With Circus Sarasota now in its 14th year of productions, the task for artistic director Pedro Reis is always to try to top previous year’s performances—or at least offer loyal audiences something new and different from what they’ve seen before. Judging from the packed tent on opening night, and the enthusiastic response from the crowd, he must be doing something right.
Not everything is new, of course; Reis blends familiar favorites, like his aerialist wife Dolly Jacobs and ringmaster Joseph Bauer Jr. (who this year does double duty by performing the circus finale Wheel of Death), with newcomers like juggler Picaso Jr. and balancing act the Azzario Sisters, making their American debut here. But it’s all high-energy, high-skills from the opening moment to the close.
The production opens with the Alanian Riders, a chance to observe the agility of both horse and rider with a Cossack-themed equestrian act. Those hooves comes awfully close to the sides of the ring; you can’t help but fear for the animals (and of course the riders, too, as they perform various twists and turns astride their mounts).
That juggler, Picaso Jr., who comes out in bright yellow breeches and vest, is the son of performer El Gran Picaso, who apparently first scored big with “mouth juggling” using ping pong balls. The son carries on the tradition, popping out those balls from his throat like one of those lottery machines determining winning numbers on TV. He’s also a lot of fun racing around the circus tent’s aisles, boomeranging plates out into the audience and back into his hand.
Hand balancers are always amazing with their feats of taut equilibrium, and I guess that’s even more the case when they are fairly slight-looking females. The Azzario Sisters (daughters of the show’s featured Jose Michel Clowns) manage to balance on each other’s heads, feet, etc., in various positions, even while climbing a ladder.
Looking at the rest of the circus acts: Tightrope walker Erik Neimen tackles the rope with sword in hand, also jumping through a hoop and doing a backward somersault (winning loud applause after coming back from a fall at one point); the Fornasari Family scores laughs with their bullfight-themed act involving, well, bulls (dogs in this case, with bull horns attached); the Moroccan Connection demonstrates amazing strength as the anchor at one moment carries the weight of his six fellows; the quick change artists Krisztina and Szebasztian don’t necessarily add much new to this popular act, but it’s still entertaining; the Jose Michel Clowns offer fun dousing each other with ever larger buckets of water; and Dolly still soars.
But that closing act, the Wheel of Death…well, it’s not for those with heart conditions, as Bauer maneuvers high atop the ever-turning wheel while casually juggling flaming torches, jumping rope, and yes, wearing a blindfold. Even if you’ve seen the wheel before, it’s still a breath-holding moment.
Circus Sarasota continues through Feb. 21 in the tent near Ed Smith Stadium; for tickets call 355-9805 or go to circussarasota.org.