There are, it seems, as many types of circuses as there are colors of sequins. The Big Apple Circus, which is playing in outer Rockville, is a gentle extravaganza rooted in theater. The Moscow Circus, playing through Sunday in middle Fairfax is more of a Wow! circus, filled with stunning virtuosity, excitement and an anti-war trapeze act that may set new standards for acrobats.
It's a one-ring operation, combining -- we are told in traditional P. T. Barnum style -- 11 of the "best" acts to come out of the "thousands" of Soviet circuses. They are strong on expertise and style, heavy on audience feedback and participation, and a little weak on humor. But where else will you encounter a clown whose press packet includes the hope that "someday the children of the entire world will unite their hands, they will clap, and their applause will break out above the earth and deafen all the noise that bombs can ever make."
These people have immense style and flair. When they take a bow, they strut -- not with braggadocio, but with apparently genuine (and deserved) delight that they have done something fabulous and survived. And they have the best posture imaginable, every hinge of their extraordinary bodies aligned and working gracefully.
Opening night Wednesday at the Patriot Center was not without unexpected drama, especially for the high-wire act "Abakharov." Thank heavens for those safety lines, or this review would have been an accident report. One member of the troupe was having a bad night, but to his credit, each time he stumbled and fell, once hanging himself up with his balancing pole, he brushed himself off and went at it again until he got it right. The audience's nerves were pretty wracked by the end of the act, however.
The headlining trapeze act, "The Flying Cranes," is one of the most unusual you are likely to see. The group's number, done primarily to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" and inspired by the movie "Apocalypse Now," takes as its text a Soviet ballad that goes like this:
Soldiers who've fought for us in terrifying war/ They weren't simply buried in bloody fields of pain/ For their spirits flew up in the sky/ Where they could soar/ And they became all birds/ The flying cranes.
The opening spotlights the apparently lifeless body of an acrobat flopped over a trapeze, ascending to the ceiling. As the body falls to the net, other "soldiers" fly up to their own purchase. There is the sound of thunder and rain, and much billowing smoke. Then there is a section of traditional trapeze stunts, but performed with extra balletic style. At the end, the fliers seem to be shot out of the sky, plummeting to earth like wounded birds. At first glance, it seems that such a serious-minded aerial ballet could not be more than an affectation. But the artistry is persuasive and moving. It may not be the favorite number of the preschool members of the audience, but for their parents and older siblings it's a refreshing challenge.
There are other acts elevated out of the predictable by the virtuosity of the performers, acts that win you over in spite of yourself. Take Dania Kaseeva, for example, who twirls hula hoops. But does she twirl! She's the Flashdancer of hula-hoop twirling. Five at once, on different body parts -- and then -- a rainbow-colored stack of 24.
The Cossack horseback riders, "Dyusembayev," are superb. It is surprising to see how Latin these Cossacks look, even though they are from Kazakhstan, Dazakhstan and Uzbekistan, "heirs to the bloodline of Genghis Khan," according to their leader. They thunder around the ring at an awesome speed, flipping over and under their horses with seeming effortlessness.
The "Rock and Roll" jugglers are fun, as are the tumblers who flip on and off a cart drawn by two humongous oxen. Also, the "Ukranian Antics," the bears that juggle with their feet and the acrobats who bounce off a spring pole suspended between two men. Not so funny was the clown act with the goofy musicians.
This circus is big on soliciting noise from the audience, and -- on opening night, at least -- allowed several troops of scouts to sing "We Are the World" to the assembled multitudes. I have nothing against scouts, but putting them and their high school sophomore lead singer in the midst of these real artists does no one any favors. Couldn't they just march around the ring and salute instead?
The Moscow Circus is making its second visit to the Washington area as part of a lengthy national tour. Its vitality, expertise and charm make one agree with the clown Frish, who said during his act, "Yeah, glasnost."