the average American.
Big Apple Circus now stands alone as the country’s longest running one ring show that gathers international circus stars, and it clearly isn’t risking its revival by taking chances of presenting anything remotely risqué, controversial or raw. It is holding steadfast to the traditional American circus structure. Is that sustainable in a country where audiences fell head over heels for Cirque du Soleil and whose up and coming artists and companies are often pursuing the attributes and aesthetics of contemporary circus?
I have my fingers crossed that Big Apple Circus has a few tricks up its sleeve to keep up with the country’s love of cirque nouveau. I am not a business person; maybe the redesigned concessions stand, website and marketing will be enough to sustain ticket sales. But I am a circus artist and scholar, and my hope is that Big Apple Circus will not only find a way to financially survive but to also be a strongartistic presence in the American circus community. I see the company achieving this with diverse casts, inventive worlds and strong dramaturgy.
I think traditional circus can stand alone as a unique genre of entertainment even while contemporary circus companies continue to emerge. Nothing in the world compares to experiencing the thrills of circus in a single ring. While I have my small gripes with this season’s show, I unwaveringly believe there is a need for the pure joy and escapism Big Apple Circus has to offer. The audience I sat with on Friday night certainly seemed to think so. We laughed together, cheered together and gave the cast a hearty, well deserved standing ovation. The Big Apple Circus is upholding a much needed American tradition, and this 41st season is a spectacle not to be missed!
Feature photo courtesy of Juliana Crawford