Proving there's still a place for the small one-ring circus

Dawn is just breaking when the first bright yellow tractor-trailer pulls into town. Nestled in the folds of New Hampshire's hills, this off-the-beaten-track, tweedy college town (it's the home of Dartmouth) is a place where the sidewalks roll up early. But for the next six days, Hanover will be transformed by something distinctly un-Ivy League: a circus. And right on the proud Dartmouth Green yet.

For 3,000 years circuses have been trooping all over the world, first in wagon caravans, then by train, now by truck. This art form has adapted to modern technology while still developing such ancient arts as juggling, balancing acts, taming animals - and delighting small children.

But modern technology notwithstanding, this is no ordinary circus that has come to Hanover. It is the seven-year-old realization of one former Dartmouth student's goal.

In an age when going to the circus to most people means sitting in a huge indoor arena and being bombarded by frenetic acts in three rings at once, Paul Binder's Big Apple Circus aims to prove that a small European-style company can still draw crowds.

And it does: 12,000 people for eight shows here - most of them sellouts. Some patrons come from as far away as Toronto and New York City.

As the six-piece band breaks into an exuberant introduction, Mr. Binder - he's also the ringmaster - strides into the bigtop in red cutaway coat and a great welcoming smile. Giggling children squirm expectantly on padded benches. It's showtime.

A leopard leaps onto the back of an elephant for a snarling ride. High-school-aged power acrobats from Harlem catapult onto each other's clasped fists. A darkly handsome tightrope walker perspires as he prepares to do a back flip and then grins with relief after a successful landing.

The audience shrieks as a Czech aerialist hurtles from the top of the tent, held on to the guidewire only by a thin white ankle strap. Four purple-clad Polish acrobats form a pyramid and flip their one woman member to the top.

But the biggest ''oohs'' go to Koma Zuru. Clad in gold samurai garb, he spins a top on the point of a 500-year-old sword. He sends the top spinning up a string into a Japanese lantern, which bursts into a dazzling spill of tiny lights. His family has been at this art for 800 years, and the Japanese government has decreed that he must train someone else to succeed him.

Saturday morning. A gusty wind is flapping the awning around on Binder's air-conditioned trailer. He's wide awake, but his voice isn't yet.

''Truly, that's what the circus is about,'' he is saying. ''It's about showing that living our lives is an extraordinary experience. When the guy on the flying trapeze is flying, the experience is that we as human beings are capable of flight. When the clown falls down and gets up, we remind ourselves of what our daily life is about and how we go on with a sense of humor.''

This from a man who holds degrees in business from here and from Columbia?


But Binder soon discarded his three-piece suits for three juggling balls and joined a mime troupe in San Francisco. In time, that led him and a friend, Michael Christensen (now with the Big Apple Circus himself), to Europe, where they juggled on street corners ''from London to Istanbul.'' Ultimately, they were hired by the Nouveau Cirque de Paris.

''Until that time, we had no intention of being circus performers,'' Binder muses. ''But the moment I stepped into the ring, I said, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.' This was a beautiful, intimate, romantic French circus.''

After three seasons, however, he wanted to come home:

''I just had this crazy idea that I wanted to start an American circus based on the tradition I had learned in Europe. This is a profoundly American circus; it has all the energy, perception, and excitement of America. But the tradition is the old tradition.''

Circuses had always performed in one ring - big enough to accommodate a horse at full gallop. But that changed earlier in this century when circuses became such a booming business that promoters made the tents larger so they could hold more people. Enter the three-ring circus.

Exit the direct contact with the audience so essential to performers.

''It's kind of a classic American success story,'' Binder says,''but it destroyed the craft and the art of the circus in the process.''

Wanting to keep alive this art but still survive financially, he has chosen to tread the precarious tightrope of nonprofit status. The Big Apple Circus is part of the New York School for Circus Arts Inc. and is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, by several New York State funds, and by foundations and corporations like Warner Communications and Consolidated Edison.

It also relies heavily on local sponsors at each stopping point, who smooth bureaucratic brambles (like obtaining permission to park on the Dartmouth Green). This kind of support enables the circus to stay small, pitch the tent in one spot for a week instead of for a succession of one-night stands, and to avoid such distractions as hawking concessions during the show.

The first priority of the Big Apple, Binder says,''is to create an environment where the performer can share the best of what he's able to do.'' That means one ring instead of three, a small, close audience, and the best possible musicians and lighting.

