All over the United States, the arrival of the circus is an anticipated yearly event, met with excitement by people of all ages, and forgotten once the tent is dismantled and the act leaves town.
But for the performers — the ones who wow us with their daring feats and make us laugh with their slapstick humour — the circus is more than just a fleeting spectacle to see once a year. For them, the circus is a family, a career, and a way of life.
In mid-January, one of the most acclaimed circuses on earth, the Big Apple Circus, took down its tents at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, ending another successful run of shows. Before they headed off to do it all again in Bridgewater, New Jersey, we met with a few of the star performers to see what circus life is like behind the big top.
Every year for the past 38 years, New York's historic Big Apple Circus has performed over 300 shows in five different venues on the East Coast. During its Manhattan run, which ended last week, circus performers put on 135 shows and entertained over 162,000 fans in a one-ring tent behind Lincoln Center.
For its performers, the circus is a way of life and a career path. We had the chance to go behind the curtain of Big Apple Circus three days before it departed for New Jersey, to chat with the cast.
Travelling 10 to 11 months out of the year, life on the road can be lonely and unstable. Fortunately, troupe members become surrogate families.
They all live together on-site, in trailers parked next to the circus tent. Some residents have bicycles or plastic Adirondack chairs sitting outside their homes, and they visit each other often.
Their little trailer park is home to many interesting animals, such as camels, horses, llamas, miniature ponies, goats, seven dogs, and a teacup pig, all of whom are also performers in the show.
Trapeze artists Alexey Maximov and Elena Utkina (pictured) and their son lead an untraditional family life. The tent's backstage area is this four-year-old's playground. Within minutes of curtain close, Utkina wages a snowball fight against him.
His dad, Alexey Maximov, began studying at a circus school in Moscow at the age of 18. After learning various areas of the trade, he settled on gymnastics. By the time he graduated, he had a trapeze routine down and has been performing ever since. He's traveled the world and gone through five passports seeing places like China, Turkey, Belgium, and Germany, making all sorts of friends along the way.
Maximov says his favourite part of his job is the crowds' reaction when he performs. While some acts may not translate well in other countries, trapeze artists 'speak with their performance,' he says. It's universally enjoyed.
Maximov is also in charge of the final trick of the show, when he drops headfirst from high above the net before contorting his body at the last moment to avoid a broken neck. Maximov says he hopes to be working in the circus in some capacity for a long time. 'I can't imagine life without the circus,' he says.
Like Maximov's son, many people in the circus were born into the life. Tatevik 'Tato' Seyranyan is a third-generation Armenian circus performer. Her grandfather, who Tato names as her role model, performed as a high wire performer until he was 76.
Tato herself began performing at the age of three. At 10, she began doing the Rolla Bolla, balancing on stacked rolling cylinders while juggling and performing other feats, an act she still does today. She performs feats of flexibility too, like the one seen below.
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Tato has been travelling in one circus or another her entire life and says the inconsistency and difficulty keeping up with friends can be hard. But, she says, if you love the circus like she does, 'everything is good.' Tato says she practices everyday, saying, 'The amount of hours I practice depends on how many times I mess up.'
Other performers aren't from a circus background. Ringleader John Kennedy Kane, who comes from a long line of 'politicians and used car salesmen,' says he was obsessed with the circus from a young age. He would spend days milling around the midway and visiting the freak show. His family allowed him to pursue the circus after high school, thinking it was just a phase. More than 30 years later, he's still at it.
Kane initially joined a three-ring circus, working as a magician in the sideshow. He learned how to eat fire and became 'Kanen, the Human Volcano.' Still his dream of being the ring master remained. After performing as a clown for fifteen years, Kane was recruited by the Big Apple Circus when they saw him performing a one-man play he had written. He's been the ringmaster at the Big Apple for three years now.
The Anastasini family dynasty stretches back nine generations, and has earned worldwide acclaim for the sheer perfection of their acts. Mother, father, and two sons currently perform the diabolo juggling (pictured) and Risley acts, which use the hands and feet.
Giuliano Anastasini, 25, grew up 'normal,' he says, attending public schools and living with his grandparents. When he was 15 or 16, he decided he wanted to take on his father's act, the Risley.
He and his younger brother, Giovanni, practice the act every day for 20 minutes and travel all over Europe and the US performing. 'It's like playing sports,' Giuliano says. 'You're going to have days when you're untouchable, and days when you look like crap.'
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It's brought the brothers a lot closer. 'He's the one who falls, but I get more scared,' Giuliano says. 'He's my responsibility.'
No one knows the struggle of an inconsistent routine better than Jenny Vidbel, the show's lead animal trainer. She's constantly changing the act to keep the animals from getting bored.
She grew up on, and now owns, a farm in upstate New York where she trains elephants, leopards, and other exotic animals. 'They were my classmates, my babysitters,' Vidbel laughs. The teacup pig sleeps in her trailer.
When the Big Apple Circus ends in June, Vibdel and her animals will return to the farm. The rest of the performers will pack up, take some much-needed vacation time, and find the next gig.
A circus doesn't typically hire the same act two seasons in a row, because the show needs to be fresh for returning audiences.
Still, having made it to The Big Apple Circus is an accomplishment, one performer tells us. 'It's one of the few top shows in the US. I'd love to be back,' he says.
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