“Who wants to fly?”
The booming question was directed at Big Apple Circus audience members one recent chilly February night, shortly after they’d witnessed a stunning balancing act in which a man jumped rope atop a constantly moving platform.
A blond girl in the first row tentatively raised her hand, the kind of gesture that’s made when the answer is “yes” but the person can’t imagine a world in which they’d actually do it. When one of the show’s two slapstick clowns indicated that she was in fact the chosen one, she shot the woman beside her a quick terrified glance before making her way down the aisle.
She was scooped into the arms of a clown, who was attached to the ceiling by a long wire. They became airborne, spinning around the ring at a safe speed as the girl clung to him tightly, an experience she’ll surely not soon forget.
“Only at the circus do we turn our children over to strangers!” a woman shouted to the stranger next to her, while the flying girl’s presumed mom happily captured the moment on a camera phone.
It wasn’t clear if the woman’s comment was meant to pass judgment or give props, but her point was valid: The circus is a place where Murphy’s Law flat-out doesn’t seem to exist. The unique dynamic allows parents to drop their guards and children to experience possibly the most spectacular sights of their young lives. For instance, watching a contortionist use her foot to aim a bedazzled bow and arrow while balancing on her hands in an amazing Egyptian eye-like shape. Everyone cheered when her target, a balloon, popped.
The Big Apple Circus was founded in 1977 after Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, who worked as street performers in Europe, desired an alternative to the “glitz and spectacle of the American three-ring circus,” as circus materials tell it. Now in its 40th anniversary season, a 60-foot-tall tent that can accommodate more than 1,500 people was raised at Verizon Amphitheatre on Jan. 19.
No seat is farther than 50 feet away from the ring, making for an intimate show with acts that command one’s full attention for two hours. When an animal trainer led horses and ponies around the ring’s perimeter, the squeals from some front-row guests indicated their seats were perhaps even too close for comfort.
Big Apple maintains a “no wild or exotic animals” policy, and also demonstrates a social conscience by offering special performances for guests with disabilities. Distinguishing features like that are important during a time when the circus industry is struggling with attendance.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently shut down after 146 years, and Big Apple Circus filed for bankruptcy in 2016. (The company was acquired by BigTop Works last year.) At a recent Thursday night show, there was a smattering of empty seats for a magical performance that deserves a sold-out audience every time.
The tour’s headlining act is the Wallendas Seven Person Pyramid, led by high-wire artist Nik Wallenda, who has walked across Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. The family’s dangerous feat of crossing a high wire in a seven-person pyramid came with a disclaimer about its deadly history and a request for no noise until they’ve safely dismounted on the other side, causing guests to hold their breath. Watching the members coordinate their movements as one was thrilling.
Another seldom-attempted trick came from Ammed Tuniziani, who tried to complete a quadruple somersault on the trapeze. The effort failed when his hands didn’t connect with his partner’s after the midair tumbles, causing him to fall to the net. The crowd hollered anyway, perhaps feeling oddly reassured by the mistake. It served as a reminder that no matter how unbelievably talented these performers are, and as effortless as their artistry can appear, that doesn’t mean it comes easy.
Toward the end of the show, ringmaster Ty McFarlan said something to the effect of: “As long as people like you need to laugh and wonder, the circus will be here.”
Then the performers walked out to the lobby and, like celebrities, posed for pictures with the awestruck guests.
Big Apple Circus
Wednesdays through Sundays through Feb. 25. $30-$99. Lot A at Verizon Amphitheatre, 1775 Founders Parkway, Alpharetta. www.bigapplecircus.com. An “Embracing Autism Performance” will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 10.