Binder also tries to provide his mixture of international and US-born performers with as friction-free an atmosphere as possible. He thinks of the circus as ''a loose family'' and chooses performers as much for their ability to get along as for their talent.

The performers and staff seem happy. One crew member termed it ''the Cadillac of circuses.'' Marveled another: ''This whole place works. Right down to the smallest things.''

''The great thing about Paul,'' says Michael Christensen, ''is, since he's been a clown in this show, too, we clowns know we'll never get shortchanged with him or have to fight for our space. We're featured individually for our own skills. That's very unique.''

It's not all stardust, however. At least one performer says he dislikes the fact that ''We're responsible for ourselves (in case of a fall) . . . I think it should be the show's responsibility.''

Binder may be intent on maintaining artistic traditions, but the physical conditions are pure 20th century. The Big Apple caravan is fully self-sufficient , carrying even its own electrical generators.

The performers own and live out of their trailers. As soon as they arrive at a new site, out come pets, lawn chairs, and wading pools for the children. People troop off to the shower trailer at all hours, towels slung over their shoulders.

Family life in the circus is not exactly what one would call normal - not if you have an elephant munching grass in your front yard. But Barbara Woodcock thinks it's a fine one in which to raise children.

''You know the old saying: 'It's 10 o'clock; do you know where your children are?' Well, I do; they're in the ring performing with me. It's a very nice, tight family feeling,'' the statuesque red-haired performer says. Wearing shorts , a sleeveless top, fishnet hose, and brilliant green eyeshadow - there is a second afternoon performance still ahead - she sews another costume as she talks.

Eleven-year-old Delilah, the last of her three children to join her in the ring, keeps up with her schoolwork with the help of a tutor. Homework is mailed back to her private school in Ruskin, Fla., where the family lives when it's not on the road.

Delilah zooms into the trailer with an armload of clean, folded clothes and shyly requests permission to play outside.

Not one's idea of a rambunctious circus child, a visitor suggests to her mother. She laughs. ''The children love performing,'' she says. ''In fact, that's the way I punish them; not letting them perform.''

Barbara and her husband, William, both come from a long line of circus performers. They own five elephants and three leopards - and two tractors and four trailers to haul them around in. ''We're in the heavy equipment business,'' Barbara says wryly.

Another performer's theme music signals her that it's time to put on her glittering turquoise costume and head for the ring.

Paul Binder says, ''Ten minutes in the ring is a whole day's work.''

Jim and Tisha Tinsman's 10 minutes are intense. A young married couple, they do a balancing act on a shiny, rotating steel ladder about 30 feet above the ring floor. Tisha provides the crucial balance for Jim's handstand on a chair resting on one end of the horizontal ladder, adjusting her weight in minute degrees forward and backward.

It's his trick, but she maintains all the control.

''I didn't want to do it at first,'' says the vibrant dark-haired Brooklynite over a glass of orange juice in their trailer. ''I told Jimmy, 'You trust me, but I don't trust me.' ''

Last night, something went wrong. It was hot and, while doing a handstand on blocks at the top of the ladder, Jim's hand slipped. He caught himself, tossed a reassuring kiss to his wife below, wiped his hands, and tried the handstand again - successfully.

Talking about it afterward, both seem nonchalant. They have worked on this act for 11 weeks, and now Tisha trusts herself too.

''I trust him to catch himself if something goes wrong,'' she says. ''You just have to think all the time. You can't get overconfident.''

Jim leaves to check the stability of their custom-made ladder before they perform.

Sunday. A clown in full makeup is disassembling an iron bedframe.

Preparing to break down the site is a lengthy process. During the show, props are packed away as fast as the performers finish with them. In the trailers, drawers are taped shut in preparation for the drive to Amherst, Mass., the next stop on the tour. By early Monday morning the bigtop will be down, and, after a few hours sleep, the last of the crew will hit the road.

Binder and company will have dropped stakes at almost a dozen communities in the Northeast before the 11-week summer season ends. Around Christmas they also perform for five weeks in a heated tent at Lincoln Center in New York. They also were featured in the movie version of ''Annie!'' Next summer Binder hopes to expand their season with tours as far west as Chicago.

It's another scorching morning as the last trailer leaves. The Dartmouth Green has been swept clean. It looks as though no one had ever been there.

Except for the faint footprint of an elephant.

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