Circus Maximus

The Baltimore Sun

The acrobats are lining up at Camden Yards. The elephants will gather at 1st Mariner Arena. Clowns can be found at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Baltimore will become one big circus this winter and spring, with an unprecedented number of events celebrating life in, around and under The Big Top. The list includes a circus-themed exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a "perverse" circus show at Theatre Project, and touring productions from both the Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey organizations.

In an age of smart phones, Hollywood special effects and sophisticated video games, it may seem puzzling that some of the biggest shows coming to Baltimore in 2009 would have their origins in the circus, a form of live entertainment that has been around for centuries. But, according to circus historians and others, those throwback qualities may be exactly what will make the shows appealing to 21st-century audiences that have overdosed on retouched computer images and "reality TV" that isn't.

"The circus is appealing because it responds to something that is deeply rooted in our psyches - the need to see the extraordinary," said Dominique Jando, a former clown with Paris' legendary Cirque Medrano and former associate artistic director of the Big Apple Circus in New York. "Not in the way of tricks, like in the movies, but in front of our very eyes, by real people. That's why it has survived for so long. It fills our need to see and celebrate feats of human achievement. People have a need to see that, a very deep need. It's part of who we are."

Going to the circus is the opposite of staring at a computer screen, said Melinda Hartline, a spokeswoman for Ringling Bros.

"There's no rewind to what people see when they come to one of our performances," Hartline said. "It's not digital. It's not a video game. It's happening now. If a trapeze artist misses the bar on the triple somersault and falls into the net, he climbs back up and attempts the triple somersault again. It's live."

For many families, "it's a rite of passage" said Homeland resident Richard Flint, former president of the Circus Historical Society and instructor for a course about the circus with the Johns Hopkins University's Odyssey program. "It's a tradition to take your kids to the circus."

Next Sunday, The Baltimore Museum of Art opens A Circus Family : Picasso to Leger, an exhibit featuring more than 90 objects exploring circus life, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Fernand Leger. Next month, Camden Yards takes center stage when the Cirque du Soleil begins a three-week run of its latest touring show, KOOZA.

Meanwhile, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus returns to 1st Mariner Arena at the end of March. And earlier this month, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented "Cirque de la Symphonie," melding circus acts with a concert.

While the city's season of the circus may seem carefully planned, organizers say it was more serendipitous than anything. Ringling Bros. comes to Baltimore every year. This is the second stop in Baltimore for Cirque du Soleil, which has a different site and show than in 2005. Baltimore Museum of Art curators have been working on their exhibit for two years. Other arts organizations scheduled their shows independently as well. It was a happy coincidence, planners say, that these events are all taking place over the next several weeks.

Promoters say they believe the circus-themed events will have strong appeal. Even in hard times, the circus is an event for which people will save their money and buy tickets, Hartline said.

"It's part of Americana, just like the Super Bowl," she said. "The American people want something very solid and constant in their lives, some place they can run away, even if it's just for a few hours, and the circus provides that."

There's also a "wow factor" to the circus that's especially stimulating for kids, Hartline said. "It's bright and sparkly. You think, 'How did they do that?' We're always trying to get kids to go outside and play and get away from their video games."

Unlike televised reality shows or digital images that can be "photo-shopped," the circus is more credible because it happens right before your eyes, said Flint, the circus historian.

At the circus, "you really see the acrobats flying through the air with the greatest of ease, as opposed to watching something that's software- or Internet-based and can be fiddled with," Flint said. "When we see it in person, we know that it's real."

The three main circus-related events approach the subject in different ways.

A Circus Family

Before movies and television, the circus was a popular form of entertainment, especially in Europe, and many artists such as Picasso and George Rouault were drawn to its colorful, visual nature, said to Oliver Shell, associate curator of European Painting and Sculpture and curator of A Circus Family. Many also identified personally with circus performers, who lived "by their skill and talent at the fringes of bourgeois society," he said.

