For its 35th anniversary season, the Big Apple Circus’s new production, “Legendarium,” is looking back. Way back. As ringmaster John Kennedy Kane informs us, “We’re going to take you back to the origins of the Big Top.” It’s a neat setup. The affable ringmaster’s introductions help provide context for the acts with little narratives recalling pivotal moments and fun facts from circus history. (Did you know the man who invented the flying trapeze in 1859, Jules Léotard, also invented the traditional flier’s garment, the leotard?)
A tone of nostalgia is also reflected in the muted set backdrop, some of the costumes, and mostly traditional-style music. It’s all fairly straightforward and low-tech.
Unfortunately, at Saturday afternoon’s performance, it was also a little low-energy and lackluster overall, more routine than magical. Some of the performances, like the silks and solo trapeze, were puzzlingly brief and decidedly underwhelming.
But sprinkled throughout the show are some memorable standout acts. Contortionist Elayne Kramer is a knockout, offering a stunning display of strength, balance, and flexibility, including some angled backbend poses supported only by one hand or by clenching a mouthpiece in her teeth. A sixth-generation circus performer from Argentina, she has the hypermobility of a pipe cleaner, twisting and angling her body into eye-popping coils and zigzags with extraordinary control and fluidity. Her grand finish is bursting a balloon by shooting a bow and arrow with her feet — while upside down balancing on her hands.
Menno van Dyke’s and Emily Weisse’s routine cleverly combines juggling with the tango. He does most of the work, while she contributes the occasional catch or toss, periodically sneaking in amongst pins and balls for a lift, lunge, embrace, or burst of fancy footwork. It’s charming and artfully done. It’s also a treat to see Daniel Cyr performing with the Cyr Wheel device he invented 10 years ago (and now is used by 200 acrobats around the world). He makes visual poetry out of the motion of the large metal hoop, in and around which he swings, spins, and twirls. At first, he treats the hoop as a contraption he tries to tame. But after a masterful performance, he sets the hoop loose in its own orbit and he sits down in the middle. The hoop slowly winds down its spin, gently encircling him.
Animals are back in the mix, and Jenny Vidbel’s dogs are totally adorable. However, while her horses are gorgeous, they are more frisky than precise. And instead of featuring them in the trick riding finale, which ended the first circus 200 years ago, this production ends with seven girls from China’s Dalian Troupe offering impressive skills on bicycles: tight formations, wheelies, double-decker tricks on seats and handlebars, even some jumps from cycle to cycle. And the finale brings us back to present day. Instead of the mostly traditional-style music Rob Slowik and his excellent band have been playing most of the show, this colorful, urban-styled routine features an arrangement of Britney Spears’s “Circus.”
One of the show’s biggest weaknesses is the clowns, the husband and wife Acrobuffos (Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone), whose brand of humor stems primarily from roping members of the audience into doing their foolish bidding. Granted, Barry Lubin’s Grandma, who retired from Big Apple Circus last year, is a hard act to follow. However, the most interesting aspect of these two, who, in accordance with early clowning, wear masks instead of makeup, is not their schtick but Gelsone’s costume. It features a voluminous ball-padded rear end that gets her stuck going up a narrow staircase and lets her bounce on the ground when she falls.
But when Gelsone threw popcorn in patrons’ faces and awkwardly clambered over the laps of audience members, my coulrophobic teenage daughter leaned over and whispered, “Now you see why I hate clowns.”