Polishing the Big Apple Anew
Now that the dust has settled somewhat around the auction sale of the Big Apple Circus to an investment firm called Compass Partners, we have learned more about the individual people who will be involved in the actual running of the circus. The Sarasota, Florida firm has specialized in middle market companies and corporate restructuring. Barry Salzman, who is the lead partner in the Big Apple venture has already created an eclectic team of businessmen who are said to “Share a passion for history with the circus arts to build a sustainable business plan to save and revitalize the Big Apple Circus.” There are a lot of words in that statement we have not heard much around the Big Apple in either good or bad times. This new partnership Big Top Works, includes industry veteran Larry Solheim, whose 30 year career has been as a general manager for circuses including the Big Apple, itself. He was also musical director and general manager for TZ Productions, coordinating and managing performances in up to 70 cities a year, 45 of which were staged in buildings and another 25 in tents,
The other partner involved in the circus is Neil Kahanovitz, who has the most unusual set of credentials of any of those involved. A physician specializing in spinal disorders, he has enjoyed a distinguished career in his chosen specialty. But perhaps most remarkable of all, for our purposes here, is that when asked as a youngster what he wanted to do when he grew up, his unchanging answer was “an orthopedic surgeon and a circus performer,” In fact he achieved both dreams. He took a leave of absence from medical school to perform in a comedy trampoline act and aerialist in a Midwestern circus. Despite his medical career his interest in show business resurfaced in the late 1990’s, producing plays and musicals on Broadway, London and Chicago. He is reported to be “thrilled to bring the Big Apple Circus to its rightful place among the most cherished New York City cultural icons, and for a chance to run away with the circus. Not once, but twice.”
Judging from the background of these men it is not too difficult to see some significant changes in the way the circus will be managed while “maintaining both the organization’s excellent level of performance and its mission to serve the community with Big Apple programs suc as ‘Circus of the Senses,’ and “Circus for All’ continuing to serve New Yorkers and communities beyond the Big Apple.” These were the promises that sold the circus’ retiring board on the sale to Compass Partners.
It is important to note in all this that the Lincoln Center engagement was not a guaranteed given along with sale of the equipment, intellectual property and good name. This most must still be negotiated and that engagement was not without some controversy, despite the circus’s having called it home since 1981.
But there is an observable passion. Kahanovitz is quoted as saying “This is a dream come true for us. Big Apple Circus is a cultural gem in New York City, and we couldn’t let this beloved American pastime just disappear. We have been working for months to assemble the finest team to ensure that the circus tent rises again this 40th anniversary season and for many years to come. We look forward to presenting the circus everyone knows and loves and honoring the legacy that has been built over the past several decades, while crafting a thrilling experience for today’s audience.”
It is a statement that is fraught with intriguing possibilities, and we look forward to seeing how it will play out in reality. We wish Big Top Works great success in fulfilling these promises.
As it turns out the Big Apple Circus is not the only circus that has been bought and is being run by an investment company. An article in the current issue of Fortune magazine provides an in depth look at the new owners of Cirque du Solei, another investment company, TPG Capital. It bought a majority share of CDS from Guy:Laliberte in 2015 for a reported $1.4 billion. (Laliberte retains ten percent). It has completely revamped the management structure and personnel. One of the very few executives asked to stay was former CEO Daniel Lamarre.
The Latest from the new Big Apple Circus:
Joel Jeske and Mark Lonergan, the creator and director of the Big Apple Circus’ Grand Tour have been hired to write and create and direct the first new production under the banner of the new owners.
It seems everyone is trying to break a record and get his or her name in the record books, and then using that distinction as a way of promoting one’s career. Circus performers of all sorts have tried to win a measure of fame, which in the circus world is hard to come by. Recently two different high wire troupes have tried to out do Karl Wallenda’s seven man, three high pyramid. Both efforts resulted in near tragic results, which is to only say that no one died. Coincidentally I was in close proximity to both.
