Big Apple Circus
- 1 New York’s One-Ring Wonder
- 1.1 It All Started in San Francisco
- 1.2 From The Streets of Europe to The Casino de Paris
- 1.3 Le Nouveau Cirque de Paris
- 1.4 The Project
- 1.5 Money Realities
- 1.6 The New York School for Circus Arts
- 1.7 Raising the Tent
- 1.8 "The Circus of Picture-Books and Tribal Memory"
- 1.9 "The Only Circus Good Enough to Play Lincoln Center"
- 1.10 A True Innovator
- 1.11 The End of An Era
- 1.12 Epilogue
- 2 Image Gallery
- 3 External links
- 4 Suggested reading
New York’s One-Ring Wonder
By Dominique Jando
The original, not-for-profit Big Apple Circus was created in 1977 in New York City by Paul Binder and his juggling partner, Michael Christensen, as the performing arm of the New York School for Circus Arts. Its enormous success soon put the school in the shadows, and the circus took over as the principal activity of the organization. It became one of the world’s most respected and successful circuses—until the economic crisis of 2008, which dramatically impacted its fund-raising capacity, sadly led it to file for bankruptcy eight years later.
Its name and equipment were sold to private investors who brought the Big Apple Circus back to life in September 2017 in its traditional winter venue, Damrosch Park, in New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts. The new Big Apple Circus quickly abandoned its spring-summer tours of the northeast United States and beyond, and limited its activity to its Lincoln Center four-month winter season. However, the Covid pandemic prevented it from performing in the winter of 2020-21. (As of June 2021, it is not yet known if it will resume its performances.)
It All Started in San Francisco
As a child, Paul Binder was occasionally taken to the circus by his parents at Madison Square Garden. "I do have one very powerful memory," Paul said, "a spotlighted Unus, alone in the center ring, doing his one-finger stand on a lighted globe. It was very dramatic!" However, the idea that within the circus ring would lie his career never entered his mind.
Later, Paul attended Dartmouth College, where he joined the Dartmouth Players and the Hopkins Center Repertory Theatre, and then earned an MBA at Columbia University. After a brief stint at Boston University’s School of Fine and Applied Arts, he went to work on television as stage manager for Julia Child’s cooking shows, and later as talent coordinator for The Merv Griffin Show. It was the end of the 1960s, and Paul was restless with the times.
Meanwhile, in Walla-Walla, Washington, where he was born, Michael Christensen was struggling with a difficult childhood. Somehow, he needed to act out the feelings stirred by his uneasy life, so, quite naturally, he enrolled in the Professional Actor Training program at the University of Washington. As for the circus: "When the circus came to town in the summer, I helped setting up the tents with my brother in exchange for free passes. I also remember laughing uncontrollably at a clown gag—but I don’t remember who the clown was nor what was the gag."
Both Paul and Michael ended up in San Francisco, where they met at the San Francisco Mime Troupe. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, San Francisco was the epicenter of a whole era of student revolt and social change. The San Francisco Mime Troupe was taking in active part in that change through a political street-theater movement aimed at stimulating people through outrageous, right-in-your-face physicality.
One of the techniques used by the Mime Troupe to convey their messages was juggling. Michael and Paul learned juggling, and notably "passing," with co-member Larry Pisoni, with whom Michael developed a juggling comedy routine. Pisoni would go on to become the founder of San Francisco’s fabled Pickle Family Circus, and a great American clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team..
Then Larry and Michael decided to go and see the world. They would do their "grand tour," as the wealthy European youth of centuries past had done, and survive by juggling on street corners, as the wealthy European youth had certainly never done. Michael flew to London first, but soon after, Larry let him know that couldn’t join him. It was a letdown, but Michael didn’t want to return home empty-handed. Luckily, Paul heard of the situation and called Michael to offer himself as a replacement.
