Jessica Gross

The Big Apple Circus

In musings, people watching on December 15, 2008 at 6:41 pm

Yesterday, my dad took my brother, 20, and me, 23, to the Big Apple Circus. It was his birthday present to himself.

On a Sunday afternoon, the place was teeming with children. I’d seen August: Osage County the weekend before and the culture difference was stark. It wasn’t just the kids’ presence (they gasped and oohed at every circus trick), but also the adults’ behavior. Having children all around made it okay to use normal speaking voices, and to stand up, in the middle of the performances.

I wondered if this bothered the circus performers, especially the musicians. The horse trainer, I imagined, had looked forward to running the horses around the rink since she started training. But was this the trumpeter’s end goal, or did he aim to join a Broadway show’s pit orchestra? I spent the entire first act thinking about how I wanted to ask the band members how they got involved in the Big Apple.

During the second act, I read the program, which added some depth to my brain-whirrings. Under the heading “A Commitment to Artistic Excellence,” the program reads in part,

Each year, since 1977, the full-time, resident Big Apple Circus company members collaborate with an ensemble of international artists on an original presentation of the highest quality. The production emerges from a creative environment best described as a “global artistic village,” a community of creators, performers and crew. By fostering an environment where artists live, create, perform, and grow together, a cohesive creative product emerges….At the heart of the Big Apple Circus Big Top production is the joyous, life affirming, and collective experience of the one ring circus performance. Upon entering the Big Top, the audience leaves behind personal struggles and the work-a-day world, is seated in a circle so that everyone can be seen and for the moment becomes a part of a genuine community.

I don’t know whether this is the Big Apple’s publicity pitch or whether it reflects reality, but for the moment I’ll go with the latter. In the context of the circus community, the audience’s behavior makes sense. Maybe the audience was noisy not because the children lowered the bar for respectful viewership, but because the circus culture encouraged collegiality.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense. The whole point was to bridge the gap between the performers and the viewers, to make the viewers comfortable enough to come into the middle of the ring and dance or conduct the circus band or do whatever goofy stunt the ringmaster commanded. Many of the performers were family members, like The Rodion Troupe and The Flying Cortes — it was almost as if they were inviting the rest of us to become part of the gaudy, glitzy circus bunch. In that light, thinking the performers would find the audience’s chatter disrespectful was seriously off-base.

Then again, if the “global artistic village” spiel is a bunch of PR-speak, the trumpeter could be as grumpy as an Elvis impersonator who wanted to sing opera.

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