Bill Allen thought the circus deserved better.
Why, he wondered, did society hold dancers and musicians in high regard while circus performers were treated like, well, a sideshow?
An entertainment producer and talent representative, Allen had been under the big top several times through the years. But during a trip to Moscow, he visited a Russian circus — and the performers' exquisite athleticism spurred him to action.
"I always felt the circus should be recognized on the same level of the Bolshoi Ballet or other great arts institutions," said the native of Shelby, N.C. "It wasn't a question of making the artists better, it was creating the right atmosphere."
Allen hit upon an idea: Swap the cotton candy for champagne by moving the circus out of the big top and into the orchestra hall.
So in 2006, Allen teamed with award-winning Russian circus performer Alexander Streltsov to found Cirque de la Symphonie, based in Athens, Ga. The troupe's jugglers, strongmen and aerialists come to Orlando on March 30 for two sold-out performances with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. Christopher Wilkins will conduct.
"There's nothing like flying out over a sold-out music hall with the power of a full symphony orchestra blowing through your back," said Streltsov, an aerialist who won a 1991 gold medal at the prestigious circus competition of Festival Mondial in Paris when he was only 12.
"It energizes your performance," Streltsov said, "and I have to say I think the orchestra plays a little harder, too, with all of that going on."
Musician Patrick Graham, who accompanied Cirque de la Symphonie for three 2010 shows in Tampa, said the music isn't easy and often comes from outside the basic orchestral repertoire.
"A lot of notes go by really quickly," said Graham, who plays clarinet and bass clarinet with the Orlando Philharmonic.
Plus, there's the distraction factor.
"You try to keep one eye on the music and one on the acrobats," said the Orlando resident. "What they're doing is so amazing, it's really hard to pay attention to what you're supposed to be doing."
At the show here, there will be aerial performers on a rope, hoop and silks; magicians; a rings juggler; and a contortionist.
Allen said his "one-of-a-kind" show shouldn't be confused with Cirque du Soleil, a company that produces shows full of colorful pageantry, clowning, music and circus acts, including "La Nouba" at Walt Disney World.
Cirque de la Symphonie performances are not themed, Allen said, and its orchestral shows feature familiar classical melodies. Cirque du Soleil shows generally have a loose storyline and use original music played by a band and often accompanied by singers.
The Orlando Philharmonic program's music will include well-known works such as Bach's spookily dramatic "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" and the waltz from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake."
"The music matches what you're seeing," Allen said. "It needed to be something Cirque artists could choreograph to."
Watching both the music and the performers elevates both arts, he said. "It's that fusion that makes a 1+1=3 chemistry. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
Audience members enjoy watching the performers complement the passion heard in the music, Streltsov said.
"Having an aerialist flying overhead during the concert adds a three-dimensional effect to the experience for patrons," Streltsov said. "Everyone, including the orchestra, seems to be having great time — and if we do it right, we present a balanced program that features both cirque and symphony as a true fusion of two old art forms, held together by the power of the music."
That good time often leads to a breach of symphony etiquette: Applause while the musicians are playing.
"They don't object, they get it," said Allen of the musicians' reaction to such a break with tradition.
"As long as everybody is having a good time, that's what's important," he said. "It's got something for everyone. Even for people who have never been to an orchestra concert — they're certainly not going to get bored."
Cirque de la Symphonie
What: Traveling circus acts, performing with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra
When: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 30. Both performances are sold out; check with the Philharmonic for last-minute seats due to cancellations
Where: Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, 401 W. Livingston St., Orlando