Paul and Michael had been occasional juggling partners, and Paul was familiar with Larry and Michael’s routine. Michael was relieved indeed, and Paul flew to London. Thus began what was to become part of the Big Apple Circus’s lore and legend—Paul and Michael’s epic juggling journey through the big cities and one-horse towns of Europe.
From The Streets of Europe to The Casino de Paris
It was a journey of many encounters and discoveries, some of which would be prophetic. In Paris, they met and befriended a fellow street performer (there were only a few of them at the time) named Philippe Petit. Later, in 1974, Philippe managed to string a cable between the tops of the not-yet-completed twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and became instantly famous.
On the road, Paul and Michael developed a very good passing act in which talking was as important as juggling. They adapted their spoken comedy to the language of the country they visited, and the act was generally funnier in its foreign versions—half of the humor being these two Americans stumbling through the native tongue of their native audiences. They became very successful, and their work generated good money. Sometimes, however, it also generated the local authorities’ suspicion, as wandering entertainers has always been threatening to the established order.
They went as far as Istanbul and the Bosporus. On the other side of the strait lay Asia, the Orient, the Unknown. "I burst into tears," Paul recalled, "I was sure that on the other side of that water was madness. We were crazy enough already." They decided it was time to reverse their path, so they juggled their way back to Paris.
Michael and Paul were performing their act on the Boulevard Saint-Germain when a man who worked as a theater usher approached them. Would they be interested in auditioning for Roland Petit? The famous choreographer had produced a very successful revue for the legendary Casino de Paris, Zizi je t’aime!, which had starred his wife, Zizi Jeanmaire. By then, Jeanmaire had been replaced by Lisette Malidor, and Petit, who was revamping the production, needed fresh talent.
Why not? In front of Roland Petit, the duo performed their act honed on the streets of Europe: Comic juggling involving a rubber chicken named Leonard, with all dialogue performed in American-accented French. It was pure novelty, and it was funny. Thus Paul and Michael appeared at the Casino de Paris, which led them to be booked onto French television. France had only three television channels then, and to be booked on any of them meant big exposure. And by chance, Annie Fratellini and Pierre Étaix happened to be watching the show.
Le Nouveau Cirque de Paris
Annie Fratellini (1932-1997) was the granddaughter of Paul Fratellini, of the legendary clown trio of François, Paul & Albert Fratellini, and the daughter of Victor Fratellini, himself a clown (like all subsequent Fratellinis). Her husband, the multitalented Pierre Étaix (1928-2016), had been Jacques Tati’s assistant (and the designer of the iconic poster of his film Mon Oncle) before writing, directing and acting in his own film comedies. Like Tati, Étaix was fascinated by the circus and by clowns.
Annie Fratellini had left the circus for a relatively successful singing and acting career. Pierre Étaix starred her in his aptly titled film Le Grand Amour (1969) and convinced her to return to her circus roots. Together, they created what was to become a legendary clown duet. They were also in the process of developing a professional circus school and a circus to go with it. They asked Paul and Michael if they would like to participate in a show they were putting together? Would they like to be part of the first tour of their Nouveau Cirque de Paris? "Yes, why not?" was the answer to these questions.
This chance encounter turned into an epiphany. "Everything led to and came from this experience," said Paul. Added Michael: "What I believe led Paul to vocalize the idea for the Big Apple Circus was the joy that we felt doing this job. There was a tremendous amount of joy that we felt with each other as we worked in the streets and living this wonderful adventure. But that paled to the joy and the feeling of a home that we had found when we peeked through those curtains into the wonderful world of the one-ring circus."
"We learned what a well planned and well executed circus could bring to the people in it and the audience that it serves," said Paul Binder. "Circus is something very special that needs to be nurtured and given as a gift to the audience—with a sense of joy and, dare I say, love. It always has to be present for the circus to truly touch people’s lives."
