Over and in the sawdust ring
where wizards fly
and tumblers spring
no need to give them plays to ply
The act is king
The act is the thing
Paul Binder’s profound respect for first-rate circus performers is the reason why, I believe, the one ring show he and Michael Christensen founded 31 years ago has endured in the country’s most competitive market. Now with Binder (and Christensen to follow, it is rumored) stepping down, as first reported in The New York Times, this company is heading into largely uncharted territory virtually never before traveled by an American circus. There is, to be sure, the ominous if minor example of what became of the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco (remember San Francisco?) when a small board of directors that ended up in control of the show self-destructed in the space of a few fitful seasons. Big Apple Circus, on the other hand, has fortified its financial structure into a far more elaborately composed performing arts entity funded and overseen from the top by a board consisting of 35 individuals.
If Binder did not step down on his own accord, who among those thirty five gently nudged him out of the tent -- and why?
Not only is the style of circus Big Apple will produce in the years to come likely to change — for every circus bears the unmistakable imprint of the producer in charge — but the greater question is, will whomever controls its artistic destiny preserve Big Apple as a circus or steer it imitatively in the direction of Cirque du Soleil? That question may have already been answered in the telling appointment of Frenchman Guillaume Dufresnoy — a long time member of the organization and currently its general manager, to replace the outgoing founder.
Paul Binder told me during an interview in 2005, “Cirque has never particularly appealed to me as a circus, as I see circus was meant to be.” Michael Christensen said essentially the same thing in a separate interview. One can only wonder to what extent others in the company differ, and who among them will prevail. I can imagine many figures in the wings (for example, Barry Lubin, one of the clowns who plays Grandma) frothing over the chance to seize the artistic reigns. The word “Grandma’s” may yet get tacked onto the front of the moniker.
Replacing Binder may be far more difficult than anyone can predict, for Binder has demonstrated the rare ability to function within the tricky context of a board and of all the nagging social pressures that must come with it. Indeed, we may never know how much his decision to leave was influenced by the myriad conflicts he doubtlessly had to work his way through all these past years just in order to survive at the top. From what I know of the man, he is a world-class diplomat, tactful to a t, and if he is not leaving for the official reasons he has given (among them, to the Times, “I didn't want to do this until I was on my deathbed”), we may never know the actual cause.
To ABC News a couple of nights later during its "Person of the Week" segment that was honoring him, Binder pulled back from the deathbed to share a rush of passion about his life in the circus that hardly sounded like a man wanting out: "It doesn't matter what happens in the day, you know, what I'm going through. It doesn't matter much. At one moment, and that's the moment the light goes on and I hear the music and suddenly I walk in the ring. All of those woes go away and what replaces is an enormous sense of energy, an enormous sense of pleasure, and enormous sense of wonder. The connection with the audience is the final payoff for that."
Board president Chris Wearing seemed determined to assure Times reporter Glenn Collins that Binder's retirement was not forced, describing it as "not one of those 'move him out and say he'll be doing special projects' things." If Binder will, in fact, be booking acts for the show, then the statement holds some weight. Binder said that his exit had been in the works for several years and that "we wanted to create a cultural institution that would last after me, and now it will."
Now it will? Only time will tell, and here is where the future is up for grabs. Boards of directors have a way, once the originators are gone, of splintering into dangerous disarray as they compete for power. Just ask Larry Pisoni, who walked away from the Pickle Family Circus he and Peggy Snider started up three years before Binder and Christensen raised their first tent over Manhattan. When Pisoni wanted to return only a few years hence, he was treated like an upstart street juggler. Take a number, guy. In a strange fluke of fate, the suicide of William Ball, founder and ex-head of the American Conservatory Theatre who had been booked to direct a Pickle holiday show, resulted in the Pickle board out of last minute desperation offering the gig to Pisoni. And Pisoni proceeded to mount a derivatively compromised circus smarting under the shadows of the then recent meteoric rise of Cirque du Soleil. The result: Pisoni was thereafter booted out and left to feel humiliated and angry. Boards of directors, once in control, can be shockingly insensitive to those founding geniuses.
Now, as for the Big Apple board, without the indisputable artistic authority of a Binder to contain all the schisms within it, it will take a few seasons to see if this group of 35 egos can capably sustain the Binder and Christensen legacy.
Thirty years ago seems like only yesterday. Thirty years ago, the Pickles were charming themselves onto the Bay Area scene, and Big Apple Circus was testing its dreams in Gotham. Circus Flora, too, made a noble though limited try at it in the Midwest. All of the idealistic youngsters behind these shows were eager to reinvent or renew the sawdust ring. Thirty years later, only Big Apple stands as a major force and mostly because of its annual three month visit to Lincoln Center.
The Times report of Binder’s exit at the end of this new season contained implicit indications of mounting concern among the board over direct competition from Cirque du Soleil’s Wintuk, soon to begin its second year as a stage fantasy for kids at the Madison Square Garden Theatre. Concerns also about how the crumbling economy could impact ticket sales and fund raising drives; and about ongoing desires, harbored by some in the company, to add a summer season and take the show on tour abroad. As if addressing goals that Binder may have resisted, said Wearing, "There is so much we want to do. We want to extend the show and the season, and develop an endowment."
We will have a good chance, assuming anybody can get their hands on real box office records, to watch two very different forms of circus go head to head in New York, now that Big Apple, sporting what looks like a strong and varied lineup of high class acts, faces off with the more surreally designed Wintuk, a show for the younger set said to be coming back to town in a "revamped" form with new acts, in an effort to bolster a program that left last year’s critics yawningly unimpressed (although none of those reviewers were kids, were they?)
Will the new BAC power structure chase after the elusive Cirque formula? So tempting and so impractical. One after another would-be appropriators of the Montreal Magic has fumbled and stumbled. The Pickles, post-Pisoni, went bye bye into the abyss, all enamored of trying to prove they could out-Cirque Cirque. Montreal spin offs have gone bye bye, too. Circus Chimera tried to offer the public bargain basement Cirque. There simply did not exist an audience for that; Chimera’s natural audience base veered toward the lower working classes who, unburdened by “issues,” still enjoy watching animals perform.
One thing is certain. However much you are a fan or a non-fan of Paul Binder’s act-centric version of a one ring European circus, prepare to see that vision fade into something else — something yet to be known. He and Christensen gave me, in their Picturesque edition, one of the most memorable circus performances I’ve ever experienced around a ring. Such moments are a rarity under any big top in any land.
Farewell, Sir Ringmaster!
[photos credits: Paul Binder, by Andrew Councill for The New York Times; jugglers Michael Christensen and Paul Binder in the early years, by The Big Apple Circus; the show on a lot in the Bronx, 1992, by Librado Romero/The New York Times; Binder with his wife Katja Schumann and children, Max and Katherine, 1993, by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times; Big Apple Circus midway in New York at 50th Street and 8th Avenue, June 7,1978, by Neal Boenzi/The New York Times; Binder, right, with Guillaume Dufresnoy, 1993, by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times; the Ringmaster waits to go on, by Andrew Councill for The New York Times]