Since its founding, Omnium: A Bold New Circus has sought to make the circus experience accessible to audiences of all kinds— particularly to people with special needs. But what does an all-access circus look like? As Omnium’s first live show, “I’mPossible,” illustrates, sometimes it means paring spectacles down a bit. In this review, I weigh in on how Omnium creates a circus for all to appreciate.
It has been said (on this very website, even) that the language of circus is spectacle. Bright lights and colors, flashy costumes— wherever you turn your head, the image that you see is an embrace of the death-defying, show-stopping, and larger-than-life. I’m a big fan of visual grandeur myself… at least, when I’m looking at a still object: say, a street mural painted on a city building. Walk by it slowly enough, and you can appreciate the finer details, take things in all at your own pace. Add neon lights or moving pieces to it, though, and the sight can become plainly overwhelming. This experience can be especially true for neurodivergent fans of art. To borrow terms used in some circles of the disability rights movement, “neurodivergence” or “neurodiversity” refers to people with conditions like autism, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder, whose brains function differently than what’s considered the “standard” or neurotypical experience.
But let’s get back to circus language for a sec. Again, spectacle is great. But spectacle is also loud, and if you walked into a room and everybody in it yelled, “Hey, look at me!,” you wouldn’t know which one of them to look at, either (if you could make out everyone’s voices, rather than hearing one or two, or just the noise). All that to say, the visual language of the circus can leave some audiences locked out of the conversation, not knowing where to join. And that’s where Omnium Circus takes the stage.
A non-profit organization founded in 2020, Omnium: A Bold New Circus makes its name by creating a form of circus that is all-inclusive— an experience that can be shared by audiences of all kinds and abilities. In a sense, it might be called the legacy of Omnium founder and executive director Lisa B. Lewis’ decades of work with the Big Apple Circus, where she helped expand the reach of their Circus of the Senses program, which offers special shows for hearing- and sight-impaired audiences.
Rather than a one-off arrangement, however, Omnium Circus is all-access, all the time. As their website mission statement describes it, “Omnium sees the future of circus as a force for unity and systemic change… specially designed to bring together people of all abilities to enjoy the experience in whatever way works best for them. We do our best to make ourselves as accessible to as many as possible and are proud to be known as a truly inclusive circus.”Carrying out that mission is the Omnium Board of Directors, a team that includes special education experts, circus educators, and performing arts industry veterans such as the show’s ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson.
Frankly, they had me hooked by just the concept. All-access circus: it sounds almost utopian. At the same time, I’m a bit too much of a cynic to take any group that calls themselves “truly inclusive” completely at their word.
As soon as I could, I lined up to get tickets for Omnium’s inaugural live tour, which was set to kick off in Tysons Corner, VA, last November… that is, before being canceled due to the ongoing concerns over audience and performer safety. But gladly, the cast and crew were still hard at work behind the scenes. So when I heard they were having a matinee show, “I’mPossible” on February 26th, I had to know: what does an all-access circus look like in person? And how well does Omnium Circus meet those needs?
Setting the Scene
First of all, know that when I said inclusion was how Omnium Circus makes its name, I meant that very literally. I heard Omnium defined twice that Saturday afternoon. The first time was courtesy of Mr. Fish, the mustachioed magician on stilts, who performed scarf tricks for people waiting in the atrium of Capital One Hall before the theater opened. His definition: “Omnium– ‘of all, for all.’ That means diversity. No matter who you are, this is a circus for you. We’re all one people. You represent all of us, too!”
That was a fair assessment of the audience. When the main theater doors opened, into the seats popped kids and families, service animals, younger couples, and people who identified themselves as members of local disability support groups. People with wheelchairs populated the large seats nearest the stage. There was even a section of relaxed seating for neurodiverse audiences… an accommodation I’d actually never heard of until speaking to Lisa Lewis, who explains, “[i]t is an area where people who need to move or who express their joy in more physical or verbal ways are free to do so,” with muted lighting, more space between parties, and easier access to the restrooms and the calming area in the atrium. As well, assistive listening devices and audio descriptive headsets were made available in and outside of the theater. One thing is clear: the Omnium Board has put a lot of care and thought into making things work for their audience.
In the pre-show announcement, Johnathan invited everyone in the audience to make as much noise– of whatever kind— they wanted during the show. If from my earlier comment about “noise,” you’d think that would have been distracting, it wasn’t; not at all.
Onto the Main Event
A journey of self-discovery and transformation, “I’mPossible” tells the story of young Johnny, played by Ethiopian circus artist Ermiyas Muluken: a circus popcorn seller who dreams of one day standing in the ring himself. Whena quick change act from husband-wife clowning duo Rob and Miss Jane ends with Rob’s pants hanging from a basketball hoop, Johnny rushes to save the day… and discovers his gift for the free standing ladder, while he’s at it. Throughout the show, jaw-dropping acts from the likes of unicycling basketball team King Charles Troupe, the España family, and aerialist Jen Bricker-Baeur inspire Johnny to push his limits, dream bigger and climb higher until, by the final act, he’s building his latter up beneath him while balancing it on a rolla bolla. Ringmaster Jonathan lends his voice to the occasional narration and ends things with a rendition of the song “Heroes.”
