“Can I take you to the circus for your birthday?”
This is the invitation I texted to my *adult* friend a few weeks before he turned 37. After years of walking past the Big Apple Circus and seeing its blue-and-white-striped big top peeking out from behind the comparatively austere facade of the the Metropolitan Opera and the NYC Ballet, I found myself finally giving in to the desire to find out what was inside.
In a town as wild and ridiculous as New York, it might seem redundant to pay money to go see the circus, but the flashing lights of Times Square and the call of “showtime” have some stiff competition from the many acts that dazzle under the spotlights inside the surprisingly intimate big top of the Big Apple Circus.
We were lucky enough to experience the Big Apple Circus as VIPs, a fact which encouraged me to find as many opportunities as I could to tell friends — and strangers — that I was going to be a VIP at the circus. “Yes, I would like two cheese slices please… and a soda -- because I have to stay hydrated as I’ll be attending the circus as a VIP tonight.” This is a hard, but worthwhile thing to try to work into conversations, and confused pizza vendors aside, most people were pretty jealous.
As VIP guests, we were directed past the ticket check-in and up the stairs to a round, wooden building which the host who greeted us explained was a 100 year-old “spiegeltent.” Imagine an old carousel which, instead of being lined with horses was walled in with beautifully hand-cut mirrors and lined with delicately carved wooden booths and tables. An early 20th century invention, this particular spiegeltent is one of only a few left in the world and was originally used as a traveling dance hall, bar and entertainment salon in Europe. It arrived in NYC from Paris in 3,000 pieces and has been reassembled in all it glory as the VIP tent for the Big Apple Circus. If you ever watched Carnivale (please someone film the final season to that HBO fever dream) or wanted to have a vintage circus set as the backdrop for your next Instagram photo shoot, you’ll be in heaven. The free VIP drink menu and snacks don’t hurt either, we warmed up for the main event by drinking circus-themed cocktails with Twizzler straws and munching on popcorn and cotton candy which had been artfully laid out inside the tent. If your six-year old self could imagine what going to the circus as an adult would be like, this would be it.
And then there was the show. Although we had excellent seats at the edge of the ring, the big top tent is quite cozy and I imagine every seat gives an interesting perspective on the different acts. And oh, there were so many acts… Flying ballerinas, a female “strongman” who performs with her strongman husband, a mystical man who spins glowing orbs, daredevil trapeze artists, trained ponies and dogs, clowns (but not the creepy kind), a man who climbed an infinite ladder into the sky ... I have to admit that my attention span has shortened thanks to too much time on the Internet (shout out to all those YouTube rabbit holes!) but the pace of the circus stayed ahead of it, with something new happening every second and a new act coming on just as you were hoping to see more from the one onstage.
This circus is built to rival the tiny distraction factories in our pockets and kept our eyes darting from place to place for every joyful minute. “Look over there!,” we’d call out just in time to see the ringmaster pop up in the stands or a tiny pony running into the ring inside a bright spotlight. These distractions were meant to shift our attention away from the changing of props and sets between acts only to bring it back again with an explosion of lights or the flash of shiny new costumes flouncing into the ring. And you don’t begrudge the trick because this masterful command of your attention, this joyful misdirection, is what you have come for.
If you’re averse to the circus because of worries about the treatment of animals or people -- there are no worries here. The only performing animals (other than the humans) are rescued horses and dogs whose joy at doing their jobs practically radiates through the stands. And the trapeze artists fly with the greatest of ease across safety nets, so the “death-defying” acts they perform aren’t literally so. All of this allows you to simply enjoy it all and to ponder how wonderful it is that people still join the circus. When most people can’t figure out how to put their liberal arts degree to work, it’s wonderful to watch a parade of people with such an unusual skill set plying their trade in front of you. The world cannot be filled with trapeze artists and trick riders, we need people to be dentists and to work at marketing agencies and to collect the trash, but thank heavens for the brave little girls who grow up to be strongmen and the men who grow up to be actual, literal clowns.
As we munched on popcorn and pulled at fluffy strands of cotton candy, the happiness of the circus began to take over. All the cynicism, anxiety and stress of the current climate was momentarily suspended, like the graceful ballerina in front of us -- hanging from a ribbon in the air. The circus invites you to be a child again, and if you are willing to accept its invitation you can briefly experience that pure wonder that comes from being fully immersed in what you see in front of you.
Enjoy these live-sketches from the show!
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