Ringling Brothers is just the beginning — Brooklyn is already a tent city.
For more than a decade, the borough’s community of stilt walkers, aerialists, acrobats, clowns, and sword swallowers has been staging cutting-edge alternative circuses that have brought big time clowning back to its more humble roots.
And this summer, while Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus fills a 2,300-seat big top in Coney Island with its “greatest” spectacle of lions and elephants, the borough’s independent circuses will continue to push the envelope with inventive shows in a style that Brooklyn can call its own.
“There is an amazing, growing Brooklyn circus scene,” said Keith Nelson, co-founder, executive director, and clown in the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus — a 16-year-old Williamsburg troupe that combines vaudeville, burlesque, and Wild West-style sideshows in its performances.
“Some of the best variety artists in the world live here — and circus is only getting more popular. Now you have more training facilities than you can shake a trapeze at.” (Yes, he said that.)
From upstart venues like the House of Yes in Bushwick and the Ruby Streak Trapeze Studio in Sunset Park, to the world-famous Streb Lab for Action Mechanics in Williamsburg, circus performers across the borough are converting lofts and warehouses into practice spaces and venues where they can perfect and showcase their craft — and some insiders say that the makeshift venues are actually the key to the borough’s innovative approach.
“Space is at such a premium here that many performers have to rethink what they do — and when you are forced to rethink, there is a beauty and realness that comes out of it,” said Nelson, whose troupe hosts a monthly open-stage circus performer’s night at the Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO.
Brooklyn’s tiny venues haven’t stood in the way of the Streb company — formed by the acclaimed modern dance choreographer Elizabeth Streb.
“In the aerial dance and circus community in Brooklyn, limitations are your friend. You have to design your act around the small spaces,” said Bobby Hedglin-Taylor, director of the trapeze academy at the ground-breaking lab, which is known for training aerialists and inventing death-defying midair contraptions.
The other benefit of the makeshift venues is that they bring the audience closer to the performers, said Karen Gersch, artistic director and ring mistress at CIRCUSundays, which has wowed cirque fans for 13 years by putting world-class talent inches away from spectators’ faces on a barge in Red Hook.
“It’s a real, old-fashioned intimate show,” said Gersch. “It’s really the closest that anyone could actually be to the action. You have aerials right over your head; your tumblers, you could reach out and touch them.”
But it’s not just the unorthodox venues that differentiate the circuses of Brooklyn — which also include Circus Amok, the UniverSoul Circus (which just ended its run last month to tepid reviews), and, of course, legendary Coney Island’s Circus Sideshow — from the ringed circuses that tour the country.
According to Anya Sapozhnikova, founder of Bushwick’s Lady Circus, Brooklyn’s independent circuses are special because they aren’t afraid to merge different kinds of circuses into a single show, combining the clowns, jugglers and acrobats of traditional family circuses with raunchy burlesque dancing, shocking sideshow freaks, and the avant-garde aerials of common in European cirques.
“In a lot of these alternative venues in Brooklyn, you see all of these different elements of circus married into one — it’s a convergence,” said Anya Sapozhnikova, whose two-year-old, all-female circus will merge its acrobatics and contortions with theater and comedy when it stages “Cirque du Quoi?!?” with the comedy troupe FUCT later this month.
Bindlestiff Family Cirkus at Galapagos Art Space [16 Main St. at Water Street in DUMBO, (718) 222-8500], first Monday of every month, 8 pm. Tickets, $5; CIRCUSundays at the Waterfront Museum & Showboat Barge [Pier 44, Conover and Beard streets in Red Hook, (718) 624-4719], June 7, 14, 21, 28; 1 and 4 pm. Tickets, $14 (kids under 12 are $10); Coney Island Circus Sideshow [Surf Avenue and West 12th Street in Coney Island, (718) 372-5159], Saturdays and Sundays until Memorial Day; 1–9 pm; after Memorial Day, expanded hours. Tickets, $7.50 (children under 12 are $5); Lady Circus and FUCT present the “Cirque du Quoi?!?” at the House of Yes (342 Maujer St., between Morgan Avenue and Waterbury Street in Bushwick, no phone), May 21–22, 28–30, June 6–8; 8 pm. Tickets, $20.