Audiences get their circus kicks

New 'alternative' productions thriving in U.S.

NEW YORK — The circus is truly becoming a three-ring affair.

Though most of the fame goes to a pair of behemoths — arty Cirque du Soleil and old-fashioned, elephant-populated Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey — many smaller, nontraditional “alternative circus” productions are thriving across the U.S., comprising what is arguably a major sub-genre.

In fact, as they keep mounting this type of work, producers now face the challenge of differentiating one show from another, wooing the appropriate audience and making sure the public doesn’t burn out on the form.

The current gold standard may be “Slava’s Snowshow,” the nouveau clown act that played 1,004 perfs Off Broadway, toured the world and is tipped to spend the coming holidays in a return New York engagement on Broadway.

And in Gotham, “Slava” is just the beginning. Through Sept. 30, adult auds with a taste for burlesque can visit Spiegelworld, whose second season boasts a double bill of risque shows — “Absinthe” and “La Vie” — performed in a mirrored bigtop called a Spiegeltent.

Family-oriented presenter New Victory Theater regularly mounts spectaculars from across the world. Last season brought Circus Oz from Australia and Circus Inferno from Ontario. This fall, the org hosts China’s Golden Dragon Acrobats before “Traces,” a stunt-heavy show from Montreal, arrives in the winter.

Moving beyond New York, Spiegelworld will hit Miami in December, and producer Ross Mollison says he’s planning a larger tour.

Meanwhile, dozens of cities have hosted other alt-circuses. Among the most successful is Teatro ZinZanni, which fuses everything from vaudeville to tumbling to a full dinner menu. Performed in the company’s own Spiegeltents, ZinZanni shows have run almost continuously in Seattle since 1998 and in San Francisco since 2000.

Also popular is AntiGravity, an “aerial performance company” whose 2007 tour traveled everywhere from Maui to Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“The anchors of our season are always these alt-circus or physical theater-type shows,” says Mary Rose Lloyd, New Victory’s director of programming. “Year after year, it’s the programming that sells best.”

Last year, Spiegelworld earned $1.4 million and sold 18,000 tickets during its summer residence on an East River dock at South Street Seaport. This season, it is expected to take in $4 million from 60,000 tickets.

So what makes these shows so popular? For one thing, their reliance on spectacle over text means they can reach anyone, regardless of age or language barrier. Discussing her theater’s all-ages needs, Lloyd says, “(Alt-circus) is not unlike Blue Man Group or ‘Stomp.’ It’s the kind of work that adults and kids can come to together, and they all respond to elements that are visual and surprising.”

Mollison, who produces “Slava” in North America and has worked for Cirque du Soleil, says Spiegelworld patrons respond not only to the productions, but also to the environment in which they are presented.

The Spiegelworld complex — which includes the main performance tent, plus a cash bar and a separate stage for live concerts — sits behind a high fence, suggesting auds are entering a private world. Once inside, they essentially discover an outdoor speakeasy, with people drinking, dancing and watching sexy performances — imagine a clinch scene right out of “The L Word” performed aerially.

Since the tent only holds 350 people, patrons get an up-close view of bawdy acts — like the woman in “Absinthe” who strips and then climbs inside a giant balloon — and they get the thrill of near-injury when an acrobat on roller skates spins his partner over the crowd.

“People love the intimacy,” says Mollison. “New York especially can be a very strict entertainment market where everything is delivered in the same way, and I think the reason we’re having so much success is that we’re offering something else.”

It may be too much interaction for some — the Associated Press theater critic even had his toes sucked by a performer on press night. Mollison notes that Spiegelworld has been particularly successful with men, who seem to enjoy the lax, edgy atmosphere.

But what about adults who bring their kids, expecting anything inside a tent to be wholesome?

“Targeting your marketing is difficult, as is launching the concept of a Spiegeltent, which sounds like some weird, old thing from Europe,” Mollison says. “And that’s especially hard in a new city, since we absolutely rely on word of mouth.”

Lloyd notes that it can be difficult to bring circus-style shows, which often are created for massive spaces, to an existing theater. “We just don’t have a stage that’s 60 feet wide,” she says.

And if too many alternative circuses come to town, auds could grow weary. There are only so many ways to spin on a rope, after all.

For now, though, Mollison isn’t worried about saturation. “People are excited by human physical performance,” he says. “I think it’s barely even started to catch fire.”

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