When family life is, literally, a juggling act

A circus family reveals the ups and downs of life under the big tent

An average 15-year-old boy might want to sleep in on a Sunday morning, but by 9 a.m., Max Binder is in school. A few hours later this Big Apple Circus performer puts on his stage makeup, slips into a satiny blue-and-gold costume, and exercises one of the horses. By 12:30 p.m., he's on stage.

The lights dim, and the crowd quiets down in eager anticipation. As the music begins, Max slides down a 40-foot rope dangling from the peak of the huge tent and into the center of the ring. It's a routine he does roughly 335 times a year in front of audiences as large as 1,700 people. The circus is currently in Boston and touring the East Coast.

For Max and his 17-year-old sister, Katherine, circus life is all they've ever known. In fact, they are seventh-generation performers. Their father is Big Apple founder and ringmaster Paul Binder, and their mom is Katja Schumann, the circus's famed equestrian and a descendant of the legendary Danish Circus Schumann.

Both children knew early on that they wanted to be performers. Max first appeared in the ring when he was 4 years old as a glow-in-the-dark crab in the circus's "Seascape" ballet.

He quickly found his niche as an animal handler, working with ducks, his dog, Scruffy, and his mother's magnificent horses. He began synchronized drill riding at age 13, and he now takes on a range of acting and stage-crew roles.

"I wouldn't want to have any other life," Max says.

When Katherine was 6 years old she appeared in a pony routine with her mother. As she got older, she performed in equestrian acts and as an acrobat.Now the teenager is as likely to display her gymnastic skills on horseback as in a variety of aerial ballets.

"It's so cool to be part of a big extravagant number, to be inside that and see people's reactions," Katherine says. "It's a once-in-a lifetime opportunity."

The young Binders seem to possess a maturity that's beyond their years. In conversation, both are warm, engaging, poised, and confident. Neither child shows a trace of arrogance.

"They're acutely aware of the difficulty and danger of their trade, and that breeds a certain kind of humility," says their father, Mr. Binder. "It's not about the glory. It's about giving pleasure and taking pleasure in the accomplishment, not showing off."

Despite their enthusiasm, however, the Binders are open about the drawbacks of circus life.

With the Big Apple playing in 10 venues over the course of 11 months, their home is a trailer.

"I hate always packing up," Katherine confesses. "And it's kind of nerve-racking traveling down the road with your house behind you." (As the high-ranking teen in the family, Katherine gets her own trailer.)

Consequently, it's challenging for them to pursue hobbies, and when they do, their interests have to be fairly self-contained. Max calls himself "an electronics guy," with a heavy interest in video games. Katherine has a fondness for shopping and movies.

Understandably, they say the biggest drawback is growing up in an insular environment with few people their own age. Both Binder kids say their circle of friends is small and overwhelmingly drawn from other Big Apple Circus families. Four seasons ago, the circus traveled with 17 kids.

This year, Max and Katherine are the only high schoolers. (Three middle-school children and two kindergartners, none of whom perform, round out the mix.)

School is still a very big part of their lives, and the Binder children are serious students. The circus's One Ring School House is a 48-foot semitrailer outfitted with desks, cubbies, a library, and computers.

Children go to class five days a week for three intensive hours a day, often one-on-one with a teacher.

Max and Katherine's mother and father (educated at Dartmouth), believe college is a crucial step for their children. In the fall, Katherine will leave the circus to attend Barnard College in New York. She isn't sure what she'll study, but she plans to continue her dance training in case she returns to the circus after four years.

"Maybe I'll study business, so I'll have something to do when I'm 50 and can't do walkovers," she says with a laugh.

Max says college will mark the end of circus life for him. "I'm ready for normal life," he says. He plans to study business, psychology, and math.

Their parents are accepting. "I would like them to do something they really want to do and are really good at," Schumann says. "But if that happens to be the circus, I'll be thrilled."

Barry Lubin, the Big Apple Circus's ever-popular clown, says, "These are two of the most well-rounded, culturally aware kids I know. I'm sure that they're prepared educationally, culturally, and socially to go on, not only to college, but also out into the 'real world' because of their exposure to so many cultures ... [and] performers they've met from around the world."

Katherine says she's ready for the real world. "I have to say I really look forward to college."

Max counters, "I have to say I really look forward to getting her trailer."

For a tour schedule of the Big Apple Circus, please go to www.bigapplecircus.org and click on ticket and tour information.

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