A year ago, five performers in Nik Wallenda’s high-wire act were seriously injured in an accident during Circus Sarasota rehearsals. None of the injuries were life-threatening, but Wallenda still called it the worst day of his life. Wallenda was not injured, but members of his family were.
Circus Sarasota for 2018 opens Friday, almost a year to the day after the incident.
Circus officials are taking a “show-must-go-on” attitude.
“The art form is very resilient,” said Jennifer Mitchell, the executive vice president of the Circus Arts Conservatory, of which circus Sarasota is a part. “There’s not much that gets in the way, including occasional tragedy.”
The potential for tragedy is always present in the circus, Mitchell says, and performers and presenters have to learn to put the show above their fears.
“I don’t think that it ever leaves our minds,” Mitchell said. “We work in an industry that comes with some danger. But it doesn’t deter us. It inspires us to keep going.”
The title of this year’s Circus Sarasota show is “Ovation,” and it’s meant to mark the 250th anniversary of the modern circus.
The art form is very resilient. There’s not much that gets in the way, including occasional tragedy.
“Those who perform today are standing on the shoulders of those who came before,” Mitchell said, “and those who came before had to overcome tragedy.”
“Ovation” should make spectators think about the joys of the circus, not the potential dangers.
“I would say that 75 percent of the artists in this show have won an award at the festival in Monte Carlo,” said Joseph Bauer. The Monte Carlo International Circus Festival is the most prestigious in the world — and for a circus performer to win an award there is kind of like an actor winning an Oscar.
Bauer has seen a lot of circuses over the years. He’s an eighth-generation circus performer, and he’s been the ringmaster for 30 years, and the ringmaster for the Circus Sarasota for the past 10 years or so.
He’s seen and worked in circuses all over the world, and the Circus Sarasota show, he says, is something special.
“The traditional European circus is what this show delivers, and it does it in a very high-class way, which is the way it should be done,” Bauer said. “It combines art and elegance with the traditional elements of the circus. There’s no other circus like this one.”
“Ovation,” like most big circus shows, features a variety of acts, from jugglers and hand-balancers to a tight-rope act (a French couple whose performance has a wordless romantic narrative) and a couple of animal acts.
In fact, as the lights come up on the circus, the first thing the audience sees will be three white stallions, alone in the center ring. Then Sylvia Zerbini, a ninth-generation circus performer whose horse act is called “La Grand Liberte,” comes riding in on another white stallion. It’s the start of an equine ballet featuring 10 of Zerbini’s horses, performing on their own with no riders.
Zerbini is aware that some people are against the use of animals for entertainment. She allows that abuse of animals is a problem that deserves vigilance, but says that now all animal acts are the same.
All her horses are rescues, and she doesn’t geld any of them unless it’s medically necessary. She pampers the horses and makes sure she exerts herself harder than they do. She never puts bits in their mouths and trains them with love and rewards, never with whips and punishments.
“Where would this horse be if he wasn’t with me?” she asked as she stroked a horse that had a reputation for biting people before she adopted him. “These guys work 10 minutes a day and they’re treated like rock stars. They’re my pets, they’re my family. We all have to work to keep food on the table.”
Last year’s accident injured some people badly. The anniversary of the accident, on Feb. 8, will bring it more to the forefront of everyone’s mind. But one thing that helps performers persevere, Mitchell says, is that none of the performers suffered permanent injury.
“All of those artists are back up and working,” she said.
Details: Feb. 9-March 4, Nathan Benderson Park, 851 Nathan Benderson Circle, Sarasota. 7 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday. $15-$55; children younger than age 2 free. 941-355-9805, CircusArts.org/BuyTickets.