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The Big Apple Circus Presents Dream Big

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It would’ve been hard to do something else, to as it were, run away from the circus and become an accountant. Samuel West

The six year-old girl seated in front of me has been to the circus “ten times, not counting the times in my mother’s stomach.” She accepts a hotdog, soda and cotton candy as if it were everyday lunch. Others, more visibly excited, curl onto seats knees up, under, or akimbo, heads craned to the giant blue projected stars and exotic rigging of the big top. Some grasp LED butterflies or swords unwilling to relinquish possession while one hand burrows into spilling popcorn. Parents and grandparents easily find photo-ops. The music begins.

We begin with the 11 Shandong Acrobats (photo at top) in psychedelic Star Treky jumpsuits, who jump, flip and somersault in, around, and through jump ropes crossing the entire ring as well as each other. The finale is a tower of men actually jumping intact several times over the moving rope. Not to be tried at home. When the group makes a second appearance later in the show, now wearing terrific yellow and orange lizard-like garb, they assume stacked and tumbling configurations in choreographed moves, throwing one acrobat atop others, landing in unlikely positions, balancing just long enough to precede a roll-away; everyone always in motion—a human pinball machine. The act is fluid and fun. Much clapping and cheering.

Next we’re treated to Scott Nelson and Muriel Brugman as magician and partner. The two are graceful, broad, and funny. Brugman has a rubber face and sound-making abilities eliciting squeals of laughter. Nelson is sweet and inept, embodying a silent screen comedian. Both are physically adept. They appear intermittently throughout the show clowning and presenting the kind of clever magic that seems easily decoded, but never is. At one point, two little boys behind me are vociferously sure Brugman is stuffed inside a set of stairs when the container in which she lays collapses. We’re lead to believe this must be so, then shown it isn’t! Sight gags are many, mishaps endearing. Nelson and Brugman are appealing to kids and adults alike. If they book out to private parties, I highly recommend them. In fact, when the inestimable Barry Lubin (Grandma) retires next year, I’d suggest making Brugman the signature clown, as well as using her in the enchanting magic act. For my money, this team has it all.

The pretty, blonde, Anna Volodko performs with an aerial rope that seems to obey her commands like a well trained snake. It’s difficult to detect the quick motions enabling her to twist up, twirl within, extend from, and roll down=drop out of her “apparatus.” The drops are especially effective. Small gasps occur all around me. Volodko’s rather elegant, balletic number especially appeals to little girls and grown men.

I remember in the circus learning that the clown was the prince, the high prince. I always thought that the high prince was the lion or the magician, but the clown is the most important. Roberto Benigni

Here we have the first center ring appearance by International Clown Hall of Fame inductee, Barry Lubin as the perennial Grandma, in his farewell tour. (Lubin is in love and moving to Europe). This particular “bit” involves a simple water spitting match with an audience member allowed to don a yellow plastic poncho…which, needless to say, only does him so much good. The volunteer is game and skillfully managed by Lubin, this has charm. Grandma comes and goes willy nilly during the course of the show, now repairing one of the dream machines, now playing a dismantled tuba. An appearance as a cow is particularly nifty. The role is both less frequent and less physically demanding than it has been over the years. Lubin is a cancer survivor. His very appearance warms the crowd. Like The Little Tramp, Grandma is familiar and beloved.

Jenny Vidbel collects animals. In her first act, we watch three beautiful and wisely unadorned black Arabian horses make circles within circles in the ring, kneel and rise to unobtrusive commands. There’s not much more to it than a pleasing visual. The second, also essentially presentation, begins with a tiny dog, a sheepdog, and a great dane, each, separately, performing the simplest of tricks.

What follows, though no more demanding of the “actors,” must be unique in the annals of circus. A pig, an enormous porcupine (named Percy), and a capybara (Bob), successively appear and, in search of hidden food, do a little something unexpected. Children around me ask questions about the beasts. Adults are curious and amused. It’s a hoot.

Dmitry Chernov, in a wonderful Tim Burtonish outfit with enormous open pockets for his “equipment,” emerges from inside the silver, wheeled whatsitz dream machine to juggle larger-than-usual white balls. The act is artful. Balls are tossed high, dexterously re-pocketed, then helped aloft again in fluid movement. At one point stage lights dim while others attached to his costume come on. It’s effective, but neon would’ve delivered more whomp and been just as easy to technically arrange. Chernov moves around the ring like a dancer. It’s lovely to watch.

Hand balancer, Melanie Chy, may provoke a lot of the audience to sign up for yoga. Her slow motion movement while upended on one or two hands is an astonishing exhibition of grace and control. It’s difficult to imagine the human corpus can arrange itself in such positions, let alone maintain them. Less flashy than other acts, this one appeals more to awed adults who comprehend the extent of her skill. Still, the kids are quiet and attentive.

The Flying Cortes take to upper tent trapezes as if creatures returning to their natural habitat. An extremely muscular troop, they fly, somersault, catch and release in classic tradition. Several times, flyers drop down from positions on more highly placed rods to be caught and swing eliciting ahhhhhhh moments. The triple somersault Bert Lancaster would not allow Gina Lollobrigida to execute in the film Trapeze, is presented to much deserved applause. One particularly young Cortes, a girl of perhaps ten, was picked out of the audience earlier as if she were a civilian and is seen/referred to briefly once or twice …so that when she joins the act, children are doubly intrigued. The circus doesn’t make enough of her earlier presence for this to register much. Seeing her wordlessly move around the set as if illicitly exploring with more frequency would’ve made more of an impression. Still, when she sheds her denim and climbs up to the platform, a definite frisson occurs. Her turn is flawlessly executed.

Jenna Robinson, de facto ringmaster, in a pointed red beehive, thick glasses and a stuffed black and white dress like something out of The Yellow Submarine, introduces the show. She also appears intermittently commanding experiments with malfunctioning machines. Robinson can certainly sing, which she does briefly twice, but she is not the larger than life presence we expect in the role.

The set of Dream Big is pale, stylized and mostly immobile—a missed opportunity. Costumes are another matter entirely. Bright and zippy, the hooded, body-fitting jumpsuits seem to be as practical as they are imaginative, rich looking and aesthetically appealing.

This year’s 34th annual Big Apple Circus, Dream Big, is upbeat entertainment with something for everyone. Acts are varied, energetic, attractive, and well paced. Clowning, familiar and new, is quite wonderful. Not a child has a tantrum, screams, or runs about. All seem fascinated. Really, where else will you see a porcupine and capybara on stage?!

Photo credit: Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus

The Big Apple Circus presents
Dream Big
Guillaume Dufresnoy – Artistic Director
Andre Barbe and Renaud Doucet – Design and Direction.
Under the (heated) Big Top at Damrosch Park
Lincoln Center (62nd St. between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues)
888-541 3750
www.bigapplecircus.org
Through January 8, 2011

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