The rash of circuses hitting the Big Apple in time for the holiday season is good news for audiences of all ages. It gives everybody — children and adults alike — a chance to marvel at the splendor of the human body in action. After all, what other animal feeds its young potentially toxic cotton candy as a sign of affection, or chooses to do triple flips from a trapeze while wearing leopard-print spandex? Well, maybe it wasn’t the circus that inspired Shakespeare when he penned the lines, “What a piece of work is man, how divine in reason,” but big tops can make the heart beat quicker and the adrenaline pump like nothing else. New York is particularly lucky this winter to have three excellent circuses to choose from, each one targeted to a different constituency.
The new shows are far removed from the three-ring circus of yore. They have moved beyond shopping mall spread and the garishly overstuffed menu of slapstick, stunt and souvenir-stand. One-ring big-tops or proscenium-style shows predominate this season, and for fans, smaller is better. The audience sits closer to the action. Battalions of clowns don’t have to compete with tigers for attention in an arena the size of Madison Square Garden.
The standard-bearer in the nouveau cirque trend is of course the French Canadian Cirque du Soleil, but even when their shows aren’t on hand, the freedom and energy they have helped to bring to the field are evident among all contenders. Directly or indirectly due to the Cirque influence, circus seems to thrive, becoming more spirited and imaginative — more celebratory of man as irrational animal.
Ratcheted up to an industrial rock ‘n’ roll gloss, the Australian “Circus Oz” is the funkiest and most outre of this season’s triad, with an innovative musical score and a crimson and azure lighting palette designed to pique the sensibilities of older viewers. If Aubrey Beardsley came to town for the holidays, he’d probably be captivated by Oz’s gorgeously wayward show, with its sinuous androgynes (Mozes and Sebastian Dickins) on the trapeze and its winsome physical comedians who defy convention and gravity. The company is young, buff and bluff in an Australian street-performer kind of way, and they are able to enlist the audience in their skillful provocations. The results are zesty and ingenious, anchored by strong-woman, ringmistress and chanteuse Anni Davey. Also notable is rumpled clown Tim Coldwell, who stops the show with his upside-down act. Watching Coldwell hit the sauce and apply his makeup while walking on the ceiling is a high note to remember.
Among the unique pleasures of this barbed and beautiful show are a mildly S&M-tinged tightwire act, in which Sara Ritchie cracks the whip and terror-stricken Michael Ling rides his unicycle over a burning wire in mid-air. The string quartet interrupted by various aerial mishaps is also one of the funniest pieces of antic physical comedy imaginable, featuring the agile flying bassist John O’Hagan as a surprised musician whose instrument abruptly levitates (he follows it into space, eventually mastering the errant instrument).
Circus Oz puts on a terrific show, but tiny tots may be put off by its sardonic edge, and precocious tweens may be too brain-numbed by Britney to get the full fabulousness of it all. For the pint-sized circus fan, the safest choice is probably still New York’s nonprofit hometown show, the Big Apple Circus. This year, their new crayola-colored big top show is called “Clown Around Town.” It has a range of talents and acts designed to delight kids with old-fashioned tomfoolery.
Parents may not be as tickled as little ones by the clown duo, Mr. Gordoon (Jeff Gordon) and Orville (Tom Dougherty), but it’s hard not to grin as the baggy-pants funny men goof around and imitate the skilled acrobats and aerialists. Better yet, kids giggle happily at their antics, and recognize the familiar Gotham setting of the various acts: a troupe of tumblers decked out as the Yankees, or a FDNY rescue effort to safely deliver Orville the clown when he gets stuck helplessly in mid-air, dangling from his wire.
The Big Apple show has its slow moments, such as a Vegas-ready magic act in the second half, but it is a comforting experience for small kids and families to share. Many of the acrobats are skillful enough to hold the attention of adults (hand-balancers Sophie and Virgile are one of the most elegant combos in town), and the show has an unforced charm that is reminiscent of an earlier era.
Commercially speaking, the most interesting wrinkle in the new circus world is Barnum’s entry into the genre of the one ring-show with “Kaleidoscape,” their aggressively upscale production featuring the star clown David Larible. He is joined in the ring by the European clown Pipo, in a lovely attempt to bring the finest kind of Continental circus tradition to American soil. Both men are splendid performers, generating warmth and personality in the heart of Barnum-land and making the show tick.
Larible, in particular, has the bonhomie of a true clown. He generates enormous good will as he variously recruits audience members to try their hand at plate tossing, juggling and operatic melodrama. A forgiving teacher of even the most unpromising clown-pupils, he embraces all in his big, broad arms and makes friends universally.
The show itself feels a bit over-luxurious, its glossy expensiveness evoking first-class air-travel lounges rather than rugged traveling Saltimbanques. Nonetheless, it is hard to complain when one catches sight of the jewel-tone tent and enters to discover its realm of highly skillful acts, encompassing an array of strongmen, lovelies and a remarkable dwarf named Istvan. The animal acts are particularly outstanding: Sylvia Zerbini’s dancing horses and the flock of comical geese are delights.
This season’s red-letter crop of circuses proves one thing for sure: Some traditions never go out of style.