Jenny Vidbel’s grandfather ran away to join the circus; grandma was a showgirl and mom trained lions and bears. It’s no surprise then that at 36, Vidbel finds herself most at home working with animals in the Big Apple Circus ring.
“We were born into this business. It would be kind of hard to leave it because nothing else would compare,” said Vidbel, whose sister is a trapeze artist.
Taking a break from training a black Arabian horse named Ringmaster at a recent rehersal, Vidbel reflected on the state of circuses in 2011.
In the Age of the Internet, where big-budget 3-D films often steal the show when it comes to family entertainment, the circus’s latest production, “Dance On!” still plays to sold-out tents at Cunningham Park.
“In this day and age, you sort of separate children from parents when it comes to entertainment,” Vidbel said, “But this is one thing that’s really stayed true: You see everyone from 3 to 80 enjoying the circus.”
At last Saturday’s show, even the audience member who got water spat at him by Grandma the clown was good-humored. Acts that required audience participation were particularly successful, and adults and children alike sat rapt, marveling at the talent and ingenuity of performers from all over the world. In a special effects culture, performers who do all their own tricks are even more amazing and inspiring.
Vidbel’s goats rode atop several of her white miniature ponies, acrobats from Kenya shimmied up 20-foot poles, Mongolian contortionists gracefully assumed positions that seemed impossible and a Russian performer soared above the audience, hanging upside down from a rope. That was just the tip of the Big Apple Circus iceberg.
It’s no wonder then that Vidbel would be bored with life outside the Big Top. “If we have one day off, we will travel 200 miles to see another circus,” she said, adding that the community is small and becomes a second home. “Our family is no different than your family. We are just here to share our town,” Vidbel said.
The town is an encampment of trailers, dressing rooms, electric generators and vending booths, all without plumbing. Cotton candy and popcorn are abundant and the smell of hotdogs wafts in the air.
There are many crew members including Tentmaster Michael Leclair, who makes sure the big top doesn’t get blown down during a show.
“The circus makes you appreciate a lot — like having running water and electricity,” Vidbel said. She speculated that people who did not grow up in circus families might find it hard to adjust to the lifestyle, but said she could never leave the welcoming environment. “When you perform in this business, everyone and everything is acceptable,” she said.
Big Apple history includes tales of people with names like Buckles Woodcock, the last man to perform with elephants. When he and his animals got old, they all retired in Florida.
Founded in New York City 33 years ago by juggling partners Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, the one-ring European-style circus is one of few nonprofit tents. The Big Apple puts on charity shows and gives away a large portion of its tickets to disadvantaged youth.
However, just because it’s nonprofit doesn’t mean it’s not top notch. The performer’s athleticism is truly remarkable. Andrey Mantchev of Bulgaria hoisted himself straight up into the air using just one arm balanced upon a metal spike. The muscle Mantchev has in his little finger is more than most have in their entire upper body.
One of the most memorable acts, “One Dream Lasso,” was performed by the Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Troupe from China. The act features a type of movement which originated in China during the Han Dynasty. Male and female performers dressed in red fly through the air, jumping through lassos, culminating their performance in an ambitious human pyramid. The music and choreography of the piece is impeccable.
To think that the artistry in Hebei Wuqiao’s act originated so long ago was amazing, but not surprising to Big Apple guest director, Eric Michael Gillett. “Circus has existed in virtually every culture for centuries,” Gillett said. “In each, families have passed down skills from one generation to the next, and with each generation the skills have been refined, the tricks have become more complex. These skills have been brought together under one tent to remind us that it is not language or nationality or gender or religion that binds us together. Ultimately, the human consciousness is joined by the universality of movement and the wonders that the human body can and does achieve.”
Watching the Big Apple Circus, with its timeless brand of entertainment, Gillett’s words ring true.
Big Apple Circus: ‘Dance On’
When: May 26 through 30, June 1 through 5, various times.
Where: Cunningham Park, 196-22 Union Turnpike
Tickets: $15 through $45; children under 3 free.