Big Apple Circus Review: A Show That Bends Over Backward for You

If confetti supplies have plummeted, if a spangle shortage now afflicts Manhattan, blame a tent at the southwestern corner of Lincoln Center. Yes, the Big Apple Circus has returned and for a little over a month New York will glimmer more brightly.

In recent years, a return has been less certain. In 2016, after operating as a nonprofit for nearly 40 years, the original outfit shut down and filed for bankruptcy. An affiliate of a corporate restructuring firm bought it in 2017, then switched out its management and character several times. In 2021, it was sold again, to a corporation that counts the famed aerialist Nik Wallenda as a minority owner, and became a bit more death-defying.

The German troupe Circus Theater Roncalli has given up using live animals but in one routine three performers pretended to be trained polar bears. Credit…Ye Fan for The New York Times

This season, Big Apple has imported the German troupe Circus Theater Roncalli, which is mostly a cause for rejoicing. Roncalli stands as a skillful and endearing example of the form, a company steeped in circus classics, yet capable in most if not all ways, of moving with the times.

It is sad that New York can no longer support a circus of its own and that Big Apple has become an intellectual property asset rather than a group enmeshed in the life of the city. But there’s nothing like an aerial balance act — or two, as is the case in “Circus Theater Roncalli: Journey to the Rainbow” — to make audiences forget all of that. Besides, this is New York. Who is from here anyway? Call it sequin diplomacy.

Last weekend the mood in the tent was giddy and rapturous, with the younger spectators revved up on cotton candy and the older ones excited perhaps by the sight of at least four prestige TV stars sitting near the ring. A clown meandered amid the rows as an orchestra played frisky versions of classical and popular songs.

Iryna Galenchyk’s aerial act with her partner is a wonder of strength and grace.Credit…Ye Fan for The New York Times
The Roncalli company is steeped in circus classics, with acts like the Kirichenko acrobatic group.Credit…Ye Fan for The New York Times

The show proper opens with Noel Aguilar’s fizzy juggling act, which began with batons and continued with Ping-Pong balls. (Ever caught a kernel of popcorn in your mouth? Imagine that, but in time to the music.) The finale involved straw hats, thrown like Frisbees. Aguilar dropped the odd baton and missed the occasional hat, which made the routine more impressive, because it showed what it took to excel.

He ceded the stage to Andrey Romanovsky’s rubber leg contortionist act, in which Romanovsky skipped rope while bent over backward. He was replaced by a tightrope walker (the tightropes were, thankfully, near to the ground) and then by an acrobatics act in which the performers were dressed like members of Marie Antoinette’s court. They gave way to Iryna Galenchyk and Vladyslav Drobinko, whose romantic paired aerial act is a wonder of strength and grace. Throughout there were appearances by four clowns, all of whom were legitimately funny, a circus rarity. One, Paquin Jr., had great success with a routine that may have sacrificed a Cabbage Patch doll.

The gift of the circus, wherever it’s from, our critic writes, is that it gives a glimpse of the extraordinary within the everyday.Credit…Ye Fan for The New York Times

Roncalli has given up using live animals (a sensible and respectable choice for any circus, though I do miss the Big Apple’s former dog and cat acts). But the second half began with a puzzling routine in which three performers in fur suits pretended to be trained polar bears. This was followed by a bicycle act and a sequence in which three gold-painted performers balanced atop one another, like statues come to life. No less singular, if much more hectic, was Emma Phillips’s foot juggling routine, in which she made an end table and a couple of antimacassars revolve atop her toes. A steampunk bubble routine delighted the children; a trapeze act, featuring Christoph Gobet and Julian Kaiser balancing, impossibly, foot to foot, made their mothers gasp.

This is the gift of the circus, wherever it’s from: a glimpse of the extraordinary within the everyday, a vision of what time, tenacity and a heedless approach to muscle strain can achieve. And cotton candy, too? What glitter. What joy.

Big Apple Circus
Through Jan. 1 at Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

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