Behind the Scenes at the Big Apple Circus as it Returns to Lincoln Center

The Big Apple Circus was formed in 1977, one year after its European cousin Circus-Theater Roncalli was founded. Now they are together for the first time through Jan. 1 at Lincoln Center. We get a rare peek behind the scenes at the performers who make this show such a holiday delight.

| 27 Nov 2023 | 01:32

It’s that time of year to embrace the wonders of the holidays and the circus. The Big Apple Circus this 2023 season will run through January 1st under the Big Top at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park. For this new incarnation, the Big Apple Circus is teaming up for the first time with its European cousin, Circus-Theater Roncalli.

It comes some six years after the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down after 147 years. A smaller version returned with a national tour this year although without animals.

The latest incarnation of the Big Apple Circus is called “Journey to the Rainbow” and aims to transport the audience to a dreamlike wonderland, and also for the first time without any live animals in its acts. It marks the long-awaited U.S. premiere of the European-based Circus-Theater Roncalli, long celebrated as one of the world’s most beautiful circuses. They both stem from the same European Nouveau Cirque style, so this collaboration “reconnects the Big Apple Circus to its roots,” said Marty LaSalle, CEO of Big Apple Circus.

Both of the stellar circuses have been around for over 40 years. Circus-Theater Roncalli was founded in 1976 and the Big Apple Circus just a year later. The Big Apple Circus survived after a private equity firm acquired the circus out of bankruptcy in 2016. In 2021 the circus was sold to EMC Presents, a joint venture between Michael Cohl and German-based Eventim CTS. This joint venture is the current owner. Like most live events and businesses, the Big Apple Circus shut down during the pandemic and relaunched in the Fall of 2021. “The circus has always been about the celebration of diversity and people doing extraordinary things right in front of you. This year is no exception. It has a strong international flavor that brings people together across borders and cultures,” said LaSalle.

This year is the first year that the Big Apple Circus has no animals in the show and consists of a significantly larger cast, 34 total, than in recent years and also a company of six local dancers who add a Broadway-style energy to the performance. The production has a distinctive blend of the traditional European style and the razzle dazzle of New York City. The creators at Circus-Theater Roncalli shipped in elaborate prop pieces and beautiful costumes which give the show a premium energy and esthetic. “As an artist or performer, it is very special to be able to perform in New York,” said Patrick Philadelphia, the stage director of “Journey to the Rainbow.”

“The mentality of the audience is different,” Philadelphia said. “The artistic culture is very prominent in New York, so for all those interested in art, museums, and music, this is a land of milk and honey!”

High up in the tent with all the colorful bright lighting is a true love story featuring trapeze artists Iryna Galenchyk & Vladislav Drobinko. Drobinko shared, “because of our love for each other, we are able to have complete trust while we are performing so high above the stage. Without the trust that comes from our love we could not do what we do.”

I asked Drobinko what it is like to fly and make the audience dream and he said “we remember being children and seeing the performers and being inspired to try it ourselves. We love that we can inspire the next generation and show what is possible with hard work and dedication.”

Juggler Emma Philips is the only artist in the Western world who has mastered the Chinese style of foot juggling and she juggles everything from light weight umbrellas to a small wooden table. When asked what she wanted the audience to take away from her amazing act, Philips said “I would love the New York audience to be transported to a different time while watching my act. I love the elements of Vaudeville cabaret and vintage showgirl glamour, the attention to detail that can get lost in live entertainment these days. I pride myself in making all the elements of my act: the costume, accessories, painting the props etc. I love presenting myself as the whole package that will hopefully wow the audience in more ways than just one!”

When asked how she mastered juggling umbrellas and a wooden table with her feet she says, “repetition, repetition, repetition! I was fortunate enough to have very strict teachers who would not allow me to rest while training skills, so I built my stamina up the hard way!”

The poetic clown/bubbles act with Paolo Carillon & Nox is fun and whimsical. This clown is a trained car designer from Turin, Italy. Paolo did not come from a circus family. “My dream has always been in the drawer, but the figure of the clown has always been inside me, in my heart,” Carillon said. “Life has given me this opportunity to bring the clown out of myself, but I worked hard for this,” he says. He built all the props himself which includes an astounding steampunk vehicle spouting bubbles and his act he shares with his daughter, Nox, who sings beautifully alongside him. Carillon’s wife created the costumes.

“I was a designer of cars and motorbikes so I am experienced in manual skills,” he said. “I want to be original and unique. I look for objects on the second-hand market to give them a new life. It’s very emotional for me to be in the Big Apple Circus. It’s a new reality and a different audience that I still have to understand. I am grateful for this opportunity”.

To top off this spectacular show, the circus offers a private room with VIP admission for both adults and children. Andre Bouley, VIP manager, shares, “This year we have Circus-Theater Roncalli performers making their rounds, the shows band playing at the entrance to the room, soft drinks, popcorn, cotton candy, cookies, t-shirts, beer and wine–legal drinking age of course—are all served here.”

Bouley also designs and fabricates scenery and this year he was instrumental in building a new ticket booth for the show out of a hay wagon from upstate New York. The entrance to the circus is even bigger this year at Lincoln Center including a gallery filled with circus history and stories. Stop by and enjoy this delicious escape.