For several months each year, The Big Apple Circus pulls its muddy trailers and tents into the superlative air of Lincoln Center. Here, in the company of lean ballet dancers with elegant posture and sopranos with voices akin to angels, the Big Apple Circus stakes its claim as a classic art form. It’s incongruous: A messy circus with bales of hay and cotton candy wrappers plunked in this epicenter of high art. But the circus ring has always been a showcase for performance artistry, a place where athleticism, humor and human physical potential are on full display. In this collection from PBS’s upcoming series, CIRCUS, we shine a spotlight on the artistry and athletic prowess under the big top.
Circus Content Producer Helyn Trickey writes:
A successful big top production is part muscle, part magic and part technical precision, and, according to the Big Apple Circus Artistic Director Guillaume Dufresnoy, whose guiding hand is behind all the hoopla, what an audience really craves is an authentic moment.
“You want to see the acrobat sweat,” Dufresnoy says. “It is our job to make things look easy, but it’s still a person who is really doing these amazing things. It’s real and there’s a vulnerability in doing something that is incredibly difficult and having all of these people looking at you.”
Dufresnoy says his professional challenge is to meld many disparate acts into one coherent, entertaining show. What’s his trick? He chooses performers who build connection with an audience and then couples their acts with a relevant, inviting theme. From there, Dufresnoy charts the emotional flow of a show, shuffling out one act for another until he’s convinced the audience will react with the appropriate emotion to each performance.
“The ability to make contact with the audience is a very, very, very important skill,” he says. “The performers that we pick ... project their energy and enjoy what they do. Also, we make contact with the audience in the staging that we do. We try to embrace the audience at all the times. If a clown makes one direct contact with one audience member each night, that authenticity reaches everyone [under the big top],” says Dufresnoy.
Choosing a theme on which to hang a season’s show is also crucial to the production, and Dufresnoy says he prefers to engage a guest director who comes to the job with strong ideas. And it’s important to nail down a theme early on in the planning stages so the performers he recruits can rally around the motif.
“The types of themes that work best are visual,” says Dufresnoy, who recalls a favorite of his from the 2004-2005 Big Apple Circus season - Picturesque. “It was based on the ... works from famous painters and sculptors, and it was just wonderful.”
Equally important to the emotional impact of a circus production is the flow, or cathartic rise and fall, of the show. Should the clowns come before the acrobats? And where should the jugglers appear so that the tension and energy of the production remain intact?
“[In each production] there’s a funny moment, a romantic moment, an energetic moment, and we go through all of those moments in all of the shows,” says Dufresnoy.
To plan an artful production order, Dufresnoy and his team consider the experience and technical difficulty of each act. Aerial acts that require wires and nets cannot be placed too close to one another in the show order because the time it would take to change out the gear between performances would deflate the audience’s energy. Also, the show must begin with a thrill and take the audience on a wild ride of emotional turns, allowing patrons time to come down from taut, death-defying acts and easily slide into gentle, humorous moments.
“I love going on when the tension is so high from the act before, and then here comes this clown who brings it back down to the real,” says Big Apple Clown Mark Gindick. He admits that launching himself into the limelight following a nail-biter trapeze act is a delicious opportunity to manhandle the crowd. “I think [a clown] is a heightened everyman, and I have the same impulses that the audience may have.”
Dufresnoy agrees that clowns have a specific role to play in the midst of the high drama of circus performance. “Comedy is fragile ... and we need comedy pieces to come into the show at a specific time. A clown must bring relief from the fear of an act failing.”
The key to creating a two-hour circus production that lifts the audience out of the mundane and into the razzle dazzle thrill of the circus is building a show that subtly challenges the crowd to believe that the impossible is possible. And while the audience is busy watching the ring, their eyes wide at the spectacle and drama, Dufresnoy and his team study them, assessing the moments when the audience gets distracted or bored or mesmerized.
“Everyday there is a little change [to the show]. We tinker with the show order until we get it just right, but there are always surprises ... and also a little magic,” he says.