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How Stephanie Monseu became the ruler of the ring at the 41st edition of the show
This may be the first year that Stephanie Monseu is standing in the spotlight at the Big Apple Circus at Lincoln Center, but she's been training for the job for more than two decades. A veteran variety and neo-vaudeville performer, she cofounded the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in 1995 and has traveled the country charming crowds with her fire-eating, whip-cracking, stilt-walking and fast-talking. But for her latest gig, the statuesque star serves as the poised presence at the center of the swirl, a warm and stylish host welcoming audiences of all ages to the big top.
"It's such an incredible artistic opportunity," says Monseu, who admits she's had her eye on the position ever since she emceed a one-off special event in the Big Apple tent a few years back. "Standing in that ring just felt so natural and exciting and fabulous. I let it be known to a few of the folks in the organization that I would love to be a ringmistress for the show at some point."
When the Big Apple Circus went belly up in 2016, it looked like Monseu's dream was done. And yet circus is all about defying the odds, and a year later the troupe was resurrected, giving her another shot.
"I got an invitation to audition in May," Monseu recalls. "I heard that they went to me and one other person who was male, but the rumor was they were thinking about a female this year. I figured if they were looking for a woman I was definitely going to get this!"
Even though this marks Monseu's Big Apple debut, she's working with a lot of old friends. The two comedic characters, Adam Kuchler and Mark Gindick who clown around with Monseu in between the acts, have collaborated with her at Bindlestiff, and the director of this edition, Mark Lonergan, first met her 14 years ago. He actually credits Monseu with introducing him to his longtime artistic collaborator, Joel Jeske, who then brought him over to the Big Apple Circus. "In a way, the whole genesis of my own company, Parallel Exit, and my involvement with Big Apple is thanks to Stephanie," says Lonergan. "So it's like we've come full circle."
These kinds of connections are common in the insular world of the circus, with colleagues constantly offering one another a leg up -- particularly these days with the demise of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. While Monseu admits that the business is changing, she thinks rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. "American audiences are looking for a more intimate experience," she says, a boon for the Big Apple Circus since no seat is more than 50 feet from the stage. "The arena shows became as popular as they did because there wasn't much else for families to do together. American life was much more rural, so when a big giant show came around, thousands of people would come from the entire region, and you needed a lot of entertainment power to keep them interested. Circus as our grandparents knew it may be a thing of the past, but circus as an artistic expression of the human need for wonder and magic will always persist."
There's certainly lots of wonder and magic at the Big Apple Circus this year, including Victor Moiseev's physics-defying horizontal juggling; the sexy Desire of Flight aerial straps routine; the troupe's first-ever double-wide trapeze act the Flying Tuniziani; and the return of regular Jenny Vidbel with her adorable dogs and horses. But the performance that really has audiences cheering is Duo Fusion, a husband-and-wife balancing team where the traditional roles are reversed: she lifts him. "I've definitely heard people going, 'Wow!'" says Monseu. "They can't believe they're seeing Virginia balancing her husband, wearing three-inch heels no less! Any young girl coming to the show will find different female personalities and skills and body types to look up to."
Big Apple's infusion of strong women feels well-timed, especially since the company had a #MeToo moment earlier this year when stalwart star Grandma the Clown resigned due to inappropriate behavior. But lest anyone think the circus is dominated by men, Monseu is quick to point out that women have a long and proud history in the industry.
"If you look at the theatrical touring circuses, they have a strong female presence," she says. "I think it only feels 'new' to some people because the Big Apple Circus is a little more mainstream What I think is amazing is that our general manager is a woman, our company manager is a woman and there are a lot of women in power behind the scenes as well." She also notes that she's not Big Apple's inaugural female ringmaster: "Vanessa Thomas was the first, Carrie Harvey came later and Jenna Robinson was the brilliant singing ringmistress in 2011."
Judging from the diverse fans waiting to take photos with the performers after the show, the appeal of the circus continues to transcend boundaries, not just gender but age and culture, too. "People love circus because it's aspirational," Monseu says. "You look up into the air and you see these flawless athletes and artists performing something that seems impossible. Circus is about rising to the challenge of anything we face in life. You leave inspired to work harder at whatever it is you do."
Top image: Ringmaster Stephanie Monseu in the Big Apple Circus. Photos by Juliana Crawford.