There's something different about the Big Apple Circus this season, and it's not just the spruced-up lobby or expanded bathrooms (though families will certainly appreciate those). Though founder Paul Binder retired more than a year ago, Dance On! is the first show conceived from big top to bottom by his successor, Guillaume Dufresnoy. The newbie's lineup of (mostly) amazing acts helps the troupe soar to new heights while honoring its impressive history.
Unlike last year's Bello Is Back!, Dance On! is built around a theme—as the title suggests, it's dancing—instead of a character. Grooving in your seat is, of course, encouraged, and the performers keep up the rhythm by moving at a noticeably swift pace with fine musical support from the onstage band. China's remarkably versatile Wuqiao Acrobatic Troupe opens the show with stunning feats, including jumping rope atop unicycles and, in one of the most impressive stunts of the evening, switching unicycles midride. Another highlight is Ethiopian juggler Girma Tshehai. He doesn't throw his balls in the air; he bounces them off an angular Plexiglas structure, recalling the work of master juggler and Big Apple Circus alum Michael Moschen. Although the troupe's signature clown, Grandma (Barry Lubin), impresses with her usual slapstick antics (especially a bit on a treadmill), she gets a real run for her funny from Rob Torres, whose goofy hat juggling and old-fashioned vaudevillian bits are consistently riotous. Jenny Vidbel's menagerie of talented animals includes a trio of pony-riding goats (only two goats managed to mount their ponies the night I attended), a dozen stunning, white miniature horses and some charming albeit unruly canines.
In between these stellar acts, there are a few slow spots. Longtime Big Apple Circus aerialist Regina Dobrovitskaya swings majestically above the audience, but her familiar routine doesn't really thrill. And while the contortionists in the X Bud Roses Troupe are supremely flexible, they're not as high-energy as the rest of the show's performers. But these minor lows just accentuate the highs, like the stunning lasso finale courtesy of, once again, the Wuqiao Acrobatic Troupe. The group makes some mistakes, but always bests the laws of gravity in the end.—Raven Snook
Big Apple Circus: Dance On! runs through Jan 9, 2011 at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center.