It was the end of Paul and Michael’s European adventure. When the Nouveau Cirque de Paris’s season ended, Paul, who was becoming homesick, returned to New York City—while Michael remained in France to help the vendanges, the harvest of wine grapes, in the southwest of France. One morning, Paul woke up in his Manhattan loft with a brainstorm that he immediately shared with his cat: Why not create in New York a classical one-ring circus with the same intimacy, warmth, dedication, and artistry that he and Michael had experienced in France?
It would come with a school to feed the production, as Fratellini had done, and it would play New York’s borough parks. To his cat, Paul announced, "The New York School for Circus Arts presents: The Big Apple Circus." He liked the sound of it. And, as he recalled, "I had the feeling from the beginning that we should bring to it components of service to the community that worked with the same principle. The joy and satisfaction that we knew in the ring could be brought into people’s lives in other ways."
In October of 1976, Paul gathered some friends and unveiled his idea. They reacted to it more joyfully and vocally than his cat, and Paul realized that something there really touched a chord. For some time, there had been a movement toward the rebirth of classical circus in America, one that was different from both the gigantic corporate affair that was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and the pathetic remnants of the defunct golden era of the three-ring big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau).
In New York, Hovey Burgess, who had taught juggling to Larry Pisoni (who in turn had taught Paul and Michael), had been instrumental in triggering this movement. In San Francisco, Larry Pisoni, Peggy Snider, Cecil McKinnon, Judy Finelli, and other alumni of Burgess’s studio were already experimenting with the Pickle Family Circus. Yet even though the idea was obviously a great one, the journey was not going to be easy.
Friends came to help, some attracted by the prospect of being physically part of a circus, others by the unconventional concept of creating a resident circus in New York City. When Paul returned to Paris for the Christmas season with Fratellini, he had already set the wheels in motion. He told Michael that he was in the process of raising a quarter of a million dollars to create their own circus. "Do you want to help me?" Michael had a hard time making sense of what he had just heard but he accepted wholeheartedly.
A closet juggler, Richard Levy was an economist and teacher with a keen interest in politics and sociology. He was quick to see what a circus could bring to the life of the city, which then teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. He became the project’s champion and its chief fund-raiser. He also played the devil’s advocate, trying to bring Paul’s dream back to the real world. He nevertheless put his own house as a security for a loan—for a circus that existed only on paper.
While Paul and Michael were performing in Paris, Richard had found someone more cool-headed that the dreamers that surrounded them, Maggie Heimann, to write what he called "a killer proposal"—which was necessary to seek financial help from businesses, city and state agencies, and in general people who, unlike them, were used to dealing with projects on a more solid basis than sheer impulse. Heimann also knew a lot of people: This helped jump start the machine. Among her contacts were William Woodward, a self-effacing civic leader who instantly became a true believer, and Alan Slifka, a successful investment banker.
Slifka was invited to a rehearsal at the studio that the still-to-be-incorporated New York School for Circus Arts had opened in Manhattan (of which later). Like Woodward, he went through the killer proposal, Paul’s pitch, and a slide show of the Fratellini experience. His response was: "My wife and I think it is a wonderful idea. We’d like to help." Alan Slifka, Maggie Heimann, and William Woodward were soon lured onto the first board of directors of the newly formed, not-for-profit New York School for Circus Arts, Inc. Alan Slifka (1929-2011) would be its chairman and guiding light for the next fifteen years and would help the organization weather many financial crises. He remained its Chairman Emeritus until his death in 2011.
At first, sponsors were not easy to find. After all, the project existed mainly on paper and proposed the unfamiliar concept of a not-for-profit circus linked with a circus school. The first corporation to back the idea was New York’s giant energy provider, Con Edison: They pledged $25,000 to open the first season’s matinee shows to children from poor neighborhoods who could not afford tickets. Not only this corresponded to Paul and Michael’s sense of community service, but it also guaranteed that at least someone would see the show!
