Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Cirque des Voix reaches new heights

Circus Arts Conservatory and Key Chorale team up for thrilling physical feats, live music and a choir.

Cirque des Voix, the collaboration between the Circus Arts Conservatory and Key Chorale, comes to the Sailor Circus Arena from March 22-23.
Cirque des Voix, the collaboration between the Circus Arts Conservatory and Key Chorale, comes to the Sailor Circus Arena from March 22-23.
Courtesy image
  • Arts + Culture
  • Share

It could only happen in Sarasota. 

That’s what Key Chorale Artistic Director Joseph Caulkins has to say about the Cirque des Voix (Circus of Voices), his organization’s annual collaboration with the Circus Arts Conservatory.

Where else in the world can you find circus artists, a 40-piece orchestra and a chorus of more than 100 voices under the same tent? That’s what will happen at this year’s Cirque des Voix, which takes place from March 22-23 at the Sailor Circus Arena.

Most trapeze artists, jugglers and high-wire walkers perform to recorded music. Other circus groups have been accompanied by an orchestra, but CAC Co-founder and CEO Pedro Reis says Cirque des Voix was the first to incorporate voice. Others have followed. 

Bragging rights aside, Sarasota’s rich circus heritage, Reis’s formidable industry contacts and the area’s great March weather make this a perfect place for what Reis describes as an “epic” performance. 

Like many collaborations, the Cirque des Voix didn’t happen overnight. According to both Caulkins and Reis, the godfather of Cirque des Voix was former Key Chorale Executive Director Richard Storm, a longtime music critic who died in 2019 at the age of 82. 

Around 2010, Storm kept prodding Caulkins to meet with Reis in the hopes that Key Chorale would join forces with the CAC for a show. 

“I thought it was a terrible idea,” Caulkins recalled during a recent interview at the Sailor Circus Arena that also included Reis. “Richard kept setting up meetings, and I would postpone them. But you can only put off a meeting for so long. Finally, I said to Richard, ‘Let’s go meet your circus guy.’”

It’s not that Caulkins has anything against collaboration. Indeed, under his leadership, Key Chorale has embarked on a number of partnerships with other area arts organizations, including the Venice Symphony and Booker High School VPA Choir. There was even a “Bachtoberfest” in October 2023 with Calusa Brewing Co. that brought together beer and the music of Johannes Sebastian Bach.

Caulkins just didn’t think a joint production with the circus would strike the right note with Key Chorale audiences.

For his part, Reis knew partnering with Key Chorale would yield something that was greater than the sum of its parts. “I knew it would work because it’s different kinds of energy and disciplines. You bring the energies together in a profound, positive way and you build an incredible show,” he says.

Circus Arts Conservatory CEO Pedro Reis and Key Chorale Artistic Director Joseph Caulkins share the spotlight at the Cirque des Voix.
Courtesy image

At their much-delayed meeting, Caulkins and Reis were able to decide on a name and map out a structure in less than an hour. The first Cirque des Voix took place in 2011 and was a nostalgic affair with clowns and horses.

Originally, the partners thought they were embarking on a one-time collaboration that might have an encore. They didn’t realize Cirque des Voix would have staying power, but it has. With the exception of pandemic-induced cancellations in 2020 and in 2021, it has become a much-anticipated event of the season.

Cirque des Voix has also evolved over the years, bringing glamour to the circus with world-class performers accompanied by dramatic music from screen and stage.

“We don’t have any clowns. We don’t have any animals,” Caulkins says. “The show focuses on the artistry of the human body, things that involve a lot of strength, grace and elegance.”

You hear the word “elevate” a lot these days, but it’s more than marketing-speak when it comes to the Cirque des Voix. The circus experience truly has been elevated. In addition, there is air conditioning and the bathrooms are better than in the old days.

Lighting the Cirque des Voix can be a challenge, notes Reis, because the musicians and singers need enough light to read their music books, but it cannot be so bright that it distracts from the performance. 

In addition to the unique synthesis of circus, orchestra and chorus, the audience also plays a vital role at Cirque des Voix. 

“In classical music, we look funny at somebody if they clap at the wrong time or they didn’t wear the right clothing,” Caulkins says. “But at Cirque des Voix, the audience is very interactive. If they like a performer, they’ll clap. If they don’t like one of my jokes, they’ll jeer. You have these components working together, and each is heightening the other.”

This year’s Cirque des Voix features music that will be familiar to gamers, including “Assassin’s Creed II: Ezio’s Family Suite,” which will be the soundtrack to Angelica Bongiovonni’s performance on the cyr wheel. “Fortnite: Main Theme” will be the musical backdrop for aerial straps artist Roman Tomanov, a Cirque du Soleil veteran.

Other highlights of this year’s show include the aerial duo Ganbaatar Sisters from Mongolia performing to “Skyfall” and performances by Sailor Circus Academy students to music from “Game of Thrones.” The acoustics in the Sailor Circus Arena are surprisingly good, Caulkins notes.

Speed juggler Tersit Asefa Dersu will perform to the accompaniment of "Untraveled Worlds" at this year's Cirque des Voix.
Courtesy image

Caulkins says the length of video game soundtracks make them well-suited for circus acts, which typically run 10 minutes or less. And, of course, younger audiences find them appealing.

Both Reis and Caulkins look for circus performers by screening YouTube videos. “It’s not like I’m the music guy and he’s the circus guy,” Caulkins says. “There’s a lot of back and forth.” 

After they agree on a particular artist, Caulkins will turn off the sound on the video and imagine a composition that would be a dramatic accompaniment. For instance, speed juggler Tersit Asefu Dersu will perform to Paul Halley’s “Untraveled Worlds” this year.

Before far-flung circus artists come to Sarasota for a live rehearsal with Key Chorale’s orchestra and chorus, they receive a recording of the music they will perform to so they can refine the timing of their act, Reis says. 

Because everyone involved is so busy, there are only two rehearsals prior to the Cirque des Voix run. One is with recorded music, and the other is live. 

Ideally, Reis likes to book circus acts from what he calls his “A list” of performers a year in advance, but that’s not always possible. There are also last-minute substitutions due to personal circumstances or scheduling conflicts that must be accommodated.

For instance, trapeze artist Nicolas Allard was originally scheduled to perform to “Fortnite: Main Theme” before Tomanov replaced him. But that’s how they roll in the circus. 

In the end, the greatest thrills and chills are reserved for the audience. Cirque des Voix “is a roller coaster of emotion,” Reis says. “You walk away happy.”



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

Latest News