Long before the throngs of audience members generate "oohs" and "ahhs," the staff of the UniverSoul Circus begins to craft its unusual performances, spending months combing the globe for fresh acts.
The result includes performers such as the Shaolin Kung Fu acrobats from China and hip-hop contortionists from Guinea. With this array of international talent, it's fitting that this year's tour has been entitled "US."
"In our mind, when you come to UniverSoul, you see a culture that really mirrors society," said Paula Murphy, executive vice president of the traveling circus, which performs at Security Square Mall through Sunday. "Everything we do mirrors the world. The families that attend our show reflect that."
Even though the show is diverse, the acts are tied together with a common "urban progressive" element, according to Murphy.
"We have kids from all walks of life, but they are quite similar. It's not that far of a reach," Murphy said. "We find these kids and put them in the show. It is a natural fit for them."
For example, Bone Breakers, a group of four contortionists with hip-hop flair, was formed after being discovered in a circus school in Guinea. Other acts come from countries such as Mongolia, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Russia, France and Brazil.
"We have talent scouts around the globe," Murphy said. "What has helped us being the new kids on the block is that the acts want to come to our show. They love the audience. Scouting for us has become a little easier. We get hundreds of acts wanting to join the show, but we are selective."
Murphy has been involved with the production since its inception, after being approached to join by founder — and Baltimore native — Cedric Walker, a theater and concert promoter. She's watched the show evolve over 19 years.
"I am very surprised it has gotten to this magnitude," Murphy said. "I had never been into the circus before UniverSoul. Being a part of that team and the family, it is a very different journey and experience. It's much deeper than the commercial aspect of it."
The show has grown to include 14 acts made up of 80 acrobats, contortionists, aerialists, martial artists, dancers, comedians and clowns. There are also the traditional circus animals, such as horses, tigers and elephants. The traveling production puts on 500 shows in 27 U.S. cities each year.
Murphy and Walker teamed with live entertainment production designer Tom Marzullo to produce this year's tour. Marzullo has designed or stage-managed acts including T-Pain, KISS, Jay-Z, Ne-Yo, Prince and Justin Bieber.
"It is a very unique form of entertainment," Murphy said. "A 5-year-old and an 80-year-old will like it just the same. ... You get to experience and see different cultures. We break down stereotypic ideas about what the circus is, and what people are. We have a large party. Everybody is partying together."
If you go
UniverSoul Circus runs at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. today; noon, 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Security Square Mall, 6901 Security Blvd. Tickets are $15 to $28.50. Call 800-745-3000 or go to ticketmaster.com.