"For me, founding Big Apple Circus was an act of love," says the legendary Paul Binder. For founders Michael Christensen and Paul Binder, that love began as jugglers on the streets of Europe. Their talents would take them from London to Istanbul, eventually landing them in the Nouveau Cirque de Paris. "Being in the circus ring gave me such a charge of energy," says Binder. "I was amazed at the spirit it conjured in me and the audience; and I wanted to bring that back home.". Home was New York City, where in 1977 the juggling duo would establish the Big Apple Circus. "From the beginning, our mission was to be a world-class performing arts institution and simultaneously serve the communities in which we perform."
For nearly four decades Big Apple Circus has fulfilled its mission of thrilling patrons of every stripe and walk of life with their special brand of intimate fun, laughter, and artistic excellence; and as is its mission, that circus magic extends beyond the confines of the big top but well into the heart of the community with their various programs. Clown Care ensures patients are prescribed a hearty dose of laughter and companionship. Circus After School, one of the first programs created by the Big Apple Circus, gives at-risk youth an opportunity to learn the benefits of discipline, teamwork, and confidence through circus arts. Vaudeville Caravan makes its way to nursing facilities and never fails to rekindle the wonder of the circus in the hearts of its residents. Circus For All® makes it possible for tens of thousands who might otherwise be unable to attend Big Apple Circus to acquire a ticket to the show. Circus of the Senses ® allows the visually and hearing impaired, as well as, those with various disabilities to experience the show through state of the art technology, American Sign Language, and "touch sessions." "I realize what a difference we're making here," says Big Apple Circus headliner Jenny Vidbel. "We have accommodations that allow many to feel very much a part of the experience.".
My family and I have enjoyed many productions under that famous tent at Lincoln Center, and on every occasion the feeling has been one of merriment and enchantment with lots of popcorn and a few rounds of cotton candy. In fact, during our most recent outing my daughter got to take on star clown Joel Jeske in a bout of musical chairs. Poor Joel never had a chance. Certainly being Ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® has its perks, as I get to also enjoy the company of these wonderful artists following the show. However I, like so many people who enjoy this one ring extravaganza, didn't realize until recently that Big Apple Circus only exists because of the generosity of the public and corporate donors. "People think we're too much fun to be a non-profit," says Executive Director William Weiss. But, alas the fun needs funds if it is to continue to create world-class shows and serve the public. "We need to raise $2 million before the end of July," says Paul Binder.
The circus continues to feel the ripple effects of the economic crash of 2008. A number of its corporate donors who would buy entire shows annually have simply vanished. There's also been a series of unforeseen events that have left this storied institution in financial distress. I know this kind of distress intimately. As a proud alumnus of The Boys Choir of Harlem, also a New York artistic treasure, I can recall how financial distress seemed to loom over us. Year after year, it seemed the Choir simply could not meet its needs until suddenly it was gone. A song of hope for so many is no more. Such stories are far too common, particularly for artistic organizations that are vital for cultivating the communities they serve. There's a gaping wound that is created when such institutions cease to exist, and we are clearly not better off for it.
For Jenny Vidbel, it is not the possibility of losing her means of employment that troubles her. "Circus performers are survivors," says the third generation circus artist. "We can always find work and ways of supporting ourselves," she continues. "It's about losing almost 40 years of a family tradition. It's about having an opportunity to inspire taken away." One of those opportunities to inspire occurred at a performance not very long ago. One of the more intimate features of Big Apple Circus' most recent production, The Grand Tour, were pony rides following the show, presided over by Jenny Vidbel. During one particular performance, Jenny, was approached by a mother whose autistic son desperately wanted to ride a pony. "He was very nervous, but he made his way onto the pony with me at his side," recalls Vidbel. "As he began riding around the ring this huge smile appeared on his face and he started to shout, 'Mom! I'm doing this! Yes! I am doing this!' That happened in the Big Apple Circus ring. I know we changed that child's life."
Like an impossible feat that begins with silence and a drum roll, the Big Apple Circus braces for its most daring exploit yet - survival. "It's a struggle, but I have a feeling we can do it. We'll find a way," says Paul Binder. For our sakes and the many generations to come, one can only hope.