Not Your Grandpa's Circus: The Big Top Makes Room For Experimental Companies

Mar 4, 2017
Originally published on March 4, 2017 10:18 am

For lovers of traditional circus shows, the announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was closing may have come as a shock. But the nonprofit Circus Now wants you to know that the circus is more than ringmasters, elephants and lion tamers.

"Circus artists have been producing new and incredible circus acts ... that have an artistic context and theatrical storylines," says Adam Woolley, managing director of Circus Now. Woolley decided to pursue a career in the circus after seeing Cirque du Soleil; now he runs an organization that kind of evangelizes about the art form.

Among other things, Circus Now works to connect companies with theaters and venues. This weekend, they're presenting a festival of cutting-edge performances in New York. Finland's Race Horse Company is among the troupes featured in the festival. Their performances are marked by a dark sense of humor, and in their new show, Disco 3000, acrobats use sofa cushions as trampolines.

Acrobat Rauli Kosonen formed the group nine years ago with a couple of other performers. He says there's something unique about circus: "I think it's really [a] pure art form in the sense that you can really feel the risks. ... I guess that's always been why [the] circus is appealing — it reminds us that we're humans." And Kosonen, whose specialty is the trampoline, has the broken bones to prove it. ("It's part of the job," he says. "Sometimes you don't get lucky.")

In the U.S., smaller circuses (like the Kelly Miller and Cole Brothers troupes) still pitch their tents across the country, but there are also more experimental companies that are pushing the art form. According to Adam Woolley, they, too, enjoy broad appeal.

"Audiences or families who might not be interested to go see, you know, some very avant-garde modern dance will still go see the circus," Woolley says. "You know, people who would prefer to watch movies or television than go see a play will probably still come see the circus."

Kendall Rileigh is one of the founders of New York's Only Child Aerial Theatre. She says they sometimes shy away from calling themselves a circus. "There is the implication that the skills or the spectacle is sort of paramount rather than the narrative, and we really have tried to keep the narrative the most important element, and have the skills really drive and support the narrative."

Only Child's latest show, Asylum, is set in a mental institution in the 1970s. Co-founder Nicki Miller explains that there's a story, but no spoken dialogue. "We would describe it as a theater piece that includes a lot of aerial work, dance, some recorded music, some live music and overhead projection and shadow," she says. "So the story is told, rather than through dialogue, through the conversation of all of those theatrical vocabularies."

The performers doing the aerial tricks are dressed like patients, doctors and nurses. "There's no sparkles, there's no spandex," Kendall Rileigh says. And they're still doing stuff high off the ground, without a net.

With their different skill sets and artistic approaches, Only Child and Race Horse both fall under the big tent of what a circus can be. Circus Now's Adam Woolley says they all share the same mission: "to accomplish something in front of you now that you did not think could be done." And that's what still thrills audiences.

Editor Tom Cole and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, The Greatest Show On Earth will hoist its big top for the last time this spring, but circus arts are evolving. NPR's Jeff Lunden reports on a festival that's focused on human performers - no elephants - this weekend in New York City.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Adam Woolley ran away to join the circus. Well, actually, decided to pursue a career after seeing Cirque du Soleil. Today, he runs Circus Now, a nonprofit organization which kind of evangelizes about the art form.

ADAM WOOLLEY: Circus artists have been producing new and incredible circus acts and apparatuses and shows that have an artistic context and theatrical storylines or well-drawn characters. And this has been happening around the world for the past 10, 15 years or so.

LUNDEN: One of those troupes is the Race Horse Company from Finland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Acrobat Rauli Kosonen formed it with a couple of other performers nine years ago because, he says, there's something unique about circus.

RAULI KOSONEN: I think it's really pure art form in the sense that you can really feel the risks. There's a lot of risk, so you can get a lot of adrenaline when you watch it. If there is tricks that make your heart bounce because it's real. They can see that if they make a mistake, they might get hurt. So I guess that's always been why circus is appealing. It reminds us that we are humans.

LUNDEN: And Kosonen, whose specialty is trampoline, has the broken bones to prove it.

KOSONEN: Well, I had three operations. Then - well, it's part of the job. Sometimes you don't get lucky.

LUNDEN: Back here in the U.S., smaller circuses like the Kelly Miller and Cole brothers troupes still pitch their tents across the country. But Adam Woolley says there are some more experimental companies that are pushing the art form.

WOOLLEY: Audiences or families who might not be interested to go see, you know, some very avant-garde modern dance will still go see the circus. You know, people who would prefer to watch movies or television than go see a play will probably still come see the circus.

KENDALL RILEIGH: We sometimes shy away from calling ourselves circus.

LUNDEN: Kendall Rileigh is one of the founders of New York's Only Child Aerial Theater.

RILEIGH: There is the implication that the skills or the spectacle is sort of paramount rather than the narrative, and we really have to tried to keep the narrative the most important element and have the skills really drive and support the narrative.

LUNDEN: In a former factory in Brooklyn, Only Child is rehearsing its latest show, "Asylum."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Swee (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And in real life, you'll have a lot more (unintelligible).

LUNDEN: It's set in a mental institution in the 1970s. There's a story, but there's no spoken dialogue, says co-founder Nicki Miller.

NICKI MILLER: We would describe it as a theater piece that includes a lot of aerial work, dance, some recorded music, some live music, an overhead projection and shadow. So the story is told, rather than through dialogue, through the conversation of all of those theatrical vocabularies instead.

LUNDEN: So even as the performers do aerial tricks, they're dressed like mental patients, doctors and nurses, says Kendall Rileigh.

RILEIGH: You know, there's no sparkles. There's no spandex.

LUNDEN: But they're still doing stuff high off the ground without a net. Circus Now's Adam Woolley says the Only Child and Race Horse Company, with their different skill sets and artistic approaches, all fall under the big tent of what circus can be.

WOOLLEY: With lots of practice and hard work, we can accomplish the impossible. That's the core idea that everyone in circus believes in and that everyone in circus tries to impart to the audiences is that I have dedicated my life to this seven minutes of performance and honed my skill to the place where I'm going to accomplish something in front of you now that you did not think could be done.

LUNDEN: And that's what still thrills audiences. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.