In today's multitasking America, you can chat on the phone while your car barrels down a highway. You can read e-mail on your BlackBerry while sitting through a meeting. And now you can audit Fine Arts 101 while also attending the circus.
That's because "Picturesque," the beguiling new production by Big Apple Circus, serves up the standard big-top attractions -- acrobats, clowns, jugglers, performing critters -- with a generous helping of aesthetic allusion, employing cleverly designed sets and costumes to link the acts with the work of painters and sculptors. The artistic references are in no case essential to the performances, but the painterly and sculptural motifs lend an extra touch of glamour, and a playfulness in the delivery eliminates all but the merest hint of pretentiousness.
A little pomposity would go a long way in the cozy environment of the Big Apple, a one-ring circus in which no audience member sits more than 50 feet from the stage. This intimate setup makes it easy to concentrate on the proficient performances, which move at a brisk pace, often enhanced by atmospheric framing images -- a brief cameo by a pair of Moulin Rouge-style cancan dancers, or a moment in which a row of tutu-clad ballerinas do exercises at the barre, a la Degas.
Some spectators at "Picturesque" will no doubt fall for GuiMing Meng, a Chinese performer who balances ceramic pots on various parts of his body, or Picaso Jr., who juggles ping-pong balls while clad in a harlequin costume that recalls his near-namesake.
But for my money, the highlight of the show is in the two acts wrangled by animal trainer Svetlana Shamsheeva. A sexy redhead with a glitzy stage presence, this Russian circus artist coaxes her dogs to dance around on their hind legs as well as interact with Frisbees, but it's her feline performers who truly dazzle. Any cat owner who has tried and failed to teach his pet that 7 a.m. makes a better breakfast time than 5 a.m. will marvel at Shamsheeva's obliging black-and-white Persians, who give piggyback rides to doves, take piggyback rides from dogs, leap on command and in one case even scoot along a tightrope using only the forepaws.
For those who prefer human derring-do, "Picturesque's" cosmopolitan cast offers a range of acrobatic routines, starting with the Mongolian Angels, two female gymnasts who flip and dive and catch each other while swinging on a trapeze, their hair pulled back in fringed bands in the hues of Kandinsky. A more substantial painterly effect is achieved by Andrey Mantchev, Virgile Peyramaure and Valdis Yanovskis, who enter for their floor-based balancing and leaping act wearing black bowler hats and vests with a blue-sky pattern, as if they'd been lifted from a canvas by Magritte.
The gentle jesting by Barry (Grandma the Clown) Lubin and the Ukrainian artist Vallery, who poke fun at "Picturesque's" virtuosos and execute other mild shtick, may not be the Big Apple's strongest suit, though it seemed to go over well with young spectators at a recent performance. In any case, tonal and disciplinary variety are among the virtues of the circus, and in general "Picturesque" maximizes on those virtues with disarming modesty and inventiveness. Sure, highbrows can get their Alexander Calder fix by visiting a museum instead: As circus impresario P.T. Barnum famously observed, there's a sucker born every minute.
Picturesque, by the Big Apple Circus. Conceived by Paul Binder, Michael Christensen and Michel Barette; directed by Barette; original music by Michael Valenti, Scott Sena and Brian Taylor; musical direction by Rob Slowik. Costumes, Mirena Rada; sound, Darby Smotherman; choreography, Jonathan Stuart Cerullo; scenic design, Dan Kuchar; lighting, Guy Simard. Through Oct. 11 at Dulles Town Center. Call Ticketmaster at 703-573-SEAT, 202-397-SEAT, 410-547-SEAT or visit ticketmaster.com.