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How the Circus Got a Social Conscience

At The Big Apple Circus, animals are not harmed, and there are special programs to help everyone see its arresting roster of clowns, contortionists, and… llamas.

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Everyone remembers it as a kid—when long parades of oversized trucks rolled into town to set up camp in a field. Almost overnight massive red tents would appear. They housed the rustling noises of exotic animals and amplified the bright lights and musical notes of carnival tricks and a night of illusions. The circus had arrived.

But in New York City, a metropolis with an abundance of concrete and very few fields of grass, a far more subtle display appears. Wedged between two marble buildings at the lavishly designed Lincoln Center, sits a single white tent. The same that has marked the dawning of Fashion Week for the past four years now signals the arrival of the Big Apple Circus every October.

Metamorphosis, the company’s 37th production which runs through January 11, 2015, is this year’s theme. “We all have the ability to transform ourselves and become our dreams,” the show’s director West Hyler says of the inspiration behind the show. “Human potential is so great, far greater than we realize.”

The show’s transformative theme revolves around Tatevik Seyranyan, who is introduced as a quiet—seemingly mediocre—assistant to presumably the show’s only contortionist, Odbayasakh Dorjoo. As Dorjoo twists, turns, and bends her body to squeeze into a small box sitting center stage, she is soon joined by Seyranyan who mimics her movements before sliding into the same tiny container and closing the door.

“If you saw her on the street, you’d never know that she can do the things she can,” Hyler said of Seyranyan. “She really becomes the image of someone you might underestimate or take for granted.”

Along with contorting, she also performs an astonishing balancing act. Stacked cylinders form a base beneath her feet and loosely roll about as she juggles objects and weaves in and out of hula-hoops. At any moment, the slightest loss in concentration could see a disastrous tumble.

If such a situation arises, the show’s ringmaster, John Kennedy Kane, who has spent 30 years in the industry, must jump into action, while Francesco, the show’s clown, distracts the audience with his humorous tricks.

Recently, in an act involving the Anastasini family, who hail from eight generations of circus performers, a spaceship that serves as the centerpiece of their aerial act experienced a technical glitch—its gears jammed leaving it suspended midair unable to move. The duo was unable to perform their stunts. “Houston, we have a problem,” Kane told the crowd to keep moods light. He promptly explained the situation, breaking early for intermission.

The show continued with the Anastasini sons’ human juggling act (one brother spins and throws the other with his feet). Animals jumped through unbelievable hoops and seemingly appeared out of thin air. A duet of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wardrobe change dazzles viewers and a troop of high flying acrobats closed the show. It was business as usual.

Circus acts have been around for thousands of years. They first entertained Roman spectators with equestrian shows, chariot races, gladiator combats and the barbaric animal head-to-heads before evolving into acrobatic stunts, human fetes of strength and flexibility, and rapid tricks of illusions as the entertainment spread throughout Europe and Asia.

By the time big-top tents began appearing in the United States in 1793, menagerie, exotic animals, and human oddities had been added to form a three-ringed extravaganza. “That was when circus made a wrong turn,” Hyler said. “It’s why it’s become disrespected.”

In Europe, he explained, the circus is considered a high form of art, known for its merit of talents and skilled performers. Spectators turn up on red carpets dressed in black tie and sipping champagne, much like the opera or ballet—a far cry from America’s take on the performances: “It’s considered children’s theater,” he added.

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Sensitivity around animal cruelty has forced many spectators to boycott major productions, such as the long-standing (and historical) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Ringling Bros.—which has been around since 1919—has been sued numerous times by the ASPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Protection Institute, and The Fund for Animals for the abuse they inflict on elephants.

In 2011, Mother Jones featured a year-long investigation into the harsh treatments of animals at Ringling Bros., dubbing it “The Cruelest Show on Earth.” Bullhooks, whippings, and electric shocks were used as the main methods of discipline and training for their exotic animals.

By 1998, their star elephant, Kenny, became ill and was ordered not to perform by a circus veterinarian. Yet he was put into the spotlight, spewing feces and blood as he struggled to perform. Kenny died later that night, shackled to a post like he spent most of his life.

Legal battles and public outcry followed the incident. Many countries have now gone as far as banning exotic animals from circus arenas to prevent such monstrosities.

At Big Apple Circus, a set of camels is as exotic as it gets, so your conscience can remain unsullied. There are goats, llamas, dogs, rabbits, and even a porcupine, all of which live on the show’s animal trainer Jenny Vidbel’s 100-acres home in upstate New York. Many of them are rescues.

“Life just kind of revolves around the animals here,” Vidbel told the Daily Beast. She left The Ringling Bros. to join Big Apple as chief trainer over five years ago. “Of course there are bad people in every business, but I certainly have never been around it. The animals are my life and I take it very seriously—the poor treatment of animals is just disgusting.” Big Apple gives her “plenty of space and time” to train and play with the animals to keep their quality of life top-notch.

Vidbel also comes from a family of circus entertainers—her grandparents trained elephants for The Ringling Bros. in the 1920s and later founded their own show, Vidbel’s Old Tyme Circus. She’s lived, breathed, and loved animals since her birth. A rescued monkey sat at her dinner table for 25 years. Her grandfather’s three elephants treated her and her sister as one of their own, stampeding to the scene whenever one of them would let out a scream.

“I think that is where my love came from,” she said of playing with the massive animals as a child. The bond they shared left the two children as one of the pack—the leader of the heard would gently pull them in with her trunk to protect Vidbel and her sister. “It gives you sensitivity and an understanding that I don’t think many people could ever have.”

Big Apple Circus doesn’t restrict itself to the public shows at Lincoln Center; its public outreach programs include special shows for those with autism and their popular “Shows of the Senses” performances for the sight and hearing impaired.

The outreach program spans the entire east coast, where the show mainly travels. From Florida to Maine, Clown Care disperses 75 professional clowns to medical centers while Vaudeville Caravan visits nursing homes. Circus After School reaches at-risk youth by offering semester-long courses in circus arts in addition to the 40,000 free and discounted tickets offered to the public. If there is a future for today’s cruelty-free circus, demonstrating its social conscience seems to be at the heart of it.

Metamorphosis is running at Lincoln Center, 63rd Street and 9th Avenue, until January 11, 2015. It will travel to New Jersey, Boston, Queens, and Washington D.C. A special live broadcast of Metamorphosis will stream to theaters across the US on Saturday, November 8 at 12:30PM EST.