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

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Acrobat Samantha Sterman appears in the Only Child Aerial Theatre's latest show, <em>Asylum</em>.

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.

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