Big Apple Circus
|This article relies on references to primary sources. (May 2008)|
The idea of starting a circus school to train future "first" generation circus performers was the innovation of Russian born Gregory Fedin and his then wife Nina Krasavina. The school had a humble beginning working out of a Lower Manhattan loft.
The circus couple collaborated with Paul Binder and Michael Christensen to develop the Big Apple Circus following the European style "one ring" circus tradition. In 1977, they located and secured an open grounds area where they could debut the Big Apple Circus. The small green tent was filled with big hearts of performers, families and circus enthusiasts the summer of 1977. Headlining that show was Paul Lubin (Single Trapezist), Ethel Jennier (Dog Act), a tight wire number, Michael and Paul (Jugglers and Clowns), the Back Street Flyers, Mia and Jessie (double trapeze) and a host of performers. This area was located at Battery Park, in New York.
During 1978 the circus moved from Manhattan. By 1979, two circus arts schools had been opened with money raised from the circus shows.
The Big Apple Circus began the 1980s decade with a lot of media attention, having established a special holiday celebration in honor of the circus and its staff, and then appearing in a Hollywood film.
In 1981, the circus began performing at Damrosch Park of Lincoln Center for the first time. Its winter season has been at Damrosch Park ever since. In 1982, the circus won a silver medal at a circus performing competition held in Paris.
By 1984, the New York School for Circus Arts/Big Apple Circus relocated to East Harlem (1 East 104th Street) . The New York School for Circus Arts - in conjunction with the NYC Public School system and ArtsConnection - established the Young Talent Circus Training Program (Mr. Richard Levy's brain-child). The circus program mission was to teach talented children of diverse economic communities circus arts. One of the goals was to nurture and develop talent into potential circus performers. A core group of young circus "talent" participated in a circus competition resulting in a "Gold Medal" award. Three years later another group from the pre-professional circus program (located in the Harbor School for the Performing Arts in East Harlem) would compete in the II Rampe International Circus School Competition in Monte Carlo, Monaco. These students were awarded the Junior Jury and Nice Marin Awards. The New York School for Circus Arts technical and artistic faculty included: Mr. Philip Beder (trampoline, tumbling, acrobatics and gymnastics), Mr. Abel Shark (Back Street Flyer), Mrs. Irina Goldstein (trapeze, acrobatics), Ms. Rosalinda Rojas (aerial, ground acrobatics and choreographer), and Mr. Sasha Pavlata as guest instructor and circus specialist. In 1985, the famous Boston Pops teamed up with Big Apple Circus for an extraordinary collaboration and live performance. That same year (1985) and for the next few years performers Michael Christensen (Big Apple), Deni LaCombe (Big Apple and Cirque Du Soleil), Carlos Guity (Big Apple), Rosalinda Rojas (Big Apple and NYSCA) appear as guest artists with the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center (Manon, Turandot and Macbeth).
One of the biggest steps in the institution's history was taken in 1986, when the circus opened the clown care unit, a group of professional clowns, trained extensively in hospital procedures, circus skills, and improvisation, make rounds as "clown doctors."
1987 marked the circus' tenth anniversary, and big time celebrations were held during the entire year. A new tent and seating system was bought. Topping the tenth anniversary celebrations was a prestigious silver crown, which the circus won in Monte Carlo, Monaco. This year six acrobats/ jugglers showcased their talent at the International Circus School competition in Monte Carlo. The creative and technical (dance and acrobatic) projected was headed by Rosalinda Rojas. Carlos Guity and James Clowny were the two lead pre-professional competitors. Many of these New York School for Circus Arts students advanced to international professional circus careers.
During 1988, the Big Apple Circus once again made headlines, when the company participated in the first circus collaboration between China and the United States in history. "East Meets West" debut at the Lincoln Center Damrosch Park Winter Season. Paul Binder received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Dartmouth College that year.
In 1989, NYNEX started to sponsor metropolitan New York tours to residents of the area and tourists as well. The tour included a trip to the Big Apple Circus' grounds. Michael Christiensen received the Raoul Wallenberg humanitarian award that year for the creation, three years before, of the retired clown's pension program. The same year, the circus and some of its performers were showcased on a Woody Allen movie, Alice. In 1989 also, the circus surpassed the amount of one million dollars in fund raising for the first time.
By 1996, there was increased interest in Big Apple Circus and its performers in cities outside the New York/New England area. This was in part due to the circus' exposure in the Allen film, as well as a result of all the diverse achievements the circus. So, that year, Chicago and Columbus were included in the circus' yearly tour, with those two cities becoming the first two cities outside New York/New England where the circus performed. Michael Christensen received two more awards, including one named after Red Skelton.
The Harlem Hospital Center, founded with funds that came from the Big Apple Circus, was opened that year, and the hospital's pediatric area in particular became a headlining facility, as professional performers specially trained as "clown doctors" would visit perform for patients. HBO aired a special documentary about the circus that year also.
In 1991, Big Apple Circus' performers participated in a collaboration between American and Russian circus performers. That same year, Paul Binder was given a presidential medal of achievement by Dartmouth, as well as a doctorate in fine arts by the Pratt Institute.