Michael and Paul also raised funds with performances in both the parks and at luxurious homes out in the Hamptons. In Washington Square Park, they renewed their friendship with Philippe Petit, who often performed there and was now world-famous and a New York icon after his stunt at the World Trade Center. Although quite an individualist, Philippe was ready to help.
The New York School for Circus Arts
Meanwhile, the school itself took shape. An artist with a fondness for the circus, Karen Gersch had learned to juggle with Hovey Burgess, practiced acrobatics and nursed clown ambitions. She fell in love with the project and put her 17th Street loft, which was always a magnet for jugglers and acrobats in need of practice space, at the disposal of the performers and would-be performers who were enrolling in the project. Karen also brought two Russian immigrants she had met recently and who she believed could help.
Gregory Fedin and Nina Krasavina, a couple of Russian circus performers, had left the USSR in 1974. Nina had been a child dancer and studied acrobatics and clowning; she was rather self-effacing, but she had a keen eye, could always make good sense of everything, and was blessed with boundless energy. More the extrovert, Gregory did the talking. He was a graduate of Moscow’s State College for Circus and Variety Arts and had worked in the legendary ladder-balancing act of Evgeniy Milaev, a major star of the Soviet circus.
Nina and Gregory thought, dreamed and breathed circus. Nina was quick to see the problems with the American circus: "The three-ring circus allows only for fireworks. The beautiful, subtle art of the individual is lost." They also needed work. When Paul described their project, Gregory expressed his opinion in typically Russian direct fashion: "You want to start a circus? You must work twenty-eight hours a day! You must steal four hours from your death!" Nina and Gregory became the New York School for Circus Arts’ first teachers.
At first, they came only four days a week to Karen’s loft. Then Nina, always the realist and uncompromising where circus arts were involved, asked, "Where is the school?" Good question. She stressed that true circus training demands seven days a week and twelve hours a day. A slightly larger space was found on Spring Street, in a storefront owned by theatre wunderkind Robert Wilson. Now, the school had a home of its own.
Students—potential performers—came. Among them were a group of kids, age fourteen to sixteen, from Charles Evans Hughes High School; they practiced tumbling at a YMCA and were brought in by their teacher. They were to become The Back Street Flyers, a staple of the Big Apple Circus’s early productions. Five years later, they would win a Silver Medal at Paris’s Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, bringing the circus world’s attention to "the little circus that could" over there in New York.
The training of new performers and the show rehearsals took off at the Spring Street studio. Meanwhile, a tent had to be ordered. Its design followed the Nouveau Cirque de Paris’s circular, European-style big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau)—then practically unknown in America—but more from guess recollections than thorough technical study. It was being made in Queens and, from the start, inexperience and bad communications ran the project in trouble.
Raising the Tent
Making a circus tent is not an easy matter, and more so if one doesn’t hire a professional and experienced tent maker, but budget considerations and unflappable optimism made everybody believe the home-made tent could—must—work. Richard Levy also brought in Mimi Gross Grooms, an artist and the wife of the famous multi-media American artist Red Grooms, to conceive and paint front banners for the circus, and to design the ring entrance.
Everything was now in motion for a July 4, 1977, opening. But where? The first choice had been Battery Park at Manhattan’s southern tip, but that was without reckoning on New York City’s gargantuan bureaucracy. One month before the opening, the site had moved from the green lawns of Battery Park to a barren, sand- and gravel-covered landfill on the shores of the Hudson River—which had been hopefully named Battery Park City—but there was no assurance that the endless list of authorizations and permits would be obtained in time, if ever!
They arrived one week or two before the scheduled inauguration, but meanwhile, the tent maker had become incommunicado, and nobody knew when it would be delivered. Nonetheless, a rental truck was filled with the ring, the permits, show tickets, box-office material, and equipment and everybody rushed to the site. When the warden tried to open the chain-fence gates, the padlock was stuck. When it finally succumbed to a pair of cable cutters and everybody returned to the truck… it had been stolen! The police miraculously found it and all its contents on East 47the Street, where it had been abandoned by the drunk who had taken it joyriding. Then Michael, Paul, Nina and Gregory went to Queens to take delivery of the big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau). They were given the poles, the cables, and the stakes. As for the tent itself, they were told that it had been sent to Boston for some "final touches."
