Archive for Big Apple Circus

Some More Circus and Variety News

Posted in Circus, Contemporary Variety with tags , , , , on February 15, 2017 by travsd

So much circus and variety news lately, this may have to become a regular feature!


Barry Lubin Becomes the First Clown to Clown on Seven Continents

Posted in Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety with tags , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd


In the midst of so many horrible precedents, and history being made in so many undesirable ways, something truly amazing happened. The great Barry Lubin, best known as the Big Apple Circus’s “Grandma”, became the first clown in history to have performed on all 7 continents. I want to be able to claim that he was also the first professional clown to perform in Antarctica but I’m not certain if that’s true (hundreds of people go down there annually to work now, and thousands of tourists visit annually on cruises). But I’m certain Lubin’s the first clown of such major stature to do so. The word “wonder” gets thrown around too much in the circus game, but this for once is a novelty that will put a spring in my step for some time. Thanks, Barry! This is in the great Houdini tradition, just going out in the world and doing something plum amazing to give the public a boost — just when we needed it the most.

R.I.P. Big Apple Circus

Posted in Circus, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, OBITS with tags , on September 8, 2016 by travsd


I will take it as a sure sign of the un-momentousness of the news in our headline when (as they inevitably will) people respond to this when I post it with remarks like “What-? When did this happen? That’s terrible!”

Because it is not breaking news. The New York Times reported its closing in July, about six weeks ago, and reported that it was seriously in danger of closing in early June — three months ago. If it truly mattered to New York, or the nation, or the world, as it ought to have done, the public outcry would have been tremendous — unstoppable. Instead it drew its last breath like a vagrant in a flophouse, ignominiously and obscure: “Where’s Old Pete? I haven’t seen him around lately.” “Oh, didn’t you hear? He died — about six years ago. They say he was drunk and fell asleep on the railroad tracks.”

This pops into my head this morning for a couple of reasons. One is that I heard the other day, from someone who should know, that it’s not just the big top that’s been put to bed, but also their community programs (like the hospital clowns and so forth), which they had promised to keep alive. File this under “unsubstantiated rumor” for the nonce (since the Circus hasn’t made any announcement on the subject) but it comes from the most creditable sources. (But either way, though those programs are wonderful, I’m not sure what a circus is without a big top). And also…here we are post-Labor Day, long about the time I usually start getting press releases and such about the fall season, which normally opens at Lincoln Center in October. And this year, for the first time in my professional life, I didn’t.

They really ought to fix their web site, which blithely gives the impression that everything is hunky-dory. But sadly, it’s a sort of echo, a ghost page.

I’ve made no secret of my ambivalence about the BAC over the years, both artistically and administratively. It’s why I’m not as sad about this turn of events as I ought to be. Objectively, I owe everything — or at least much — to the Big Apple Circus.  I worked in the development department there roughly from 1994 through 1996, first as a free-lance grant writer, then as a receptionist, then as a membership assistant, and then the membership manager. My friend Trisha Smith was their corporate fundraiser, she gave me the opportunity there (and other places, too. To her, too, I owe much). I worked under Eva Brune, a wonderful mentor, who remains a good friend. She taught me much about fundraising, but I also worked closely with the staff of every single other department and found myself studying every aspect of the organization: the marketing, public relations, ticket sales, the finance department, and of course the show itself. That’s what inspired and enabled me to start Mountebanks and the American Vaudeville Theatre, which eventually led to things like my book No Applause. And I made dozens of lasting friends there, including both my colleagues in the back office, and those performers — all those clowns and magicians and sideshow artists, my oldest friends from among that set were people I met through Big Apple Circus.

Still, I find myself dry-eyed and unsentimental. As I’ve written a few times, I was never crazy about the show itself. While I’ve absolutely LOVED the last couple of editions (ironically), for most of its life, when it was guided by its founding artistic directors it felt to me precious and frou-frou and “European”.  Everything about its aesthetics offended me: the costumes, the music, the graphic design. It always seemed calculated to impress somebody else, somebody somewhere else. Mostly, it struck me as a circus for rich little girls, the daughters of its millionaire board members, all unicorns and rainbows and magic chimes. It was a circus for Eloise, not Toby Tyler.  Yes, they toured the outer boroughs but still, I thought the fact that their annual Manhattan run was ensconced at Lincoln Center, wedged between the opera house and the ballet theatre, spoke volumes. This isn’t a true populist organization; this is a plaything of the elites. And yes, they had their community programs and so forth, but they only ever had one foot in that. What does it mean to be about THE PUBLIC? Are you down here with us? Or do we have to walk down a shining corridor to visit you on your throne? If they had truly become indispensable to the public, they wouldn’t have needed those millionaire board members.

