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Community-Based Circuses Delight Audiences of All Ages

Professional circus artists perform across the country

By Patricia Corrigan

Who doesn't love a circus on a summer day?

Aerialists, contortionists, tightrope walkers, two-legged acrobats, hoop divers, four-legged acrobats (think doggies or horses), clowns and jugglers give their all, often accompanied by live music that elevates the festive nature of the shows.

Performers during a circus. Next Avenue
Performers from Bindlestiff Family Cirkus entertain in "Flatbed Follies" in New York.  |  Credit: Maike Schulz

Some of us wait for a circus to come to town; some are lucky enough to live in or near communities that are home to circuses. The nonprofit American Circus Alliance (ACA) estimates about 50 circuses, some family owned, currently operate in the U.S.

Some troupes draw audiences from their region and tourists passing through, and some tour. They perform in tents large and small, in theaters, outdoors in city parks, inside school gymnasiums and sometimes, in parking lots at corporate-sponsored events. "A resurgence in American circuses began in the 1970s, and that growth has continued," said Ariele Ebacher, administrator and co-founder at the ACA. "Circuses today range in style from classical to contemporary. Some present one act after another, pausing in between each for a 'ta-da' moment, and others feature themes or stories that carry throughout the show."

'Circus Is One of the Things We Can All Agree On'

Either way, our emotions are heightened as circus artists demonstrate their formidable skills. "We're all humans with bodies, and we all understand circus on a cellular level," said Abigail Munn, co-founder and an ACA board member.  

"We don't have to speak the same language and we can be 2 or 92 or somewhere in between, and circus is one of the things we all can agree on," Munn continued. "We all fall in love with the beautiful aerialists when they do something technically incredible and we all get it when the clowns do something silly. We experience these emotions together — and that's beautiful."

Munn, 45, is director of Circus Bella, which is based in San Francisco. Trained as a modern dancer and trapeze artist, Munn co-founded the circus in 2008 with David Hunt, currently the director of Prescott Circus Theatre, a youth troupe in nearby Oakland.

Performers during a circus. Next Avenue
Ringmaster Jeff Jenkins performs with Rosie Rae, a rescued pitbull and circus star, at Midnight Circus.  |  Credit: Sharon Gaietto

"Circus Bella is a hybrid between the traditional and the new," Munn said. "We perform in the round, with individual acts and some ensemble works, and a live band plays for our tent shows and our outdoor shows." The company's Circus in the Parks series has presented 182 free shows at 37 locations, reaching some 85,000 people.

Chicago’s Midnight Circus Benefits City Parks

Midnight Circus, based in Chicago, Illinois, performs in parks in late summer and early fall. "We go to every corner of the city, presenting shows at two to six city parks each weekend," said Jeff Jenkins, executive director and co-founder with Julie Greenberg. "We've got something in the ring for everybody, and we stagger ticket prices to keep it affordable. Making money is not our mission."  

What is? Helping local communities. Since 2007, Midnight Circus has played to some 20,000 people a year and raised almost $2 million for Chicago Park Advisory Councils, said Jenkins, 55. That money has been used for community playground renovations, neighborhood programming and park beautification.

Part of the fun at Midnight, Jenkins added, is that people always gather to watch the circus workers erect the purple and blue tent, which seats 550 people. "And at the end of every show, I ask who had fun and who wants to join the circus," he said. "The crowd roars, and we invite everybody into the ring for an improvisational dance party."


A Circus With a Vaudeville Perspective

The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus dates back to 1995, when Keith Nelson and Stephanie Monseu began performing a weekly variety show in the back of a bar in Brooklyn, New York. Among other performances, today Bindlestiff stages "Flatbed Follies" around New York City on mobile parade floats modified to present circus acts. A calliope wagon provides jolly music.

Performers include wire walkers, plate spinners, aerialists, sideshow artists, scarf-jugglers, ventriloquists, tap dancers, sword-swallowers and rope-spinners. The troupe performs in tents, at arts centers and at outdoor festivals.

"We're not a contemporary circus company," said Nelson, 54, who said he is "an anarchist clown and CEO." He added, "We pay tribute to American circus, but with a little more of a vaudeville perspective." (He also explained that a "bindlestiff" is a hobo who carries belongings in a bundle tied to a stick.)

"We step outside the box of what and who we are and still be true to circus," Nelson said. "Nothing shows the human potential of people working together and what the world can be better than circus, as artists from all over the world come together to create something beautiful."

Forging Connections Between Performers and Audiences

"Beautiful things come in small packages," declared Tosca Zoppé, the bareback equestrian who heads up Piccolo Zoppé Circus in Greenbrier, Arkansas, about 45 minutes north of Little Rock. "We offer a theatrical Italian circus under a tent that seats 500." The shows always open with an homage to the Zoppé family's tradition of performing circus since 1842.

A century after the company was founded in Italy, Alberto Zoppé, Tosca's father, brought his family to the U.S., where they appeared in the film "The Greatest Show on Earth" and he worked for a time for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Performers during a circus. Next Avenue
Alex Royer and Samantha Jenkins of Midnight Circus   |  Credit: Sharon Gaietto

Four decades ago, the family moved from Florida to Arkansas, to acreage that now serves as a sanctuary for Zoppé, her family and her 10 horses. Piccolo Zoppé Circus tours occasionally, but has increased the number of performances in Arkansas, she said.

"I encourage people to seek out the smaller European-style family circuses, because that's where the true tradition lies," Zoppé said. "Our show is about connecting our hearts to the audience's, and sometimes, audience members cry. That's the best compliment, because it means our artists have touched them in some way."

Storylines, Acts Vary From Year to Year

A tradition at Circus Flora, now in its 38th year, is a fresh storyline each season that weaves together the circus acts and original live music. "Incredible acts from around the world are part of the narrative, and that engages audiences emotionally," said Jack Marsh, 39, artistic and executive director.

Based in St. Louis, Missouri, Circus Flora's tent seats 1,100 people. As in many circuses, acts vary from year to year, including flying trapeze, acrobatic horseback riding, high wire acts and more. The St. Louis Arches, a gifted youth circus performance troupe from Circus Harmony, perform at Circus Flora and at more than 700 additional shows a year.

"Multiple generations of families from the region have attended Circus Flora through the years, as we're a local institution," Marsh said. "One couple from St. Louis that moved to Las Vegas schedules a trip back each year to see our new show."

Several directors noted that unlike in Europe, government funding for circuses in the U.S. is meager. Nelson, at Bindlestiff, said, "Live entertainment and humanity go together, and people need to support circuses, or we aren't going to be around."

No matter where you live or where you travel this summer, consider taking in a community-based circus.

Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and also a book author. She has written for Next Avenue since February 2015. Read more from Patricia at Read More
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