July 4th came. It was a day of fireworks over Manhattan, but no Circus Day! Finally, at 5:30 am on July 9, the tent was delivered to Battery Park City. Impending despair suddenly gave way to relief, excitement, and elation. The poles had been up for a while; even the ring was in position, and the bleachers were piled up nearby. Warren Bacon, an experienced rigger who had returned from Taïwan to participate in the Big Apple Circus adventure, his team, and everyone available began the arduous process of setting up a big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) for the first time.
A first setup is always a period of trials and errors, but this one was particularly frustrating. Nothing seemed to fit. It finally become apparent that something was inherently wrong with the tent. After many unsuccessful attempts, changes of technique, new measurements, brainstorms, wasted energy, and much too much sweat in the July heat, Warren came to the only conclusion: The measurements had been wrong, and the tent was too small.
Philippe Petit, who was an expert rigger, came to the rescue. He conceived a way to rig(American) The rigged apparatus used to perform an aerial act, especially a flying act. the defective tent in spite of its miscalculated size. Two weeks after its delivery, the Big Apple Circus’s green big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) was finally raised! Rob Libbon, who would become the circus’s first performance director, figured out how to put up the bleachers. In the meantime, on July 13, New York was victim of the worst power failure in history, leading to a total blackout. Luckily, Con Edison didn’t back out of its grant: That was about the only thing that had gone right.
"The Circus of Picture-Books and Tribal Memory"
Finally, on July 18, 1977, the Big Apple Circus gave its very first performance. Richard Levy and Paul Binder were the show’s producers, and Paul also directed. Nina Krasavina was the Artistic Director; Michael Christensen, the Associate Director; and Gregory Fedin, the Artistic Consultant. Louisa Chase had designed the costumes, Mimi Gross Grooms the set, and Jan Kroeze the lighting. Peter Gordon led the band, and Phil Crowder was the ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show..
Michael Moschen, a young, very creative and elegant juggler, had joined the company in the early days of its inception. So did Paul Lubera, a flamboyant trapeze artist, and Susan Perry, an out-of-work trapeze artist, who kept a day-job as a secretary. Then of course, Paul and Michael did their juggling act, and the Back Street Flyers their tumbling act. Nina and Gregory took care of the clowning and performed a spectacular perch-poleLong perch held vertically on a performer's shoulder or forehead, on the top of which an acrobat executes various balancing figures. balancing act they had created back in Russia and which they had rehearsed during daytime at New York’s fabled nightspot, Studio 54, which provided the necessary height.
Michael also presented his parody of a trained animal act as Zakhar, the fearless trainer of Gittha, the underground (and thus invisible) soldier mole—an act whose absurd and surrealistic concept failed to be grasped by some of the show’s reviewers… In Paris, Michael and Paul had met The Indianos, a group of energetic Argentinean zapateo dancers. They had become friends, and when asked, they had agreed to come—and they did. To open the show, Nina had produced a high-spirited charivari(Italian, French) A joyous acrobatic display, mostly tumbling, originally performed by all the clowns of a circus company as a show opener. (Clowns, until the turn of the twentieth century, were generally gifted tumblers; tumbling was considered an "eccentric," or comedic circus specialty.) with the company and the school’s students, which illustrated perfectly New York's energy and spirit.
And the show went on! Amazingly, 45,000 people attended the Big Apple Circus during its first, ten-week season. With very little advance publicity, they found the green tent on its hot and windy stretch of landfill, paid their admission, and, most importantly, loved the show. They got it. They understood why this was not a three-ring extravaganza, and why, in many ways, this might be a better version of a circus. The press was enthusiastic; the Daily News noted, "The greatest show on earth it ain’t. (…) Just lots of funny clowns, acrobats, tumblers and trapeze artists. And something else—an intimacy with the audience that is hard to beat."
