“Mom and dad served peanuts during the intermission. There was beer in a keg. Also, various friends were given instruments to make noises—cymbals or a cardboard tube that was used when they wanted to roar like a lion.”
Calder made Calder’s Circus to perform for his friends. It was not meant to be a museum exhibit. Luckily, there are films of the artist performing Calder’s Circus so we can see how he wanted us to experience it and share his excitement.
Alexander Calder built this tiny circus during his years in Paris. He created a complete troupe of performers — from acrobats and animals to clowns and tightrope walkers —using ordinary household materials. Look closely and you’ll see everything from bits of cloth, yarn, and paper to rubber tubes, buttons, and bottle caps.
Calder didn’t design his circus as a three-ring spectacle. It’s more like the intimate, one-ring circuses he saw in France. Now I’d like to introduce two guys who started a traditional, one-ring circus here in New York City. Here’s Michael Christensen, Cofounder and Creative Director of the Big Apple Circus, remembering his circus days in Paris with Founder and Artistic Director Paul Binder.
MICHAEL CHRISTENSEN: We were a juggling act, a comedy-juggling act. We threw juggling clubs, our hats, our shoes, a rubber chicken, and from time to time a squirting fish named Ronald. Do you remember Ronald?
PAUL BINDER: I do. And what was funniest about our act is we started where everybody else left off. We started by dropping things.
MICHAEL CHRISTENSEN: Then once we dropped them — then we had to pick them up.
PAUL BINDER: Yeah.
MICHAEL CHRISTENSEN: And that wasn’t always easy, and there was a lot of comedy to be had in just picking up one club.
PAUL BINDER: Or one squirting fish.
MICHAEL CHRISTENSEN: Named Ronald. … Anyway, we found our home in the Nouveau Cirque de Paris. We walked into that ring and felt like home.
And there’s an image that always stays with me: … Paul and I, behind the curtain, Nouveau Cirque de Paris, looking into this wonderful world of the circus, and we look at each other as if we’re nine years old, and we say, “Do you believe it?
BOTH: “… We’re in the circus!”
PAUL BINDER—I think a ringmaster is sort of—he’s a character that interprets for the audience, and he comments on the action, and he’s an authority figure.
NARRATOR—Andrey Mantchev learned to do tricks on a teeterboard in Bulgaria, where he grew up. A teeterboard looks something like a seesaw. Calder’s Circus features a teeterboard act, too. Can you find it? I’ll give you a sec.
Here’s how it worked: One acrobat stood on one end of the teeterboard. Calder made another acrobat climb up onto the platform (drumroll please!) and then made the acrobat launch himself from a catapult. He landed on the other end of the teeterboard, launching the first acrobat up into the air.
Andrey Mantchev trained for a year to do a trick like this one.
ANDREY MANTCHEV—It all happens so quick. You don’t really have that much time to think about things. But as I’m stepping on top of the teeterboard, my initial thoughts are how to do my trick; I just remember, step by step, what I’m supposed to do so I can be able to do the trick. … First is as I put my arms down, which is a signal for the people on the platform to jump, so they can catapult me. My first thoughts are doing the tempo to be able to jump off the teeterboard; then bringing my legs to my chest in order to make a somersault; and opening and seeing the person underneath me, and trying to land softly.
NARRATOR—Horses perform several routines in Calder’s Circus. Find the act with a woman standing on a horse’s back. In this act, Calder stretched a rope across the circus ring, just high enough for the horse to gallop under. The horse circled the ring mechanically, with the woman standing on his back. By manipulating the rope and the wires attached to the woman’s figure, Calder made her jump the rope as the horse passed under it.
CHRISTINE ZERBINI—It’s known as bareback riding. … It is very fun; it’s very difficult because you have to have very good balance, and you have to feel what the horse is feeling also. If the horse decides to stop or move sideways, it can knock you off balance.
CHRISTINE ZERBINI—Yes, I’ve performed with a variety over the years. … Everything from zebras and elephants to cows and pigs.
NARRATOR—Christine talks to the animals while they’re performing together. She uses the French word brave, which means “well done.”
CHRISTINE ZERBINI—Our horses, if you say “brave,” that means that everything is good. That’s a very soothing way of saying “good,” and it’s easy for them to understand. Each trainer has their own words or cues for the animals, but we just like to reward them a lot and give them a lot of soothing, comforting vocals.… As soon as you see — even if it’s not a hundred percent, even if it’s just a small effort — we let them know, “Brave, good boy!” So that way they understand, oh, okay, that’s what I have to do. And normally by the second time, they’ve caught on right away.
If they don’t get to perform, they really feel left out. And I think that feeling of just being out there with them is the best reward of all.
SARAH SCHWARZ—My name is Sarah Schwarz. I am a company member; this is my third season with the Big Apple Circus. And as a company member, we do different acts every year. I am doing the wire, this is my main act, so this year I can present my tightrope act in the Big Apple Circus.
NARRATOR—Sarah Schwarz learned to walk a tightrope in Germany, where she was born. Calder used his fingers to manipulate the string, coaxing the acrobats across the tightrope. What goes through a real performer’s mind as she’s walking the tightrope?
SARAH SCHWARZ—You want details? [Laughs] All the details: you look at the end of the wire, you keep your arms up, you put your feet straight, not like a duck, and not like the ballerinas in the beginning: you just put them straight. … A wire is about twelve millimeters thick; it’s more or less like the little finger. … It’s about seven meters long — I’m sorry I don’t speak in feet and inches. What else is to tell about the wire? It is for me the most beautiful instrument in the circus. … You become light, you get this feeling of flying, dancing in the air. Mm-hm!
Real circus performers must build these routines into their muscle memory, until they can do them without fear. Sarah Schwarz tells us how.
SARAH SCHWARZ—Well, my first advice is, “Practice, practice, practice!” [Laughs] You just gotta do it and do it and do it and do it. … It’s an exercise of concentration, really. And I tell my students that it’s going to help them in school, too, because it’s really great exercise on your concentration.
And you always have the risk to fall. The public always wait for that. Always. … Most of us, the circus artists, we like to show very difficult things to look very easy. So people will never get an idea how difficult it is, what I’m doing.