Editor’s Fanfare Vol. VIII, No. 4

The Big Apple Circus Faces a Potential Crisis in

Artistic Leadership 


If one were to look at the development of the American circus in the last 40 years, as I have done in my book The New American Circus, one characteristic stands out.  Every new circus, the Big Apple among them, was created and guided for many years by a person or persons who were passionate about the circus.  They brought a new level of creativity to the circuses they created even as they reflected their individual personalities.

Paul Binder and Michael Christensen imbued the Big Apple Circus with a distinct flavor and artistry that they had acquired by their experiences in European circuses as performers. That expertise came to bear on their artistic management of the circus.  And if they ran into trouble they could always appeal to Alan Slifka.  After Slifka’s death the show fell on hard financial times and the founders decided to retire.  To some extent the same style of artistic management was extended by Guillaume Dufresnoy, whom Binder personally chose to follow after him and hopefully maintain the distinct showmanship they brought to production.  Dufresnoy’s relatively brief tenure achieved limited success in the creative department.

When the show went into bankruptcy several bidders made offers to acquire the show’s assets. Among them were Bello Nock, whose artistry is unquestionable, and Neil Kahanovitz, who had made his name as a surgeon.  The latter did, however, have a lingering love of the circus that remained from the days when he was a performer.  His creativity and level of artistry were somewhat in question, but he hired directors who had considerably more experience in circus production than he had himself.

In order to acquire the show, Kahanovitz had to form partnerships with entities that were able to help him raise the money needed to win the show in a spirited bidding.

We don’t know how or why that partnership eventually resulted in Kahanovitz’ departure.   But it did.  The result is that now that show is without a strong leader in the creative and artistic side of circus management.  Jack Marsh has been named executive producer, but how much influence he will be able to bring to bear in that area when there are also individual directors for both the arena version and the tent production is anybody’s guess.  Guilluame Dufresnoy  may have some input as well.  And then, of course, there is the CEO Gregg Walker.  His background reveals little experience in the creative end of the business so just how much influence he will want to exert on production is the great unanswered question at the moment, and with others already in a position to put their mark on upcoming shows, there promises to be some confusion over responsibilities and perhaps something of a power struggle.  As evidence of that we just learned that Rob Slowik, the show’s long time musical director had submitted his notice.

There have been, in the past, business men who were successful circus entrepreneurs, who also became artistic forces in the form and style of their shows. I am thinking of such people as Kenneth Feld and Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Laliberte.  In their early careers as circus impresarios they allowed hired to help fashion what  their circuses would become artistically.  Eventually both became the final arbiter of what their shows would look like stylistically and artistically.   The difference between these men and their shows, as compared to the Big Apple Circus and its management, is that both Ringling Bros. and Cirque du Soleil were on very sound financial footings when they took over both financially and artistically.  The Big Apple Circus is not so secure, so it will take a very delicate balancing act for the artistic leadership to assert itself unequivocally, and in the meantime the show will also have to find a sound financial footing as well.  We wish them well as we watch all this transpire with great interest.