Most importantly, the reviewers saw what the Big Apple Circus had done for the city. The New York Post declared: "For 90 minutes, New York turns into a village on fair day, binding children and adults alike in a community of sheer pleasure." And The Village Voice: "The Big Apple Circus makes me imagine what it must have been like when a small tenting circus hit a small town—everyone in the audience knowing each other and the strange artists inspiring dinner-table talk and trips to the library and playground stunts for months afterward." The Big Apple Circus was a success. Now, if they could only make it financially…
The following summer, the circus pitched its tent in an empty lot on Eighth Avenue—the site of the old Madison Square Garden. The organization was becoming a little more professional. Names appeared on the board of directors’ roster that would remain there for years and would be instrumental in the development of the Big Apple Circus, and Con Edison was still supporting what was now called the Ticket Fund. Nina and Gregory were still involved, although they were now teaching in their own studio.
The New York Times, which up until then had only reviewed the Ringling show when it visited Madison Square Garden, finally noticed the Big Apple Circus with an over-the-top rave: "Sometimes awkwardly, sometimes a trifle self-consciously, but altogether winningly, it is the circus of picture-books and tribal memory. A sea of children and a flooded archipelago of adults sit [around] the single ring under a green breathing canvas, as if they were the iris of an eye whose vision is focused individually and on one thing at a time."
Yet it was not easy for "the little circus that could." The season was too short and didn’t generate enough money to keep the organization afloat the rest of the year. In 1979, the New York School for Circus Arts introduced an arts-in-education program to provide inner-city kids with in-school circus arts training. But the Big Apple Circus didn’t perform. The choice now was either to fold the tent once and for all or pull out all the stops, find more money, and gather the right people to help fully develop both the circus and the school. The Big Apple Circus’s directors chose the latter—a heroic choice involving high risks. It was go or bust.
"The Only Circus Good Enough to Play Lincoln Center"
An executive director was hired. Judith Friedlaender was a lawyer who worked in the office of Ed Koch, the mayor of New York, and whom Paul had met and converted when trying to secure a site for the Circus. Like Maggie Heimann, Judith knew a lot of people. She was also smart, hard-working, with unbounded energy and dedication.
In the summer of 1980, the Big Apple Circus resurfaced at Gateway Recreational Area in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, a new big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau) had been ordered, this time from a professional tentmaker in Italy. This was necessity since Judith had just hit the jackpot: The Big Apple Circus had obtained from the Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts, the country's undisputed cultural center, the authorization to put up the tent for the Christmas season at Damrosch Park!
The Big Apple Circus gave its first performance at Lincoln Center on December 4, 1981. This was the big-time, so big-time performers were hired. The feature attractions were Philippe Petit with his beautiful highwire act, and the Flying Gaonas, the greatest flying actAny aerial act in which an acrobat is propelled in the air from one point to another. of the time, led by the charismatic triple-somersaulter Tito Gaona. The celebrated Danish equestrienneA female equestrian, or horse trainer, horse presenter, or acrobat on horseback. Katja Schumann, heiress to the legendary Schumann circus dynasty and whom Paul had seen in France, came from Europe and graced the ring with an elegant high-schoolA display of equestrian dressage by a rider mounting a horse and leading it into classic moves and steps. (From the French: Haute école) act on her magnificent Arabian stallion, Sky Warrior.