When I was there twenty years ago, as inexperienced as I was, I could tell that they were administratively bloated — overstaffed, overly generous, overly profligate. There seemed to be an office party every week. I got something like a month of PATERNITY leave when my son was born. Was I glad to get it? Hey, of course! All I’m saying is that I am not shocked that an organization run that way has money problems.

Yet, it was a New York institution. We all thought of it that way. Its legacy is enormous. Acorns (apples) off its tree? There must be tens of thousands…if we’re counting every person who was inspired by it, invigorated by it, whose life was changed by it. My anger (the anger that seems to be standing in the way of any sorrow or nostalgia) stems chiefly from that. It’s a betrayal, a let-down, that amount of fuck-uppery. And then, in the end, having shot themselves in the head, the apparent indifference of management: to CLOSE it, rather than reinvent it in some more modest form so that it will continue to survive, or keep it on life support. It’s closing clearly because its founders are long gone, so no one there has the necessary degree of emotional investment in it. If it had been done right, the PUBLIC would have had that degree of investment. What a waste.

Yes, the Big Apple Circus Can Be Saved

Posted in Circus, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , on June 7, 2016 by travsd


“Can the Big Apple Circus be saved?” asks the New York Times in this piece from the other day. Uh, yeah, if you’re not completely obtuse. They lost a few million in annual revenue in corporate block bookings etc and it seems to be a permanent market change (given that this has been going on for eight years.). The market will not support the size of the organization, so they need to adjust the size of their operation. They’ve already downsized the back office. Now they need to downsize the show. Sell the tent, get a smaller one, and pitch someplace other than Damrosch Park, and I know just where.

In fact, I have too many suggestions to list them all but here a few: 1) Coney Island: as BAC, Ringling, Cole Brothers,et al have all done before. Coney needs a circus out there every summer season, and the natural one ought to be BAC. 2) Brooklyn Bridge Park. The Welsh outfit NoFit State Circus just pitched their tent there and filled the tent the night I was there. 3) Launch a capital campaign to buy a circus building like the ones they have in Europe so you can perform year-round, without labor costs to take a tent up and down and move it. These are just a few  alternatives. I’ve always hated the BAC being at Lincoln Center anyway — it gives off an elitist vibe. I always felt surrounded by millionaires and their “I want a pony just like that one!” children — that’s hardly in the best populist tradition of the American circus.

Is downsizing and moving unthinkable? Uh, no, folding the entire circus just because you’re lame and entrenched and unable to think outside the way you’ve always done things is what’s unthinkable. Crowdfunding to replace corporate sales seems both distasteful (are you really using this democratic medium to replace the mad money once thrown at you by banks?) and a short-term solution at best (what are you going to do next season?) Just downsize and keep going like troupers!

Big Apple Circus: Grand Tour

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, AMUSEMENTS, Animal Acts, Circus, Clown, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by travsd


I’ve been attending the Big Apple Circus nearly every season for 20 years now…and lately every time I go I feel like the show I’ve just seen was the best ever. I’ve wondered aloud whether current artistic director Guilliaume Dufresnoy is one of the reasons I love it so much more now than I did in the ’90s. Now that I’ve seen several editions generated under his watch by various creators and directors I think I can say with some confidence that, yes, Guilliame has something to do with it. I simply prefer the aesthetics of the BAC as it is today….every artistic choice, from the music, to the script, to the costume design, to the scenery and lighting, all speak to me a great deal more than it used to. The show is rendered with more discretion, taste, and (ironically) more tradition. (The acts themselves have always been great of course. Their scouts go to Monte Carlo and other showcases and bring back some of the best circus acts in the world. I’ve never had any complaints about the jewels at BAC; I just never dug the settings).

We were proud to see our homeboys from Parallel Exit sign on to create this show (with Mark Lonergan as director, and Joel Jeske as writer/creator, and director of the clown bits). Downtown representin’! (Except they’ve also performed at the New Victory; they’ve enjoyed legit success for a while now). If you doubt my objectivity, you needn’t. If anything, as someone who also presents vaudeville, I have incentive NOT to be complimentary, and for that matter I have certainly written downright savage reviews of shows containing friends. So you’ll get fair dealing here.