The vision of a circus “of all and for all” is well-met with “I’mPossible”: not only is the show’s cast diverse, but whenever they share the stage, everyone does their part to prop the others up. While Johnathan is officially billed as the show’s ringmaster, I feel it’s just as fair to say he shares that title with Deaf performer Anna Gichan, who acts as his ASL interpreter whenever he’s onstage. The two frequently appear under a single spotlight, exchanging smiles and hand gestures. In their sequined costumes, all Anna’s really missing is the coat and top hat. Anna shines again in a group dance act, pushing an arm-dancing performer’s wheelchair before the two join four others in making a six-ring shape from hula hoops— and then they all hand the hoops off to Noemi España for her solo act (where her brother and father make cameos to hand Noemi two more hoops before bowing out gracefully). Whenever they’re together, there’s a genuine feeling of camaraderie among this cast– but the show knows how to balance group acts with solos, especially in the first half, so everyone gets their own moments to shine.
A minimalistic set and sound design help keep the audience’s focus on the performers. The backdrop is a shade of gray, and a thin, ever-present fog hangs over the stage throughout, making the glare of the lights hanging overhead less harsh. Another constant set piece: the word “OMNIUM,” again, is spelled out in lit-up, color-changing 3D letters spaced across the stage floor. The hanging lights change color, too— but in both cases, the shift is gradual and rhythmic, rather than a strobe effect, which might trigger sensory overload or seizures in a sensitive audience. As well, there isn’t much noise to compete with: aside from Johnathan’s occasional narration and nonverbal banter with Anna, none of the acts or scenes have any dialogue, and wordless music surges to match the speed and intensity of the performances.
For the most part, the soundtrack is just background noise: no song is so glaringly familiar as to become distracting, though at one point in the second half, an instrumental of “Uptown Funk” began to play and made my focus scatter for a minute or two. A less recognizable tune would do the job, and probably feel more seamless. Even so, it’s clear that the Omnium crew takes great care not to be overstimulating to the audience; they know when too much would be just too much.
If what you’re used to is big circus spectacles, you might be thinking, “Isn’t all that a little… ho-hum?” Maybe it is to some. At the start of the intermission, a little boy who sat in the row in front of me made a remark to the same effect (in that blunt way that little boys so often do). If the number of notes I managed to take during the first half is any indication, I partly will concede that point: there’s not always a lot happening on stage.
Even so, everyone definitely stepped up their game during the second half– and, again, I also mean that literally: most of the performers did their acts on raised surfaces. When Rob and Miss Jane kept their balance walking over glass bottles laid over tabletops and chairs of different heights; the King Charles Troupe had two men doing double-dutch jump rope on unicycles; and Johnny, balancing on his rolla bolla and a desk, built and climbed a ladder much taller than I am, I was too awed to think to write very much down at all. Even so, part of my mind still asked “why not havefour unicyclists doing double dutch?” Omnium shows how much is possible, but there’s always higher to go: the sky’s the limit.
All that said, I feel that to deliberate on the upper limits of circus (if there are any), the question of “how much is too much” or “how little is too little,” is to miss the point of Omnium Circus entirely. Maybe there’s not always a ton happening at once—but all the same, there’salways something happening to keep people engaged. After the dog act, the stage lights go dark as stagehands clear away the hoops and hurdles… and in the same instant, a spotlight shines down on Rob Lok, who has popped up in the front seats with his heart-shaped boxers showing. Later on, Elan Alex España stumbles out of the cyr wheel during his solo act— but then we all start clapping louder for him (yes, even that kid in front of me), and Elan picks himself up, and gets straight back into the wheel like nothing ever happened. It all went so quickly, and with such showmanship, that I honestly can’t tell if the moment was choreographed. Yet it made the point more clearly than any other moment in the show’s narrative:nothing is impossible, even if you stumble on the way to reaching it.
Where Omnium Circus really shines is in their understatedness: the little, magic moments where the spotlights linger on the performers. There’s the sight of aerialist Vivien España perched in a ring, being raised, when her smoky silhouette appears encircled on the back curtain. There’sElan Alex España in a shimmering gold vest that catches the stage light when he juggles his diabolos; with every move, he brings the same electric energy to the stageas rock stars do when strumming their guitars. There’s the beautiful reciprocity happening between Jen Bricker-Bauer and her husband, Dominik Bauer, who plays trombone while Jen, in slow, graceful movements, climbs up and down the aerial silks with her arms before tying the ends into a silk swing, and using it to fly around over the stage. Getting down, she gives the silks to Dominik, who keeps playing trombone while being lifted in the air, and she does the same “hey, look at this guy!” gestures he’d just done for her. Moments like these feel so characterful, so deeply human… they would connect with any kind of audience. And I guarantee, you’ve never heard a theater with empty seats make that much noise.
Maybe that’s the lesson here: when you pull some of your punches, the real knockouts hit that much harder. You don’t need blowout spectacles to be something spectacular.
Want to see "I'mPossible" yourself? Catch Omnium Circus again as a feature at this year's Forward Festival for the Arts. They'll be performing two more showings of "I'mPossible" at the Queens Theatre, NYC, at 2 pm and 8 pm on May 14.
Image credits to Omnium Circus and photographer Maike Schulz.
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