Conquering the Challenges: A Year of Touring with the Big Apple Circus
By Melissa Bondar, Guest Contributing Writer, July 3, 2018
There’s a saying in the circus that the sawdust gets in your blood. Back in September, a lot of people from different walks of life all sat together in a first company meeting for the Big Apple Circus — all drawn together by that sawdust.
It was an exciting time and the tent buzzed with energy. We felt we were saving the art of “circus.” That thinking was probably a little conceited of us – there are still a number of circuses thriving throughout the United States, but between Ringling Brothers shutting down after 146 years of operation, and the Big Apple Circus having gone bankrupt, it felt like a dark time. Yet, here we were, ready to start rehearsals and breathe new life into this revitalized company.
The performer lineup was incredible. The headliners included the Fabulous Wallendas, led by Nik Wallenda, the legend himself. You may have caught him on television crossing Niagara Falls or walking across the Grand Canyon. Every night the troupe was scheduled to perform one of the most difficult and dangerous circus acts in existence, the seven-man-high pyramid. The trapeze act, The Flying Tunizianis, closed the first half of the show with Ammed Tuniziani attempting the quadruple somersault. With only ten performers in recorded history having achieved that feat, he is one of them.
The assembled performers represented generations upon generations of circus talent, including the Anastasini Brothers, performing Icarian acrobatics (also known as foot juggling — it’s completely insane), the Garcia Brothers, one of whom is the most energetic juggler I’ve ever met, and the other does an America’s Got Talent-esque roller skating act with his wife, along with our contortionist Elayne Kramer, winner of a Bronze Clown.
Yes, you read that right — a Bronze Clown. It sounds silly, but winning a Clown at the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo is the circus version of the Olympics. Elayne’s act is gorgeous and culminates with her shooting a bow and arrow with her feet.
Our animal trainer, Jenny Vidbel, has one of the smartest and sassiest dogs I’ve ever met named Sheriff. The animals in Jenny’s acts are all rescue animals and when they’re ready to retire, they spend the rest of their days at her farm in the Catskills. She’s also the founder of the Al & Joyce Vidbel Foundation, a non-profit that brings differently abled humans and animals together.
It’s easy to think ‘of course these folks can do these amazing things’ — they’ve been training with their families all their lives, but we also have some first generation circus performers like our hilarious clowns Joel Jeske and Brent McBeth, and rola bola performer Jan Damm, assisted by his wife Ariele Ebacher. The show was emceed by our Ringmaster Ty McFarlan, another first generation circus performer. We also featured a live Broadway-caliber eight-person band providing the acoustic backdrop to our show led by our music director Rob Slowik.
What I love most about the circus is its timelessness. One of my favorite places in our tent is under the seats on the stage left side. A lot of the performers warm up under there. It’s not uncommon to walk by and see a performer or two warming up while their kid sits on a road case, watching them. Another performer might pop their head out of the dressing room to chat or encourage someone working on a new trick. In moments like that, I’m struck by the fact that moments like this could’ve been happening over the last hundred years.
There’s more to circus life than just the show though; circus life is a different way of living altogether. In a world that increasingly feels more and more isolated, the circus way is a constant sense of community. Circus kids run all over the lot and everyone keeps an eye on them. When you see someone outside their RV trying to fix it, a group congregates around that person quickly, offering tools and help. Most of the show personnel come together daily to eat in the cookhouse.
We have potlucks for the holidays and our Tentmaster dressed up as Santa. For Easter we had an egg hunt, complete with our Purchaser showing up as the Easter Bunny. With the weather warming up, you’ll constantly see folks soaking up the sun in the mornings before show time and playing badminton or basketball around the lot.
But life on tour isn’t always sunny badminton afternoons and Easter egg hunts. There’s a reason #circusstrong exists. Circus life can be tough. Whether it was the endless rain that turned our Alpharetta, Georgia loadout into a slick, red clay mud pit, or the gusting winds that delayed our National Harbor, Maryland tent-raising by several days, creating a mad race to finish in time for opening night — there always seems to be something stacked against us. There are also the times when not enough temporary workers show up to the work call and the next thing you know, you see the CEO dismantling bleacher risers along with the rest of the crew. Recently, the slant of the parking lot we were set up in caused the ring to flood with the first big rain. We’re fairly unstoppable, but man, on days like those, a nice nine-to-five in a climate controlled office sounds pretty good.
There are also the subzero days when we play Lincoln Center where you burn through a tank of propane a day trying to keep your home above freezing. I’m sure the crew who live in the sleepers were also second guessing their life choices when they had to brave that subzero weather to use the port-a-potties. Personally, I really enjoyed the two weeks my water hoses were frozen. Living in Manhattan’s only trailer park isn’t for the weak. Through it all, though, our shows continued.
Six cities, 2,303 miles, and 298 performances later, what really remains is the breathtaking show we all came together to create and the growing excitement to try to top it with next year’s show. We’ll be back at Lincoln Center in the fall and we’ll hope to see you there.
For more information on the Big Apple Circus and its upcoming season and performances click here.
Editor’s Note: Melissa Bondar is the Performance Director for the Big Apple Circus.
Cover: The Big Apple Circus tent going up at Lincoln Center; photo: Juliana Crawford.