At one of the performances of the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival the Gerling troupe survived a collapse of their pyramid in which three fell to the ground. Their attempt to up the ante on Karl’s seven man pyramid included eight men, the eighth standing on the shoulders of the erstwhile top mounter who stood upright instead of riding a chair. The eighth man was tethered and held the position for barely a second. Subsequently the fall prevented them from really achieving a new record. They employed heavy mats under the wire which helped cushion the fall. The press book said it would be nine people, but at the performance I saw the pyramid had only the aforementioned eight.
Nik Wallenda, speaking while his troupe was performing at Circus Sarasota, made more of the height than the number of people involved, although of course it took eight people to achieve that height (above 25 ft. which is said to be the Wallenda norm.) At a dress rehearsal something went wrong, sending five people to the ground. Among those injured were Zebulon Fricke and Rietta Wallenda (one of which was topmounter.) In one account Zebulon Fricke was said to be the top mounter, from which the fall would have been 40 feet. One of those others to fall was Nik’s sister Lijana, the most seriously injured, and ex-Sailor Circus performer Alec Bryant.
No one knows for sure what went wrong, although rigging failure was emphatically ruled out. Nik, in the position of “steerer” (That is the last man on the bottom level, who shoutsthe vocal commands as the pyramid traveled across the wire) managed to remain on the wire No net or safety device was involved.
A spokesperson for the circus claimed that the Wallendas never use a net, which is not quite accurate. When the show played Madison Square Garden in New York City, during the 1940’s New York state laws required a net be used. It was held by several prop men. There are photos to confirm this.
Is it worth it ? Not in the Russian circus, certainly. Circus there and its performers are revered and their safety is of primary importance. Tethers or safety lines or lungs are widely used in dangerous acts. Of course a tether allows performers to perform tricks which would be fool-hardly to try without it.
The original Wallenda seven had a disastrous fall in 1962 when Karl was still alive and involved in the act. One person died and another was paralyzed for life. The publicity involved in that incident ironically made Wallenda a household name. Nik nowadays has tried to duplicate that level of notoriety with his solo Skywalks across the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.
When it comes to building pyramids with several people, the more there are involved the more chances there are for a misstep. The danger is, of course, an inherent part of the circus’ attraction, but no one really wants to see disaster befall any performer.
Fundraising in New England
The New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA) held a Circus Spectacular fundraiser on March 4 & 5 featuring celebrity guest ringmaster Paul Binder and other performers donating their talents. The company headed by the Smith sisters is also in the middle of a capital campaign for its new building set to open July 1, but the money from this event is targeted for the company’s social circus outreach programming it calls Circus in the Neighborhood.
The cast of performers included Ariana Ferber-Carter, who grew up in the local rural area, trained at NECCA, performed for Circus Smirkus and is now has a professional career that includes work on cruise ships and circuses around the world. Jan Damm began performing juggling shows for kids in Central Maine when he was 12 years old. Since then he has toured both nationally and around the world as a professional clown and circus artist, having worked with Cirque Mechanics, Clowns Without Borders, Circus Bella, Zoppe Circus, Circus Flora, Flynn Creek Circus and Aloft Circus Arts, among others.
Other notable performers include Troy Wunderle, and the Smith Sisters with their famed aerial act.
News from Sarasota
In the previous issue we reported that the summer Circus Spectacular presented for the past ten years in the Osolo Theatre of the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art would not this year be produced by Circus Arts Conservatory (CAC) and its performance arm, Circus Sarasota, but would instead be presented by Feld Entertainment, ostensibly, according to museum officials because Circus Sarasota will be deeply engaged in co-producing a celebration of all things circus on the National Mall of Washington D.C. for two weeks around the Fourth of July. Pedro Reis CAC co-founder refutes this explanation, saying they were simply displaced and could have handled both events.
It appeared that Nicole Feld came to the museum more than a year ago, presumably before Ringling’s imminent closing was foreseen, and offered to produce a summer circus under the aegis of Feld Entertainment. What we have subsequently learned is that the show will feature Bello Nock.
