To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Reports of the death of the circus are greatly exaggerated.” The Big Apple Circus, now in its 41st year and at National Harbor, is attracting huge audiences. Its popularity is in an upsurge, not because it has incorporated high-tech special effects or expanded to fill giant three-ring arenas, but because it has held true to fundamental traditions that created the magic of the circus in the past.
Its world-class, highly skilled performers present breathtaking feats in one ring under a big top tent surrounded by rows of seats from which no viewer is more than 50 feet away.
“You can look across the ring and see other people having the same incredible experience of jaw-dropping awe that you are and you are all connected in that communal experience,” said Ringmaster Stephanie Monseu. “You are sitting across from and shoulder to shoulder with somebody else. There is no way to capture that feeling on a screen. It is just magical.”
Monseu—whose experience with the circus ranges from performer to ownership—recalls her first enchantment with the circus at age 6.
“I went with my family and it was a bright summer day, but when we walked into the tent, it felt really magical with the sunlight filtering through the canvas. I remember the smells of the sawdust and the horses. It was a special place.”
The Big Apple Circus production opens with Emil Faltyny, who performs incredible feats of balance on a freestanding ladder, including kicking a soccer ball and catching it on his head. Periodically, Monseu will interact with the show’s two physical comedians, Mark Gindick and Adam Kuchler.
“They aren’t the stereotypical clowns with rainbow wigs and red noses—they are sensitive and accessible performers who are incredibly funny and drive the show forward,” said Monseu. “Adam is also a world-class juggler, and he also performs an unusual juggling act with cigar boxes. His persona is warm, friendly, down-to-earth and comic. He demonstrates his incredible skills with self-deprecating humor and his sheer joy in what he’s doing is infectious.”
Acclaimed animal trainer Jenny Vidbel will treat audiences to a demonstration of the skills of her Liberty Horses and rescue dogs with their game of Ultimate Frisbee. A breathtaking aerial strap act, The Desire of Flight, is next, followed by horizontal juggler Victor Moiseev. He has mastered moving balls on a plane parallel to the ground by understanding the rhythm and timing that are involved in working against gravity.
The second half of the show features Spicy Circus, a five-person double-trampoline act, in which performers bounce off, over and against a plexiglass wall. Next up is Duo Fusion, a hand-balancing act with husband-and-wife team Virginia Tuells and Ihosvanys Perez. In a role-reversal move, Tuells performs lifts in which she supports the weight of her husband while wearing high heels.
The show climaxes with the Flying Tunizianis trapeze troupe, featuring seven fliers and two catchers whose awe-inspiring feats include a quadruple somersault—an achievement accomplished by less than a dozen people worldwide. Adding to the excitement, the performances are accompanied by a live band under the direction of Rob Slowik.
Monseu said that a hallmark of the Big Apple Circus is its accessibility. “The circus has always been financially accessible so that even large families can attend it together, but it has also developed elements that make it accessible to audiences with autism and visual and auditory challenges.”
A special Circus of the Senses, offered at 11 a.m. on March 14, will provide ASL interpretation, assistive listening devices with live audio commentary and a program book in Braille. There will also be a post-show opportunity for children to come into the ring and handle some of the equipment, talk with performers and even pet one of Vidbel’s ponies.
“The circus is a visceral, captivating experience that has an aspirational quality. I think many folks can relate to doing something that’s really hard and the feeling of finally mastering it. They will see these incredible artists who have worked so hard all their lives to perfect their discipline, and I hope people will go home inspired to be great at the thing they love,” said Monseu. “The Big Apple Circus takes you on this wide swing of emotions from wonder, to awe and thrilling tension, to joy and laughter. The circus is the place where you can laugh out loud, gasp and shriek with excitement and where you can stomp your feet and cheer and whistle. And the more you do, the more we do because there really is a dynamic of give and take!”