Circus Sarasota's latest show, "Ovation," celebrates the 250th anniversary of the modern circus with a seasoned lineup of performers.
Superheroes come in many shapes and sizes. And although many of them still seem to gravitate toward a shiny spandex suit, supernatural powers are not required.
“These people are really heroes to me,” says rodeo star AJ Silver. “They risk their lives and they do it when they’re tired, they do it when they’re sick … there is no retake.”
Silver is one of 18 circus artists who, along with several canines and equines, makes up the cast of Circus Sarasota’s latest show, “Ovation.” The production at the Ulla Searing Big Top combines various circus disciplines from tight wire to lassoing in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the modern circus.
Circus Arts Conservatory Managing Director Jennifer Mitchell says the show is a figurative standing ovation to the modern circus and its tradition of providing exhilarating entertainment for all ages.
“You get this blend of traditional disciplines engaged in the circus but many are presented in a very contemporary way,” Mitchell says of the show. “It has a very upbeat feel to it.”
Mitchell says CAC Artistic Director Pedro Reis and his team combed the world for nearly eight months to pick the highest-quality circus artists they could find for the show’s lineup.
Silver is one such performer, and a nontraditional one. This Bronx-raised cowboy’s lassoing originated as a rodeo act in Wild West shows, so he doesn’t identify as strictly a circus performer. He is, however, deeply grateful for the opportunity to perform in one of the most famous circus destinations in the world.
“This is a very prestigious show to be asked to be a part of,” he says. “I don’t get that opportunity very often, and there’s just something magical about being in a circus ring surrounded by an audience under a beautiful big top.”
Sarasota-born Ringmaster Joseph D. Bauer’s family circus history traces back to the 1700s, but his relatives first came to Sarasota in 1954 with the Ringling Bros. Circus. It’s for this reason that“Ovation” is a personally meaningful celebration of the circus, he says.
Asked about the timing of this anniversary after the May 21, 2017, closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Bauer says it’s irrelevant because circus heritage is alive and well.
“People are misled because the Greatest Show on Earth closed. People come up to me and say, ‘Oh it’s a shame that it’s over,’ and I say, ‘What’s over? No, the circus is not over.’”
Sylvia Zerbini is another “Ovation” performer with strong family ties to the circus — nine generations to be specific. She grew up in an environment where the family horses (also circus performers) ate before any of the humans, so Zerbini says she’s enjoying the opportunity to show audiences that animals have a place in the circus.
“For me it’s coming back to my roots — that’s what makes this special,” she says. “Doing theatrical shows, coming back into the one-ring tent and getting to show the audience that there are happy animals performing.”
She notes that because there are so few animal acts left in the circus, her horses seem to bring extra joy to audiences with the powerful energy they give off.
Mitchell says Zerbini’s act is an example of a timeless circus discipline with a contemporary twist because it opens the show with Zerbini riding in, but the majority of the act itself is performed with Zerbini directing the horses from the ground.
She believes the act is one of the best equestrian circus acts in the nation, and she enjoys that it starts the show on a soft, elegant note with the intimate feeling of love and respect between the animals and their trainer.
It is this intimate feel that makes the whole show unique, says rola bola (balancing act) performer Kirill Rebkovets, a Bradenton resident. He says the acts make up one big family.
Rebkovets previously performed with Cirque du Soleil, which he says often felt robotic and repetitive. The atmosphere at the Ulla Searing Big Top, conversely, is uniquely electrifying.
“There’s definitely more energy than anywhere I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “They go crazy for you.”
And somewhere amongst that excitement, Silver believes audiences are transported. That’s the power of circus heroes.
“It’s a very noble occupation these days to be able to bring joy and escape to people from this crazy world.”