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For its 46th edition, the venerable NYC troupe has reinvented its vibe thanks to a collaboration with Germany's Circus-Theater Roncalli
Going to see the Big Apple Circus over the holidays has been a beloved tradition for multiple generations of New York families—my mother began taking me in the late '70s and I introduced my daughter to the homegrown troupe 30 years later. Even though I've seen dozens of shows by the company, this year's edition, Journey to the Rainbow, a collaboration with Germany's venerated Circus-Theater Roncalli, feels like a fresh start. That's exactly what CEO Marty LaSalle, a former Big Apple Circus juggler, likes to hear.
"The show is definitely quite different from the previous 10 years, but I actually feel that it reconnects Big Apple Circus to what it was in the '80s and '90s," he says. "At the same time, we're trying to move the company forward."
It's no secret that the troupe—along with the entire circus industry—has struggled over the past decade. Founded in 1977 by Michael Christensen and Paul Binder, who served as ringmaster and artistic director for years, Big Apple Circus filed for bankruptcy in 2016. Just a year later, it was resurrected… then the pandemic hit. In 2021, the troupe was sold to new owners, including high-wire legend Nik Wallenda, who headlined the shows the last two years. But for 2023, LaSalle and his cohorts knew audiences were itching for new thrills. Collaborating with Circus-Theater Roncalli was a way to honor Big Apple Circus' history while setting the stage for its future.
According to LaSalle, Binder and Christensen were inspired to create the Big Apple Circus after taking a trip to Europe and watching local street performers and troupes. Almost simultaneously, Bernhard Paul launched Circus-Theater Roncalli in Germany. "They were both quite groundbreaking at the time and influenced by the same sources, they come from the same spirit," says LaSalle. "So, this really reconnects Big Apple to its roots." A costume, prop and picture-filled exhibit in the big top's lobby tracing the companies' respective histories further drives home their kinship.
Now Big Apple Circus is giving Circus-Theater Roncalli—a company long adored throughout Europe and endorsed by Andy Warhol—its US debut in a spectacle that isn't just a nonstop cavalcade of daredevil acts. Instead, it conjures a mesmerizing and merry atmosphere with dolled-up dancers, eclectic clowns, live musicians and, of course, death-defying acrobats and aerialists.
"You don't have to see so much the acts, you have to see the whole show," says director Patrick Philadelphia, a lifelong performer from a multigenerational circus family who became CEO of the Roncalli Group this past August. "The Roncalli show, it's a frame. And in the frame are many things, like a mosaic or a puzzle."
Unlike recent Big Apple Circus productions, Journey to the Rainbow has no plot or ringmaster. In between incredible acts like gravity-defying foot juggler Emma Phillips from New Zealand, gold-painted acrobatic gods Trio Confido from Hungary, sensual aerialists Iryna Galenchyk and Vladyslav Drobinko from Ukraine, and terrific trapeze duo Julian Kaiser and Christophe Gobet from Germany, the show casts a spell with stunning visuals that evoke a variety of European eras, near-constant music and quiet moments that demand you lean in, such as clown blanc Angelo from Mexico playing a somber tune on the saxophone. "It really is about creating this magical world of colorful vignettes," says LaSalle. There's also lots of audience interaction, especially with the clowns. "We need direct communication with the audience because we don't do tricks," says Devlin Bogino, a charming clown from France who spends much of the show capering up and down the aisles. "We have a great connection with New Yorkers. They seem very, very happy. We are giving them something they didn't expect and they are happy to be surprised."
Although Roncalli mounted a show called Journey to the Rainbow back in the '80s, Philadelphia and LaSalle stress that this is a brand-new production created specifically for the Big Apple Circus. "We didn't just take a preexisting show and import it to the US," explains LaSalle, who consulted with his "close friend and mentor," Big Apple Circus cofounder Paul Binder, throughout the creative process. "We put this together specifically for New York, and we talked a lot about how to make sure that the show has a layer of sophistication but can still entertain 3- and 4-year-olds for two hours."
Reinventing an annual staple was a risk for both troupes, but so far it seems to be paying off. Journey to the Rainbow earned a Critic's Pick in The New York Times and is selling so well, it just announced a two-week extension through January 15, 2024.
While it remains to be seen whether the two companies will continue to work together, LaSalle is keeping an open mind. "The circus is an expansive form that can contain all types of collaborations and disciplines," he says. "I think that the intimacy and the immediacy of what we present is what's compelling. It's the power of people doing extraordinary things in front of you and creating a magical world."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Big Apple Circus. Log in to your account and search for the Big Apple Circus: Journey to the Rainbow. Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre and concerts.