There were also the Bertinis, a renowned troupe of Czechoslovakian acrobats on unicycles; Carol Buckley and her baby elephant Tarra; Sacha Pavlata (also the new tent master and the school's new head-teacher) came from Paris to perform on the cloud swing(English, American) The ancestor of the trapeze: a slack rope hanging from both ends, used as an aerial swinging apparatus. The addition of a bar in the middle led to the creation of the trapeze.. Other newcomers joined the resident company: Jim Tinsman and his beautiful wife Tisha on the Spanish web. Michael Moschen, the Back Street Flyers, and of course, Michael and Paul completed the line-up. The show was a triumph, universally praised by New York's theater critics.
Now subtitled "The Only Circus Good Enough to Play Lincoln Center," the Big Apple Circus had built its permanent place in the cultural landscape of New York City. In 1983, it received an OBIE award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theater. It began to leave Manhattan to play in the boroughs, and then came a season in Boston, which became its second home. From there it began to travel the eastern part of the United States with performances in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Charlestown, Rhode Island, and Hanover, New Hampshire, among other venues.
Over the years, new dedicated,and powerful supporters have joined the Big Apple Circus's board of directors, and the organization has been led by an array of talented executive directors, three of whom definitely put it on the map: Elizabeth I. McCann, one of Broadway's finest producers; James C. McIntyre, who came from Carnegie Hall; and Gary Dunning, who hailed from the American Ballet Theater.
A True Innovator
What really put the Big Apple Circus in a position of prominence on the international circus scene, however, was its artistic philosophy: Deep respect of the audience, priority given to the quality of the performance, constant attention to details, research of the best and most interesting acts on the international market, and high regard for the artists. To this should be added the warmth, intimacy and personability of its shows—as well as its many charitable activities, such as the Clown Care Unit, founded by Michael Christensen in 1986, which sent especially trained clowns to children's hospitals all over the country.
At the time, the American circus was still attached to a three-ring culture that was not sustainable anymore, making its money out of coloring books, gadgets and food sold during the performance and paying little attention to the comforts of the spectators—who frequently sat under big tops that leaked at the first sign of rain. The Ringling shows and other enterprises that performed in arenas fared much better, although, by and large, commercialism took precedence over the show.
In that context, the Big Apple Circus offered a very distinctive concept. For nearly a century, the American circus had thrived on its gigantism, continuously claiming to be "bigger and better than ever," as if it were the only known criterion of quality. The Big Apple Circus became known as "the one-ring wonder": A show given on a single ring was still a novelty in the 1970s and 80s! Yet, it was not the only thing that made the Big Apple Circus an industry trailblazer.
It introduced America to its first European circus tents, made of PVC instead of canvas, and with a metallic cupola; in time, it would also introduce the first tension tents free of quarter poles, and the first comprehensive seating system entirely boarded over the ground. It introduced theatrical lighting in the circus performance. It presented the first circus productions built around a coherent theme as soon as 1985, with original musical scores and specifically designed sets and costumes—innovations that are generally taken for granted today, but were very bold at the time.
For many years, the Big Apple Circus kept a permanent company of talented and versatile performers who provided the backbone of its themed productions and became quite familiar to a faithful audience that returned from one season to another; they gave the shows their unique personality. In 1988, the Circus also brought over the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe for a production titled The Big Apple Circus Meets the Monkey King, which mixed for the first time Chinese and Western performers, and when the USSR began to crumble, the first individually contracted Russian acts, The Panteleenko Brothers in 1990, and Elena Panova in 1991.
Until 1996, all Big Apple Circus productions were directed by Paul Binder, who served also as ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. and was the Circus's Artistic Director. Michael Christensen, who had headed the clown department as "Mr. Stubs" until 1988, was the Creative Director. Starting in 1997, the Big Apple Circus began to invite guest directors, the first of whom was Guy Caron, the founder of Montreal's National Circus School and Cirque du Soleil's first Artistic Director. Among these talented directors, the Canadian Michel Barette, Steve Smith, and Broadway director West Hyler had several return engagements.
