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When Big Apple Circus Founder Paul Binder and Co-founder Michael Christensen first began performing their comedic juggling act at the Nouveau Cirque de Paris in the mid-1970s, they both remember peeking out from behind the heavy curtains of the French circus, their nerves jangling up and down their spines as they prepared to perform themselves. The two of them watched breathlessly as the clowns goofed with each other in the ring and the beautiful acrobats sailed high across the big top. Binder and Christensen heard the intoxicating laughter of the audience.
"We were peering into this delicious world, and we were 9 or 10 years-old again," says Christensen. "I remember looking at Paul and Paul looking at me and we said to each other, 'Do you believe it? We're in the circus!'"
For both young artists, this moment was pivotal.
"Everything led to and came from that experience," says Binder, who just months before had been a street performer with Christensen on the boulevards and avenues of major European cities, including Paris. The two young Americans had been earning their dinners and travel money with a comedic juggling act that included passing a number of objects back and forth to each other, including a rubber chicken named Leonard, as they joked with one another in broken French. A theater usher who urged them to audition for famous choreographer Roland Petit discovered the duo on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. From that audition, Binder and Christensen landed a television appearance. Serendipitously, famed circus stars Annie Fratellini and her husband Pierre Etaix saw the young performers on the broadcast and asked them to join the first tour of the Nouveau Cirque de Paris. Binder and Christensen jumped at the opportunity.
"There was a sense of coming home when we discovered the circus," Christensen says.
Just as their route to the circus had been circuitous and improbable, Binder and Christensen's friendship and partnership was an unlikely pairing, too.
Binder and Christensen hail from opposite ends of the United States and two very different environments. Binder was born in Brooklyn, attended Dartmouth undergraduate and received an MBA from Columbia University. After school, Binder got a gig working as a stage manager for Julia Child and as a talent coordinator for The Merv Griffin Show.
Christensen was born in Walla Walla, Washington, a small, rural community approximately four hours from Seattle by car. He attended the University of Washington, enrolling in the Professional Actor Training program.
Though they didn't know each other, both Binder and Christensen yearned for more meaningful life experiences. Each moved to San Francisco during the turbulent early 1970s and joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a group of actors who hoped to spark social change through in-your-face political street theater. The mime troupe introduced Binder and Christensen to the art of juggling and each other.
In the early 1970s, Binder and Christensen decided to see the world, beginning with Europe, and they planned to pay their way by performing a juggling street act that emphasized the passing of objects between them as they bantered in stilted French. The duo performed all over Europe, landing in Greece and Istanbul, before settling in to a routine in Paris.
"Imagine us on the street: It's very clear. You either entertain people or you don't get any money in your hat," says Christensen. We did our show on the street and we cultivated an unpretentious joy in our juggling act. Now, imagine that dynamic, draw a circle around it, add some other acts and you've got a circus. That spirit that we found on the street with the people and joy, that same joy lead us to the circus."
After discovering the intimacy and art of the European one-ring circus, Binder dreamed of importing that same experience to his hometown, New York City.
"There was nothing like this in America," says Binder. It (The Nouveau Cirque de Paris) was so inspirational ... This kind of circus is a cultural event: It's about touching people, and it went hand-in-hand with our ideas of community outreach."
He was sure that New York City would rally around the idea of an intimate circus and school dedicated to artistic expression, and he hoped his performance partner would, too. Christensen leapt at the opportunity.
From the beginning the partners had clear roles, much as they had developed in their performance partnership. Binder became the front man and business manager, and Christensen assumed the creative director role in various capacities.
"That was the dynamic when we were two, and it's the same today. We never imagined it would be this big or that we would touch so many peoples' lives," Christensen says.
On July 18, 1977, the not-for-profit Big Apple Circus came to life in Battery Park, New York, when it raised its tent and hosted more than 45,000 patrons during its first 10-week season. Of course, the birth of the Big Apple Circus was not without its complications: Binder and Christensen clawed the air for funding sources, and the original tent was badly constructed and nearly stopped the show from debuting. But the tenacity and vision of the partners, along with a great number of friends and benefactors, never wavered.
"You can romanticize the circus life — and it's a bloody hard life — but the payoff is in the ring, making people laugh, and being bathed in that connection," says Christensen.
The Early Years
Paul and Michael recount the early days of their partnership as street jugglers.