In 1993, the circus set a new attendance record. A new tent was purchased, and Michael Christensen was given a Parenting Achievement award by Parents magazine, to recognize his work with the Clown Care Foundation.
Gary Dunning became the Big Circus' executive director in 1994. Meanwhile, Christensen received another award, this one the "Sullivan Trail Sertoma's Club Service to Mankind Award". A creative Center campaign was announced, the coffee brand Chock full o'Nuts began sponsoring the circus, and a new mark was set as far as most funds received during one year.
1997 saw new attendance records set, as an estimated 170,000 people went to see the circus' "Medicine Show" production over a total of 114 New York City performances. Clown Care completed 150,000 hospital visits in one year for the first time in the program's history, and Paul Binder received an honorary doctorate from Rhode Island College.
During 1998, the circus was able to break attendance records again, as it celebrated twenty years of operation with engagements at New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and in Boston. The Boston engagement was particularly pleasant for the circus' performers, as it was one of the longest stays in that city that they had ever experienced. TJ Maxx, a major American company, began to sponsor Big Apple Circus appearances in Chicago and in Atlanta by bringing the circus' "Circus of the Senses" to those cities. Circus of the Senses is a circus performance specifically geared towards children with special needs. Sign language interpreters and sound augmentation for deaf patrons allow the audience to experience the circus as never before. In 1999, over 6,000 children took advantage of these performances.
That same year (1999), Michael Christensen was inducted into Miami's Ambassador David A. Walters pediatric Hall of Fame, for his "contributions to pediatrics" by way of the circus and its different programs.
In 2000, Binder and Christensen continued garnering awards, being declared "Living Landmarks" by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Once again, "Circus of the Senses" attracted a large number of special children, with 9,000 kids participating. The Circus dropped plans for a second unit that was to play in theaters after less than successful financial results during a trial run.
2001 the circus saw the best known performer, clown "Grandma" (Barry Lubin), inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame. A new seating system was installed in the circus big top, and, after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the circus opened its "Dreams of a City" show, which was dedicated to the City of New York. Regular company members included Regina Dobrovitskaya, Andrey Manchev, Valdis Yanovski, and Virgile Peyramaure, all of whom did various acrobatic acts, often doing acts with each other. Only Manchev is still with the show as of 2012.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed November 1, 2002, as "Big Apple Circus Day". A newsletter, "The Ringside Report", was produced and sent exclusively to circus members and donors, and a Clown fashion show raised more than one million dollars, which were promptly transferred to the circus' various charity programs. The circus celebrated its 25th anniversary with a documentary film about the creation and production of that year's show.
Carnevale!, directed by Raffaele De Ritis from Italy , show actors and circus performers Pedro Carrillo and Alesya Gulevich entered the Guinness Book of World Records when, in 2003, they set records, at the same moment, in their different specialities: Carrillo skipped a rope on the high wire 1,323 times in a row, and Gulevich twirled 99 hula hoops at the same time.
"Circus to Go," a travelling stage show, allowed Big Apple Circus to reach new communities. The company ventured to the American Western states for the first time. Michael Christensen, meanwhile, received another honorary certificate, when he was given the "Distinguished Alumni Award" by the University of Washington's arts department. He was also given an award by Exceptional Parents magazine, presented during a Baltimore Orioles baseball home game.
In 2004, the TV documentary created by ABC TV on the Circus received an Emmy award in the "Outstanding Entertainment in Programming Single Program" category.
2005 saw the introduction of a new big top tent. Clown Barry Lubin collaborated with Steve Smith to produce a show entitled "Grandma Goes To Hollywood".
In the 2008-2009 season, filming of a PBS documentary occurred. The documentary, titled "Circus", portrays the lives of not only the performers, but the crew as well. On November 2, 2010, PBS began to air the six-part event. Though each deal with a specific theme, they are also told in a chronological order. The six parts are "First of May", "One Ring Family", "Change On", "Survival of the Fittest", "Born to be Circus", and "Down the Road".
On December 2, 2008, Britney Spears performed her hits Circus & Womanizer in a televised promotion concert on Good Morning America at the Big Apple Circus. The Big Apple Circus went on to become the opening act on her phenomenally successful The Circus Starring Britney Spears world tour.
The 2010-2011 season show was titled "Dance On", while the 2011-2012 season show was themed "Dream Big" and was the farewell tour for the clown character Grandma. Other 2011-2012 performers included the Shandong Acrobatic Troupe, comedy illusionists Scott & Muriel, juggler Dimitry Chernov, Melaine Chy, the Flying Cortes Trapeze troupe, Anna Volodko on the aerial rope, and animal trainer Jenny Vidbel.
- MASLIN NIR, SARAH (November 12, 2010). "Jake and Marty LaSalle, Twin Brothers, End Circus Act". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-12-31.
- EARLE-LEVINE, JULIE (November 13, 2010). "A three-ring drama: Big Apple Circus juggles expenses to survive recession". New York Post. Retrieved 2010-12-31.