The End of An Era
Paul Binder retired from his circus duties in December 2008, and Michael Christensen followed him the following year; both remained on the Big Apple Circus's board of directors. The new Artistic Director—Paul's successor—was Guillaume Dufresnoy, an insider who had joined the Big Apple Circus's resident company in 1987 with his award-winning aerial act, Les Casaly, and graduated to Performance Director before becoming the Circus's General Manager.
It was the beginning of a new era that didn't start under the best circumstances: It coincided with the global financial collapse of 2008. Just as it was ready to open its Holiday Season at Lincoln Center, the Circus lost practically all its crucial corporate sponsors and clients, which resulted in a catastrophic deficit. Unfortunately, most of them never returned, even after the economy had recovered, and the Big Apple Circus eventually became unable to recover its initial loss.
Unabated, it continued to produce quality shows. Yet, there were some changes. One of the most palpable was the loss of its resident company of performers, which impacted the family atmosphere that had been over the years a staple of the Big Apple Circus experience. Then, the board of directors, which included now several young newcomers, began to focus their rescue efforts to the charitable side of the organization, to the point where the Circus itself seemed to have become an adjunct of the Clown Care Unit and other similar programs, which were relatively easier to fund.
Important cuts in the performing unit's support system were made, and such crucial work as marketing and press and publicity was outsourced, which didn't help improve the situation. All this created a domino effect that steadily increased the Circus's debt; it had reached $8,000,000 in 2016. In a desperate attempt to turn the tide, the board had hired a string of new Executive Directors who were not always much experienced in matters of showbusiness—some of whom remaining only a short time at the helm of the organization, which was certainly not an attractive position to hold; if anything, it just made matters worse.
At wits' end, The Big Apple Circus cancelled its 2016-2017 season at Lincoln Center, and filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2016. On February 3-7, 2017, its assets, including its intellectual properties (notably its name) were sold at auction to Big Top Works, a partnership created by Compass Partners of Sarasota, Florida, for a total of $1,300,000. The not-for-profit Big Apple Circus, Ltd., New York's One-Ring Wonder, was no more.
The new organization, headed by Neil Kahanovitz, immediately announced its intention to re-establish the Big Apple Circus's Lincoln Center Season in 2017-18—which it did, to everybody's relief, on October 26, 2017. It then resumed its tours in its old markets, from Atlanta to Boston, its second home, with a smaller administrative office, and a significant cut to its peripheral activities in order to focus on the financial health of the circus itself.
Yet, the enterprise's financial stability remained fragile, which led to internal feuds and reshuffling by the investors. Neil Kahanovitz, who had spearheaded the rescue of the Big Apple Circus, was pushed out and was replaced by Randy Weiner, a New York playwright, producer and theater and nightclub owner. After a failed attempt to tour small arenas in the spring/summer of 2019, the Big Apple Circus decided to limit its engagements to New York's Lincoln Center.
The 2019 production was placed under the management of Saint Louis, Missouri's Circus Flora team, headed by Executive Producer Jack Marsh, with Cecil MacKinnon who directed the show. Most of the familiar figures of the old Big Apple Circus had gone by then, along with a large part of its familiar style: It was indeed a new Big Apple Circus. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and the Big Apple Circus didn't appear in 2020… As of 2021, it is hoped that this cherished New York institution will resurface soon.
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Big Apple Circus (1983)
- Peter Angelo Simon, Big Apple Circus (New York, Penguin Books, 1978)
- Hana Machotka, The Magic Ring: A Year With The Big Apple Circus (New York, William Morrow & Company, 1988) — ISBN 0-688-07449-9
- Diana Starr Cooper, Night After Night (Washington DC/Covelo CA, Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1994) — ISBN 1-559-63306-9
- Dominique Jando, Big Apple Circus: 25 Years (New York, Big Apple Circus in collaboration with Odyssey Guides, 2003) — ISBN 962-217-724-7
- Paul Binder, Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion (Bloomington, IN, AuthorHouse, 2013) — ISBN 978-1-4817-3191-1