According to Steve High, the Ringling executive director, the museum is looking to move in another direction away from performance and more into education. In addition to the coming summer’s project the museum is also in talks with Kenneth Feld, who is on the museum’s board, about preserving much of the Ringling Bros. archival materials. Insofar as the Circus Arts Conservatory is concerned the museum is looking to form a different relationship, melding their two educational programs.
There will be much to celebrate and honor this year in regard to circus history in Sarasota. In addition to Circus Sarasota’s 20th anniversary, this will be the 90th year since John Ringling first brought the circus to Sarasota and established its winter quarters there.
Meanwhile the two institutions are co-producing the D.C. extravaganza hosted by the Smithsonian Institute during the first two weeks of July. The Circus Sarasota big top will be the center piece of the event where various performances will be held. Circus entities of all sizes and descriptions are being invited to attend. The problem for all of them will be financing their participation which will include travel to the capital, housing there, food and insurance. The cost for Circus Sarasota to get their big top to the site is estimated at $250,000. Reis is hoping the state of Florida will see the benefit to be gained from being represented there and will kick in the majority of the money needed. Financing will, of course, also be a problem for such groups as St. Louis’ Circus Harmony and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, both of which, like all the other invitees, have begun fund raising campaigns. If all or even most of those invited to participate make it to Washington, it should be a remarkable two weeks for the American circus.
Something Worth Emulating:
Circus Network Australia Launched
Australia’s entire world-famous circus community will finally connect together online after 40 years of massive change, innovation, reform and success at Circus Network Australia, circus.net.au
For the very first time, an online forum with a pre-launch membership of 350 registered participants, will establish permanent ongoing connection between all of Australia’s many diverse and vibrant circus sectors. The membership of the forum includes members of the more than a dozen “classical” or “traditional” big top circuses now touring Australia (there are more big tops on the road than at any time in living memory) and will connect members of Australia’s world-famous touring companies including Circus Oz, Circa, Company 2, la Soiree, Club Swizzle and Stut’n’Fret among many others, alongside buskers and individual street performers using circus as their craft. Circus Network Australia will link members of all the major circus training institutions including staff members of the National institute of Circus Arts, the Flying FruitFly Circus, Cirkidz and the incredible growth in Australian Youth and Community Circus. Also connected are the major circus festivals held around Australia: the Mullumbimby Circus Festival, the Western Australian Circus Festival, the Australian Circus Festival in Sydney and the World Sideshow Festival held in Ballarat. The Network launches in preparation for World Circus Day, which fall on April 15, 2017.
Founder of Circus Network Australia, Mike Finch, provides this observation:
“Australia has an incredible history of Circus stretching back 170 years, but it has grown and evolved so much in the last 40 years that we could see it starting to break into cliques, and some perceptions of division were occurring. In the light of the massive social, philosophical and economic divides we’ve seen in the last 12 months in the USA and Britain, I wanted to do something constructive here in Australia to help future-proof us against a similar split. I believe all Australians need to work towards collaboration, not division. Within the Australian Circus world we all have far more in common than we have dividing us, and any perception of ‘Old’ Circus’ and ‘New Circus’ is mostly a combination of shallow reporting in the media and some misinformed extremist animal liberation groups. Artistic diversity is crucial, but community solidarity is also important. From Indigenous Circus, to Contemporary Art-Circus to Animal Acts to Big Tops to Women’s Circus to Sideshow in fact we’re all connected in one way or another by only one or two degrees of separation, so we thought, let’s get us all onto one page, literally. If nothing else it’s a great way to organise a barbeque!”
The Forum, which is free for all members of the Australian circus community to join, features a shared calendar, a multi-layered mapping tool, powerful messaging and chat facilities, and customized moderated categories to host all the various topics shared among the community. Volunteer members of the community will moderate the network. Unlike industry websites which are “view only,” this interactive platform allows full discussion-based engagement, while sidestepping commercialized and overcrowded social networks.