When the circus used to come to town, it required whole train cars and a parade from the yard. But when David Dimitri brings his “L’homme Cirque” (“The One Man Circus”), he drives the truck alone, hires a couple of locals to erect the big top and performs every single role.
The specialty of his one-man circus, starting June 27 at Strathmore in North Bethesda, is high wire, and Dimitri, 56, does a lot of that, just as he did for years in the Big Apple Circus and occasionally for Cirque du Soleil.
But he’s also a clown, mime, musician, ringleader, hobby-horse rider and the guy who shoots himself out of a cannon. Outside the big top, he lists his duties as “circus director, and the technician, and the musician, and the truck driver.”
“It’s never been done the way I do it, in the sense of a guy wanting to do an entire circus show on his own,” Dimitri says. “There have been solo performers who did circusy shows maybe, or theatrical shows with circus [themes]. But explicitly an acrobat, like me, thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to now tour the world and I’ll do everything on my own, everything myself’ — that is new. and particularly for the United States, it’s new. In Europe, we have a much bigger tradition, and there’s a new wave of these kind of performances.”
His lean operation comes at a time when circus is a bit of a crossroads in the United States, two years after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended its run after 146 years. Earlier this month the Big Apple Circus called off a five-city arena tour because of low ticket sales.
Still, artful adaptations such as Cirque du Soleil are flourishing with a dozen current touring shows and a more than a half-dozen current residencies in Las Vegas alone.
“It’s a change in society. The memes and technologies certainly have had a great impact,” Dimitri says. Where once the circus’ annual visit may have been a town’s entertainment highlight, now “there’s thousands of other attractions, starting with the one that you carry with you in your pocket.”
But he says there are a lot of innovative, experimental circus performances in the theatrical realm that are based in the old traditions, especially in Europe. “People want to go back to what you can touch, what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can understand — and less flash and crash and big show lights and all that.”
With his own big top seating only 220, it’s a necessarily intimate event. “Anything you do, you just lift your eyebrow, it’s there,” he says. “People see it and they’re with you. From the beginning, you don’t lose them until the end. It’s magical.”
The son of a revered Swiss mime who worked with Marcel Marceau and went by the single name Dimitri, the young Dimitri got his first taste of circus traveling with his father but wanted to learn more. “I learned everything in that school from juggling to tap dancing to trapeze,” he says. “There was no wire class, so I asked the director of the school if I could have a teacher that will teach me to walk on the wire.”
A Juilliard-trained dancer, Dimitri did well enough in the wire-walking to earn a regular job at the Metropolitan Opera (a 1987 production of Massenet’s “Manon” required the skill), and went from there to the Big Apple Circus. “I was there over 10 years. doing my little shtick on the wire,” Dimitri says, “but it became boring in the sense that I wanted to do more.”
At the same time, “I started to dislike the hierarchies in the circus — the circus director, and the artists, then the crews,” he says. “I went to a few circuses where it was really shocking.”
Doing all the different jobs himself for his “L’Homme Cirque,” he says that “the hardest part is that you’re absolutely alone.” The venture didn’t click at first: “I had no audience. Nobody came to see my show. It was a big fiasco.”
Dimitri was about to give up before he went to a big theater festival at Avignon, France, where audiences were still scarce but a couple of promoters enjoyed it. He learned that it wasn’t enough to have technical skills; “You have to build a bond with the audience,” he says. “I realized that, and since then it really started to work.”
And he’s continued, playing more than 2,000 shows over the past dozen years, even winning over the toughest audiences — teenagers.
“They put their phones away,” Dimitri says. “For an hour they sit and watch something. I think that’s great.”
Strathmore, Gudelsky Gazebo, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. 301-581-5100 or strathmore.org
Dates: Through July 7