Change is in the air—flying, presumably, with the greatest of ease—at the Big Apple Circus. For the past 30 years, Lincoln Center's cherished institution has been under the artistic directorship of Paul Binder, its founder and ringmaster. But this year, Binder has stepped down, ceding the reins to his longtime second-in-command, Guillaume Dufresnoy.
While many are speculating about how Dufresnoy will leave his bite on the Big Apple, show director Steve Smith says that "it will probably take three to five years to see Guillaume's imprint," thanks to prior bookings. Still, there are fresh additions to anticipate—in particular, the return of a high-profile star.
To help finesse this transitional year, the one-ring circus has brought in a genuine ringer: Bello Nock, arguably the most famous face of the modern circus world. Bello starred at the Big Apple for several seasons in the late 1990s, before going on to headline at the larger Ringling Bros. for much of the past decade. His most distinctive feature is his signature coif, a nearly foot-tall shock of natural red hair, which looks like it has been frozen in place by years of hair-raising stunts.
For Bello is not just a funnyman; he is also a daredevil, gymnast and technician, who designs much of his own equipment. (He calls himself a mix between Jim Carrey and Evel Knievel.) Early on, Bello considered becoming an Olympic gymnast, but says he "chose circus because you can make people happy every night." His training is evident in his specialized skills. In this year's show, he'll perform an intimate version of his usual act, complete with high falls, bungee jumping and trampoline acrobatics.
Because his performance is so unusual, Bello is unlikely to tread on the stocking toes of the Big Apple's other famous mirthmaker: Grandma, the little old lady whom clown Barry Lubin has been impersonating for some 35 years. She may appear to be the soul of harmless familiarity, but Grandma displays a mischievous streak as she interacts with the audience. "When you get to be of a certain age, you just don't care anymore," Lubin observes. "You say what's on your mind and you do what you feel like doing, because life is short."
The combination of familiar elements (Luciano Anastasini's adorable pound puppies, Spanish juggler Picasso Jr., and equestrian duo Christine Zerbini and Sultan Kumisbaye are all returning) and new leadership should make for an especially exciting Big Apple this year: all shined up, but with its core values intact. "These are some of the greatest acts from around the world," Bello notes. "We're going to put on a wonderful show."
The Big Apple Circus: Bello Is Back! runs through Jan 18 at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park.