And you can believe me when I say the show is flipping awesome, and I’ll probably go back to see it a second time (maybe on New Year’s Eve; it’s our favorite way to ring in the new year). This year’s show is lean and mean and moves along briskly — so efficiently and economically that perhaps for the first time at a circus I never looked at my watch. As I’ve written here many times, circus isn’t at the top of my list for theatrical forms. My orientation is vaudeville, and ya know what an acrobat is in vaudeville? The opening act. In the circus, acrobats comprise the bulk of the show — even more so now that larger animals are being pushed out. (I have very politically incorrect opinions on that subject, btw). The current show is not only well-curated and full of fast-paced acts, but (as should surprise no one who’s familiar with Parallel Exit’s work) chock full of fast and funny clowning by the duo of Joel Jeske (“Mr. Joel”) and Brent McBeth, (also of Parallel Exit, here billed as “Skip”). The theme of the show is a Grand Tour in the great age of travel (early twentieth century), so the pair are frequently cast as waiters, flight attendants, baggage handlers and so forth. Jeske’s precision, focus and bag of tricks are to die for. As with many great comedians (Oliver Hardy is my favorite example), you love him more for doing what’s expected, rather than surprises. The man is steeped in the ritual of comedy. Favorite moments included a slop act through a porthole, in which Mr. Joel gets doused with bucket after bucket of water — no matter how he tries to avoid it. And then there was a great game of musical chairs. Mr. Joel has rigged it to win, and he still loses. Also he and McBeth do a musical number, the old song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” — this might be the very first time I’ve witnessed singing in the Big Apple Circus, and it was highly welcome.

As was the dancing — the whole cast performed a Charleston in the charivari and in a closing number. As for the acts: Italy’s Chiara Anastasini performed a beautifully lit hula hoop act — the metal hoops acquiring a slinky-like visual effect the more and more she added. Alexander Koblikov juggled in a sailor suit, at one point keeping the impressive number of ten balls (by my count) in the air. International atmosphere was brought by China’s Energy Trio, an acrobalance outfit who looked very young; and the Zuma Zuma African Acrobats. The Belarussian Dosov Troupe did a fairly standard teeterboard act. Muscovite Sergey Akimov did a graceful, beautiful flight on aerial straps (with no safety wire or net from what I could tell).

Jenny Vidbel brought her critters back; dogs for the first act and horses for the second. The dogs fared better (my favorite gag was when they did a restaurant routine, the clown-waiters brought over some wine, and the dog covered his eyes with his paws when he didn’t like the vintage.) Dogs are smart and funny and you get the sense that they are actually performing. Horses are tougher. Originally the entire raison d’etre for the American circus, horses are not very bright and can only learn the simplest of tricks. Their presence under the big top (I feel) is best justified when it’s about the riders. So in this respect, I miss Katja Schumman’s outfit (and even so — the only time I have REALLY been excited watching equestrians has been at the Moscow Circus or at a western rodeo.) But for very small children, for whom the presence of horses is enough — they have horses. I would be more excited by giraffes (Barnum used to have ’em) but at least they have horses.

Lastly — the show closes the first half (as always) with their most exciting act, in this case, the Dominquez Brothers on The Wheel of Wonder (as opposed to the Wonder Wheel) . This act all by itself is worth the price of admission — and I made a lot of noises (yelps, cries, nervous laughter) as these two guys did their death-defying thing on this cray-cray apparatus. Can’t describe it , looks like this:


As I say, a great show and it flew by. We hope to catch it again before they blow town for their annual tour. Tickets and info here. 

Last Night at the Circus

Posted in Circus, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2015 by travsd


Any night I get to have popcorn, hot dogs and soda for dinner is a good night, and the only restaurant I know that serves those all together is the concessionaire at the circus. And among those, my favorite is the Big Apple Circus. This year we were grateful to get in to see the show just under the wire — the annual Lincoln Center run closes this Sunday, January 11. But first, for some reason we’re still not certain about there was an art show!


Artist Emmanuel Jose creates original decks of cards using paper-cutting techniques. The originals of his third custom deck, which are circus-themed, were on view last night and a handsome sight they were.





These custom decks may be purchased here. (Too late for Christmas, I’m afraid!)


Then it was on to the big top! And all I can say is the artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy and show director West Hyler have done it again. As much as I loved Legendarium (saw it twice) this one was just as good and that without my beloved Americana!

