All photos courtesy of Rick Purdue

The cream of the crop under the big top

Jacob Wentz | March 6, 2019

After a minute of darkness, a series of blue and purple lights suddenly illuminates an intimidating white pendulum. Ringmaster Joseph Bauer Jr. dramatically breaks through the red velvet curtains and steps into a wheel at the end of the pendulum. His daughter, Ambra Andrine, uses all of her weight to push the physics contraption into motion. Within seconds, Bauer is more than 50 feet high, seemingly defying gravity with his mid-air jumps and rhythmic movements to The Incredibles theme song. He swiftly climbs from the center to the outside of the wheel, running on the exterior perimeter as it continues to spin. The audience gasps and looks up with astonishment. This is Circus Sarasota.

“This apparatus that I’m working on is the original wheel," Bauer said. "After this, there have been copies,
but this one here is 68 years old—it was the first one ever built.
“This apparatus that I’m working on is the original wheel," Bauer said. "After this, there have been copies,
but this one here is 68 years old—it was the first one ever built.

Circus Sarasota is a seasonal attraction that runs from Feb. 15 to March 10. Every year, new circus artists travel to Sarasota from around the world to showcase their talents in the intimate European-style big top.

Circus has been a part of Sarasota’s history since the late 1920s, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus established their winter headquarters in town. 

“Some places are a little more reserved, but Sarasota audiences are fabulous because this is like ‘Circus City, USA’ on the map,” Bauer said. “People know the Ringling Museum, the Circus Arts Conservatory; it’s just a big circus town. To be able to see a big top show again in Sarasota, and a show like this, it’s bound to be a hit.”

Bauer is the product of Sarasota’s circus history. His parents settled in the town after headlining for the Ringling Bros. They specialized in high-wire and sway pole acts. 

Following in his parents’ footsteps, Bauer first began studying circus education in a course offered at Sarasota Junior High. 

“The rest,” Bauer said in his booming performance voice, “is history.”

This year, artists hail from Canada, Italy, Sweden, Portugal, Russia, Colombia and the U.S.

Two of the youngest performers, 18-year-old Nicole Kolev and 21-year-old Michelle Kolev, come from Italy.

“But we didn’t work for long in Italy,” Michelle Kolev said. “We stayed until I was 16 and then we started going to Spain, Germany, France, all over Europe.”

The two started their hand-to-hand acrobatic act in Paris, France and then worked at a Christmas circus in Germany. Immediately after, they came to Sarasota to prepare for the Circus Sarasota show.

Nicole and Michelle Kolev, 18 and 21 respectively, are breaking barriers as the first pair of women to
perform tricks of such high caliber.

“When we arrived here, we felt so bad because it’s very cold in Germany,” Nicole Kolev said. “The weather is very different, it’s very humid, so for your body you need some time to get used to that—we’re not machines, we can always fail, so we are always nervous before shows.”

The sisters talked about how they use those nerves to motivate them when they perform. Their act was one of the most well-received of the evening, as they performed with unnatural amounts of physical strength, balance and grace. They are the first pair of female hand-to-hand acrobats doing the tricks they are doing, as the base performer generally needs more strength to support their partner.

“In the end, if you want to do something, and you keep fighting, you’re going to reach it,” Michelle Kolev said. “And here in Sarasota, they really seem to understand and appreciate what we are doing. They will ask about the elegance, about the costumes, about so many things that make you understand their support.”

Like Bauer, the Kolev sisters come from a long-standing circus family dynasty.

“We started with our parents,” Nicole Kolev said. “They are circus performers and are still working on the trapeze, so we were born into the circus.”

Others come from schools that specialize in circus arts, like Swedish teeterboard stars Einar Kling Odencrants and Anton Graaf. The pair met at the School of Dance and Circus in Stockholm.

“There aren’t many people who do circus,” Graaf said. “It’s growing, but it is still a very small community of people all in all.”

Coming from a gymnastic background, Odencrants was interested in the ability to do flips and tricks.

“When I wanted to start upper secondary school, I wanted to continue with my gymnastic training, so I chose the teeterboard and circus path,” Odencrants said.

From an audience perspective, the act looks thrilling, precise and dangerous. Using the teeterboard, the pair continuously launched each other into the air to perform tricks. What makes the act exceptional is how perfectly the two stick their landings on the thin board and how quick, fluid and accurate the rhythm of their jumps becomes.

“What we work for and why we train so much and so hard is that we want to minimize the actual risk,” Graaf said. “There are ways of saving yourself in case something doesn’t actually work out.”

“It’s always good to be a bit nervous,” Graaf said. “I always perform a little bit better when I’m on my toes.”

In addition to these acts, the 2019 Circus Sarasota lineup includes America’s Got Talent nominee Hans Klose and his canine crew, aerial performer Ambra Andrine, Charlie Chaplin-inspired funny-man Cesar Dias, professional juggler Victor Krachinov, cyr wheel artist Valerie Inertie, hand-to-hand acrobats Giuseppe and Emanuel Curatola and the adrenaline-inducing high wire walkers, Pedro Carrillo and Luis D. Acosta.

“I was amazed at how well put-together all of the acts are,” first-year Adriana Gavilanes said. “They all flowed and had artistic movement even in the parts where there weren’t explicit tricks being performed.”

As Bauer said, it’s a show you don’t want to miss.

 

Circus Sarasota continues to showcase these exceptional performances until Sunday, Mar. 10. Tickets can be purchased online or at the big top in Nathan Benderson Park. For more information, visit circusarts.org.