Survival today means walking tightrope between tradition and innovation
The circus is an ancient art form, dating back to the Roman Empire, at least. The reason it’s still around? It’s never stopped adapting. Take Circus Sarasota, for example.
Our hometown one-ring, five-star circus was the brainchild of Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs, a celebrated husband-and-wife aerialist team. When they founded it in 1997, that took a leap of faith. Sarasota, still coasting on its reputation as the world’s “Circus Capitol,” had no circus at the time. The couple changed that. The circus they created has been changing ever since. That was always part of the plan.
“Like everything in life, the circus has to evolve or die,” says Reis. “We always knew that, and made a commitment to constant reinvention.”
That’s why Circus Sarasota is still here. To be fair, it had a head start. They were ahead of the evolutionary curve from day one.
At the turn of the 21st century, the dinosaurs of the circus world were increasingly attacked for their inhumane policies toward animals. Many tried to change their ways, but it was too little, too late. Circus Sarasota never had to repent. They were always humane. And Reis is proud of it.
“No exotic animals, no caged animals,” Reis says. “That was always our policy.”
According to Reis, Cirque du Soleil was an early evolutionary role model. While the 19th-century behemoths were facing extinction, this upstart troupe from Montreal was thriving. The old-school circuses saw a threat. Reis saw an opportunity.
“It was a fresh new direction,” he says. “Cirque du Soleil added a new dimension of sophistication, with makeup, costumes, lighting and audience participation. Instead of just doing the act, they added a storyline. I loved what they were doing. My first thought was, ‘We can do that, too.’”
Other avant-garde troupes took it further. They scorned the sparkling traditional circus costumes and performed in blue jeans. Reis noticed them, too.
The upstarts proved anything was possible. Sarasota’s fledgling circus explored those possibilities and incorporated elements of traditional, contemporary and avant-garde circuses into its performance.
Reis contrasts the new wave circuses with the cornball, old-fashioned image he was struggling to shake off.
“It all seemed so new — but, of course, it really wasn’t,” he says. “Cirque du Soleil didn’t invent acrobatics. They just changed the mix for a new audience. We do the same thing for our audience. But we never copied anybody.”
Style evolves. Substance does, too. New wave circus artists might wear old clothes, but their sound and lighting systems are state-of-the-art. A rinky-dink circus in the 1950s could get away with a crappy sound system. A 21st-century circus can’t. Today's audiences won’t put up with it.
Circus Sarasota never skimped on production quality. “Our lighting is amazing, our sound is crystal clear,” says Reis. “We spent a lot of money on every element that enhances each act.” That’s not a one-time purchase. Technology evolves, too. When the new stuff goes on the shelf, they buy it.
The circus artists share that commitment to change. That applies to their acts, but also to themselves.
Oliver Parkinson of Duo 19 was pursuing a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry. He got into mixed martial arts in graduate school, and that opened the door to another change. “A year before I defended my thesis, a friend of mine took a flying trapeze class. She was convinced I’d like it, and kept pestering me until I agreed to take a class.”
Like it? That’s an understatement.
“After one class, I knew it’s what it’s what I wanted to do with my life Parkinson says.”
Parkinson has been doing it ever since. He’s now the second half of Duo 19, a boundary-pushing aerialist troupe. Cassie Cutler is the other half.
The Dominguez Poodles are more coordinated than the average arts writer, and possibly smarter. They’re led by Jorge Dominguez, a third-generation circus artist, and Alcira, his wife. Their act seems old-school at first. But it reflects the new commitment to animal welfare.
“The dogs are part of the family,” Jorge says. “They live with us, of course. My training is very gentle. We just have fun and play around. I show them what I want and encourage them. I say “Good dog, good dog,” and they learn that way.
Evolution is a double-edged sword. You have to do new things, and you can’t keep doing the same thing. Not if you want to survive.
Circus Sarasota was strictly commercial in its first year. When ticket sales couldn’t carry the load, they reinvented their model in 1998. The annual show still went on, but Circus Sarasota became part of a larger nonprofit entity — Circus Arts Conservatory. It performs for schools and charities and offers circus arts classes for kids and adults year-round.
“In the old days, the circus came to town,” says Reis. “Today, the circus stays in town. John Ringling’s circus built Sarasota, and we’re determined to return the favor. He planted the circus culture in our community. Our classes help keep it alive.”
According to Reis, that’s part of a larger trend. He cut his teeth at a time when the traditional circus arts were confined to a handful of families who handed them down from one generation to the next. In our time, interest has exploded. Classes in aerial rope artistry, tightrope walking, balancing and other circus arts are often packed. Not everyone wants to join the circus. People learn to stay healthy or just for fun.
“There were only four circus schools in America when Dolly and I first came here in 1984,” Reis says. “When Circus Sarasota performed in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in 2017, we discovered that there were now over 400 circus schools across the country.”
Circus Sarasota thinks outside the tent. But the show inside the tent still gets their blood pumping.
“When you take it to the edge, the audience knows,” Reis says. “They can see it—and it thrills them to the bone. When you hear that cheer, it thrills you too. There’s nothing like it.”
But the edge is a constantly moving target.
“We’ve been called ‘the gold standard’ of the circus,” he says. “We try to push the envelope, but we’re not the only ones. The standard keeps evolving, so we have to evolve, too. We want to be the best of the best. That’s one thing that’s never going to change.”