Not all circuses are three-ring extravaganzas with midgets shot out of cannons. Take the Big Apple Circus and the Moscow Circus, for two.
Both are intimate, one-ring shows that look to the roots of the art -- not to Las Vegas or Hollywood -- for inspiration.
The Big Apple Circus re-creates the golden age, 1840 to 1915, "when, in Europe," says ringmaster and founder Paul Binder, "the circus was placed on par with the other arts -- ballet, opera and symphony." To conjure up the ambiance of the period, the tent is filled with images of Paris at the turn of century as seen by Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat and van Gogh.
In the style of classical circus, the Big Apple uses many horses -- Arabians, American Saddlebreds and small Welsh draft breeds.
"Probably the most memorable and striking image of the golden age of circus is the ballerina doing arabesque on horseback," says Binder. There are also horses pulling a trapeze around the ring and pulling carts. And there are clowns.
"They aren't masked and painted with big red noses," says Binder. "They are characters we might see on the street, just enlarged. Eccentric characters, such as Mr. Oaf, a basic dunce who gets everything confused."
Binder began the Big Apple circus 14 years ago after spending many years working as a clown and a juggler for a circus in France.
"It was such a beautiful circus," he recalls, "and I fell in love with the format. Here, in America, the circus is presented in large sports arenas. I wanted to make a smaller circus, where we could use the animals as performing partners."
The Moscow Circus also uses animals as partners. However, instead of horses, its animal of choice is the bear.
"Oh, we have beautiful bears," says ringmaster Alex Makhtsier. "The bear is the symbol of the Russian circus."
There are 11 Russian brown bears that do a "multitude of tricks" -- the most magnificent called "Antipod," the art of juggling with the feet, in which bear trainer Vladislav Zolkin balances a seven-foot, 300-pound bear high in the air.
"It's breathtaking," says Makhtsier. "And he's the only one in the world who can do it."
The bears, he says, are quite gentle -- "except when you have a cookie. They'll do anything to get that cookie." So beware.
Like the Big Apple, the two-year-old Moscow Circus also treats the medium as an art form. "Our trapeze act is not just somersaults and flips," says Makhtsier. "They approach it as a play. There's a little story in what they do."
The whole circus, from hoop maiden Daniya Kaseyeva to lightning-fast jugglers Pilopovich & Miagkostopov, have this theatrical point of view. However ...
"You might like or you might not like ballet," says Makhtsier, "but everybody likes the circus."
The Big Apple Circus is at the Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg through next Sunday. Tickets are $7 to $17.50 and available at TicketCenter. For show times and information call 703-824-1527.
The Moscow Circus is at George Mason University's Patriot Center Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets are $12.50 to $22.50 and available at Ticketron. For show times and information, call 703-323-2672.