The title and the theme were Metamorphosis…and, yeah, okay whatever. It’s as good as anything else, and probably better than a lot of other abstractions to hitch circus acts to. Indeed, the more observant in the audience will note that the famous magic trick “Metamorphosis”, long associated with Houdini at the beginning of his career, was stuck in the middle of the charivari. It’s a fast illusion, that’s the whole point, “if you blinked you would have missed it”, but it’s characteristic of the revitalized BAC that there is THAT MUCH GOING ON.  Not everything riffed on the show’s theme but stuff that overtly did included the quick-change act The Smirnovs, an astounding husband-wife team from Russia whom I’ve seen at BAC before. For their big finish the wife does a change in full view of the audience obscured only by falling confetti. It remains one of the most breath-taking things I’ve ever witnessed. Francesco the clown, as is traditional, weaves throughout the show, keeping the audience engaged during scenery shifts. His gimmick is musical and many of his bits center around transforming objects into instruments: his suit is a xylophone. He plays Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on pots and pans, etc. The lovely animal trainer Jenny Vidbel is back as well. The entrance of some her small critters came in the form of a magic trick, with bunnies, then ferrets, then a sheep dog all coming out of the same box.


Vidbel’s menagerie was most welcome. While I do miss Woodcock’s elephants and Katja Schumann’s equestrienne act, there was much diverting adorableness on view. The most spectacular creature was a camel, and frankly, screw the rest of the circus, I could watch that damn thing walk around in a circle all day. Smaller scale, but no less exotic to see in an arena, was a porcupine. That one can do even fewer tricks than the camel, but darned if it isn’t a diversion. Then there were llamas, goats, donkeys, a piglet. A sheepdog jumped rope. A puppy rode a goat. It’s like being in Oz.


The photo above is only half of this act. This Mongolian contortionist Odbayasakh Dorjoo climbs into that small cube, and then she is joined by an Armenian contortionist named Tatevik Seyranyan (there’s no point in showing you what that looks like. It looks like an abstract sculpture. We’ll call it “Cubism”!


This is Seyranyan doing a less impressive stunt — her piece de resistance was an amazing balancing act, the Rolla Bolla, during whcih she made jaws drop.

Returning throughout the show for several different acts were the Anastasini Family of acrobats, who did an aerial act, some impressive foot juggling, and some kind of a thing with a flying rocket.

I really, really, really loved the music, by the way. And no wonder. I just looked in the program – -it was composed and arranged by Jack Herrick of the Red Clay Ramblers, whom I absolutely love, being as they are past collaborators with the likes of Sam Shepard and Bill Irwin/ David Shiner.

Get tickers here: there’s still time!

Of Heffalumps and Woozles

Posted in Animal Acts, Circus, Contemporary Variety, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , on January 7, 2013 by travsd

Anna May and Ned. That’s my old colleague Vanessa Thomas up top, and the legendary Buckles Woodcock in the pith helmet

I liked the Big Apple Circus show so much this season I had to see it twice. One thing I did miss, however, were the elephants Anna May and Ned. Why were they missing? Well, I’m here to tell you when I was there in the mid ’90s, not a week went by when we didn’t receive a letter, usually written in a shaky scrawl in crayon, with lots of misspellings and exclamation points, accusing the circus of being some sort of moral equivalent of the Third Reich for keeping and showing those elephants. I’m also here to testify that few organizations are as crunchy as the Big Apple Circus — it was started by a couple of actual hippies, and the organization’s corporate behavior has always cleaved heavily in the direction of “ethical” — “p.c.”, to give it a negative spin it doesn’t deserve. In short, personally, I know that I would sure like to live a life as cushy and as pleasant as those elephants were living. If anyone has a job for me like that, and under the same conditions (even if it means I have to sleep on a bed of straw), please consider me an applicant.

At any rate Feld Entertainment, the folks who own and operate Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, have not caved in to that pressure, but not without same pain to their organization. Some good news in this morning’s paper, though. Feld just won a suit for wrongful litigation against their tormentors at the ASPCA. Don’t get me wrong – – I’m very much in favor of finding loving homes for cats and dogs, and freeing chimps from animal testing, and fighting animal abuse WHERE IT EXISTS.  That doesn’t mean it exists INTRINSICALLY in show business. In this particular case, it shouldn’t shock you that I’m on the side of the Big Top. A world without circus elephants? Are you people insane????

At any rate’s here’s an excellent op ed about the recent decision by the Cato Institute’s Walter Olsen:

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