In November 2021, Circus Omnium – the innovative circus dedicated to inclusivity and diversity – was set to open a seven-week run under a marquee in Tysons, Virginia. A slate of circus acts was announced, to be performed by an unprecedented multi-ethnic and versatile cast. Then came omicron, and Omnium had to cancel.
But for a special public performance, a matinee on February 26, 2022, the show went on. It wasn’t in a tent, but in Capital One Hall’s brand new Main Theater – a fully inclusive and fully accessible show called Impossible. DC Theater Arts writers Sophia Howes and John Stoltenberg were there and are still talking about what they saw.
John: Passionate about circus since the age of five, I was delighted to i cane. I found it more enjoyable than I ever imagined a circus could be. I went to wonder/worry about the quality of a tent show mounted on a proscenium stage, but my doubts disappeared as soon as the performance started. The production values were worthy of the best great stage shows: spectacular lighting design, a vibrant musical track tightly keyed to the action, and often topped off with a bass beat for the hearing impaired. (For the visually impaired, audio description devices were available). As a theatrical spectacle with breathtaking scenes and an unforgettable emotional arc, Omnium Circus completely exceeded my expectations.
And I had a lump in my throat from the start when the Ringmaster sang the national anthem a cappella in beautiful baritone as the lyrics were simultaneously and sublimely signed. So he introduced us to the story of Johnny (coincidentally my childhood nickname). I was captivated.
Sophia: The story of Johnny, a boy who ran away with the circus to follow his dream, is a story everyone can relate to. Those who have been told you can’t live with your heart are told “It’s impossible.” Omnium Circus is above all Impossible. The talent, joy and celebration on stage reminded me that we can always be at our best. Omnium Founder and Executive Director Lisa B. Lewis quotes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which are an inspiration to anyone who faces obstacles in life: “If you can’t fly , so run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving. The brilliant costumes, beautiful smiles and incredible skills of the performers were so uplifting that I felt a glorious sense of possibility.
John: There were performers with obvious disabilities (they used a chair, for example), and there were others whose disabilities could not be discerned from the stage (they were deaf, for example). Yet what was always most evident and evident was the skill, versatility and joy of the performers.
The “visibility of disability” has taken on a whole new meaning. We have learned to see completely beyond the lack of performers. We have learned to always see their excellence. In this sense, Omnium Circus was much more than thrilling entertainment; it became a deeply personal transformative experience. Even as the show was unfolding, it changed the way we perceived people.
This was particularly poignant in the solo acts where the performers were literally alone. The acrobat spinning silver hoops in the air, the performer spinning around the stage on the Cyr Ferris wheel, the upside-down contortionist hitting a target with a bow and arrow, the acrobat balancing on a ladder — one could not look without admiration and without thereby exercising and weakening one’s own capacity for identification with the humanity of others.
Sophia: The King Charles Troupe high-energy unicycle basketball group act was an intense and fun experience. Later, I was surprised to learn that they are now in the fifth generation! They made history as the first all-black band to perform with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson made a similar breakthrough: At age 22, he was Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s first black Ringmaster. He remained ringmaster until the circus closed in 2017. Lisa B. Lewis is a graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. The performers in the juggling group were multi-ethnic and versatile, with Johnny in the middle. It was a great example of how Omnium gets everyone in on the fun.
Among the stars are the latest generation of the legendary Españas circus family. Noe España and Marcus Ponce perform on the breathtaking Wheel of Destiny. Vivien España amazes us with her trapeze and aerial hoop act, or lyra. In the next generation, Noemi Lee España with her hoops and her brother Elan with his amazing Diabolos. Noe España is also the artistic director. As Lisa B. Lewis says, “Omnium is leading the world into a new era of fabulous family entertainment – heart-pounding joy, seamless inclusion, and total accessibility.”
John: The kids in the audience looked and seemed to be having a good time, some waving rainbow-lit wands their adults had bought for them at the merchandising booth. It was definitely a show for the whole family. There was even a cute dog number. But I can attest that there were also strong moments that could have significant emotional significance for adults.
The act that absolutely blew my mind, for example, was acrobat and aerialist Jen Bricker-Bauer. Born without legs, she performed breathtaking feats of astonishing beauty and strength hanging from silks. Moments into his athletic ballet number, a man came onto the stage playing a trombone. Curious juxtaposition, I thought. Then he put down his horn and joined Bricker in the air, where together they performed a surprisingly muscular and tender pas de deux that moved me to tears. Never has a circus or dance show dissolved me so much. As I learned later, this man was Dominik Bauer, Bricker-Bauer’s partner in art and life. After the show, when several members of the Omnium cast came out into the lobby to meet and mingle with the audience, I was quite by chance face to face with Bricker-Bauer in his chair and Bauer next to him. her, both humbly smiling, graciously greeting people, and evidently in love. During this time, I was in tears and speechless. Except that I took out the words “Thank you”.
Sophia: There is an old adage that goes: “Nothing is impossible when you work with the circus”. The emotional roller coaster ride that is Omnium was in many ways unique. The artists were not under the marquee. The only animals were Gail Mirabella’s adorable Disc Doggers, who seemed happy and well treated, and were cheered wildly whether they caught the Frisbee or not. On Omnium’s website you will find the following words: “Sharing the joy and excitement of the performing arts is an experience that should be available to everyone, regardless of background, race, gender or background. abilities.” It truly is the circus of the future, full of limit-defying and life-affirming exploits, boundless entertainment and empathy for all.
Circus Omnium carried out Impossible February 26, 2022, at Capital One Hall Main Theater, 7750 Capital One Tower Rd, Tysons, VA. For information on future performances in other cities, visit omniumcircus.org. To learn more about the incredible performers, visit omniumcircus.org/#performers.
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