Using the museum's holdings of circus-related work by Picasso as a starting point, Shell began exploring ways to build on the theme. He looked at the museum's collection and discovered circus-related works by Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. The BMA also borrowed works from other museums and collectors, including the show's highlight, "The Acrobat Family," a Picasso watercolor on loan from the Goteborg Museum in Sweden.

The result is a far-reaching exhibit that became less about the work of any one artist and more about the many ways in which European artists from the 1890s to around 1950 used the circus as subject matter for their work. In all, 93 works touch on various aspects of circus life, from the somber to the fanciful.


The Cirque du Soleil originated in Canada in 1984 and combines elements of a traditional circus, including acrobats and aerialists, with the spectacle of the theater, including dramatic lighting, imaginative costumes and striking special effects. It has no animals.

The touring show opening March 12, KOOZA, tells the story of The Innocent, a "melancholy loner" who goes on a journey in search of his place in the world.

Representatives say KOOZA marks a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil, in that it combines two circus traditions, acrobatic performance and the art of clowning. At the same time, they say, it includes elements that Cirque du Soleil audiences haven't seen before, such as the "Wheel of Death," which resembles two oversized hamster wheels spinning at high speeds as acrobats leap in and out, and a 23-foot-high tower of chairs used in a balancing act. One performer in the 50-member cast is acclaimed juggler Anthony Gatto, a New York native who spent the early part of his childhood in Ellicott City.

Cirque du Soleil has always sought to include performers and performances that can't be seen anywhere else, and KOOZA is no exception, said Clarence Ford, the show's choreographer.

Over the Top

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has two shows that tour large cities on alternate years, a Red Unit and a Blue Unit. This year, Baltimore is getting "Over the Top," a new production by the Blue Unit, featuring 92 animals and 102 cast members from 20 countries, performing 22 acts. The animals include flying dogs, Asian elephants that skip, miniature horses, Bengal tigers and a "performing porcupine." "Over the Top" tells the story of a struggle for a "magical top hat" that supposedly controls the circus. It pits Ringmaster Chuck Wagner, who represents the serious side of the circus, against "clown eccentric" Tom Dougherty, who represents the silly side of the circus. When the Ringmaster puts on the hat, he conjures up spectacles such as the stunt riding "Royal Cossack Cavalry." The clown uses the hat to summon more whimsical acts, including a herd of goats riding the miniature horses. By the end, audiences will have seen two circuses in one.

a circus for all

Marylanders won't have to run away to see the circus this year, given the wide range of circus-related events coming to Baltimore in the next several weeks. The shows include:

A Circus Family: Picasso to Leger: Opens Feb. 22, runs through May 17 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Tickets $4-$8; free to museum members and children younger than 6. Call 443-573-1700 or go to

KOOZA: The Cirque du Soleil show starts March 12 and runs through April 5, on Lot O at Camden Yards, near M&T; Bank Stadium. Tickets are $38.50-$220. Call 800-678-5440 or go

Over the Top: The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus starts March 25 and run through April 5 at the 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore Street. Tickets are $14-$70. Call 410-547-7328 or go to

The Enchanted Toy Box: The Zany Umbrella Circus presents a European-style circus at 8 p.m. May 8 and 9, and 2 p.m. May 10 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Performers use dance and music to explore a world where everyday items "come to life and take on a magic of their own." Tickets are $7-$15. Call 443-573-1700 or go to

Gravity Stories: Artist Mara Niemanis leads a series of "aerial theater" performances, based on true stories from students in a Stevenson University sociology class. During the shows, students tell stories and perform aerial stunts on a 15-foot-high "sculpture wall." The show runs through Feb. 21 in the Studio Theatre on Stevenson's Greenspring campus, 1525 Greenspring Valley Road in Baltimore County. Tickets are $5-$10. Call 443-334-2163 or go to

Trixie and Monkey's MUMBO: The Creative Alliance and Little Industries present a "poignantly perverse" circus show March 18-21 at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. The show, starring burlesque artist Trixie Little, is about lost childhood, training animals and greed, told with trapeze, shameless humor and partial nudity. Tickets are $20. Call 410-752-8558 or go to

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad