Circus with a heart at National Harbor

Ringmaster Ty c Maike Schulz previewOXON HILL – “The dust of distant travel, exotic animals, peanuts and popcorns, and acrobats and clowns in flashy costumes. Such are flip-card views of the world of the circus, a staple of Americana.” So I wrote a week ago in these pages, anticipating my visit to Big Apple Circus at National Harbor. Big Apple, which hails as its name suggests from New York and is celebrating its 40th year, a circus with a heart.

Yet, because of this, Big Apple Circus at times gives us the feeling of the circus from our childhood, but not always the exact circus of our childhood. I refer to the lack of lions and tigers and bears. Criticisms of animal cruelty in training and the resonance such criticism has found with the public have caused the demise of exotic animal acts in many circuses. In fact, last year it caused the closing of the long-running Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus (once billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth”). In the person Jenny Vidbel, the trainer of stray dogs, horses, and ponies into an impressive circus team of tricks, we see a welcome new circus spirit in a love of animals instead of a flash of whips and the threat of raised chairs against snarling beasts. There is no question that something very much associated with circuses is missing.  

Also absent are clowns as adults remember them. Blame not the lack of clowns in traditional costumes of painted white face, red stringy hair, a red nose, and over-sized shoes on changing social consciousness so much as on horror author Stephen King: The evil clown Pennywise (popularized in the new film version of King’s “It”) has made the image of Bozo the Clown and his ilk in appearance spooky, sinister, and scary.

Mr. Joel and Skip of Big Apple are hardly that, as they dress more like old-time vaudevillians, and their slapstick antics and rapport remind one of past cinematic comedy teams such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis. Warning to audience members up close: these clowns like to play with and splash water!    

Exotic animals and traditional clowns were missing, but adults smiled and chuckled. More importantly, children grinned and laughed.  

The performance of Nik Wallenda, known as “The King of The High Wire,” and his fellow acrobats were thrilling and stunning. Veteran ringmaster Ty McFarlan and exotically clad male and female gymnasts flexing bodies to Eastern rhythms, an expert juggler with metal bats and blacklight-lit balls also met some of the more traditional criteria for a circus. There were also some elements new to my circus experience, such as flashing lights, images of the New York City Art Deco skyline, and a jazz band throughout, at times with tom-tom drums, wailing saxes and blaring trumpets.  

Big Apple Circus also differs from other circuses of the past in what promoters call its “intimate setting,” in that “no seat is more than fifty feet from the ring” where the circus action happens. The intimacy of the circus is nice, and the horses come up and almost touch you.

Finally, Big Apple Circus shows its heart in what it calls its “Circus of the Senses” performances.

The Circus offers what it touts as “special enhanced experiences for audiences with autism, visual and auditory challenges,” and to do so effectively Big Apple offers American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, assistive listening devices, touch therapy, braille, and a “calming center,” about which the kind hearts who run these specials shows will provide further information upon request.

Big Apple Circus has pulled down its big top from Prince Georges County for now, but this circus with a heart looks forward to another successful run at National Harbor in spring of next year.


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