Mar 092017

On the weekend of March 4th and 5th, I was honored to share a stage with some veteran as well as many very promising young circus artists. I travelled to Brattleboro, Vermont, where the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA) presented two performances of a delightful Circus Spectacular Gala and invited me to host as the ringmaster for both shows.  Serenity Smith Forchion and Elsie Smith, the founders of NECCA, brought together a fabulous and diverse group of performers, from hand balancers to rola bola masters.  They came from far and wide, from Canada to Tennessee, and all of the performers were somehow affiliated with the NECCA school as teachers or professional trainees.  Enjoy some photographs of the acts in action below:

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Photo from NECCA’s Facebook page

The Circus Spectacular, performed at the vaudeville gem Latchis Theater, was a gala to raise money for a new building under construction for the school, as NECCA’s popularity grows and their facilities expand.  I was happy to participate in this wonderful venture!   And what a blast, to spend a few days onstage and backstage with these performers.

The acts included NECCA’s Advanced Youth Performance Troupe opening the show with a charivari, Alicia Dawn on the cloud swing, Jan Damm & Ariele Ebacher’s eccentric partner acrobatics act, and Liv Morrow on aerial straps.  Jan Damm reappeared in the second half on his rola bola, along with Molly Graves on aerial rope, “Kinetic Kristin” Leophard performing on the cyr wheel, with Ariana Ferber Carter, a Vermont local, sharing her contortion act.  Mario Diamond, a mime from Quebec who has performed on five continents, had two performance slots in the show.  They were true circus folk, who had performed with such companies as Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, Cirque Eloise, Cirque du Soleil, the Bindlestiff Family Circus, the New Pickle Circus, and Vermont’s own Circus Smirkus.  Troy Wunderle, the Artistic Director of Circus Smirkus, performed a beautiful version of the breakaway bike (you might remember this act from Justin Case at the Big Apple Circus). Rounding out the performances were hand balancer Marieke Dailey, Doug Stewart on aerial rope, a juggling duet by Tony Duncan & Melissa Knowles, and the identical twin sister and co-Artistic Directors Elsie and Serenity on double trapeze.

Jan 192016

A view of the French coast from the helicopter ride on the return journey to Nice.

Yesterday, Shelley and I made our return voyage from Monte Carlo where I was witness to four nights of the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo. Go ahead, say I’m “over the top,” but the collection of acts was simply the finest group of circus artists and performers ever to be assembled under a big top in one place at one time. They constituted an extraordinary group of what was called “classical” or “traditional” circus.

This is the fortieth anniversary of a glorious festival, and the committee, consisting of Dr. Frere, Urs Pils (German Circus Krone), and Princess Stéphanie of Monaco (President of the Festival and Jury), among several others, was determined to bring the best acts in the world and have each of them perform in one ring over two nights. (The Festival actually goes on for eight days more, but after the fourth performance there was a celebratory dinner and a day of rest).

Princess Stephanie and Pauline Ducruet, Photo PLS Pool:Getty Images Europe

Princess Stéphanie at the festival with her children (Pauline Ducruet and Camille Gottlieb on her right and Louis Ducruet on her left).
Photo courtesy of PLS Pool/Getty Images Europe.

Twenty-four of the twenty-eight acts had previously been winners (some of them multiple times) of the Gold, Silver, or Bronze Clown, the circus equivalent of Hollywood’s Oscars.

To have them assembled in one place at one time was akin to a religious experience for some circus fans. (Perhaps, that’s why I used the word “witness” in the preceding paragraph!) The festival is underwritten by the Palais de Monaco in a tent that seats 4,000+ audience members and is promoted year-round as part of the of the culture of the Principality of Monaco. No expense is spared.


Standing (left) ringside facing the performers are Princess Stéphanie of Monaco with her daughter, and standing (center) facing the front of the ring is Prince Albert II, the reigning monarch.


Shelley and me with Martin Lacey Jr.

The pre-festival cocktail party, the Circus Director’s Luncheon at the Hotel Hermitage, and the Festival Dinner are by invitation only. I was honored to attend all three, Shelley, two. Princess Stéphanie hosted all three events. We were invited to sit at her table along with Pauline Ducruet (Princess Stéphanie’s daughter), Marie-Jose Knie (a member of the Swiss Familie Knie Circus), Alexis Gruss (of the French Le Cirque Gruss Ancien), Flavio Togni (of the Italian Circo Americano), and Martin Lacey Jr. (Gold Clown winning trainer of large cats and star of Circus Krone). It was a thrill. Alexis is a long-standing friend of mine (and, I should add, once directed none other than Big Apple Circus’ own Artistic Director, Guillaume Dufresnoy). What an honor!

There were many memorable highlights under the big top as well:

Bello Nock, who won a Gold Clown some years ago, on his second night, was outstanding. (There were a variety of reasons, not his doing, that he was not his usual superb self on his first night.)

Desire of Flight, who were booked and contracted at BAC by Guillaume, got a well-deserved and very loud, standing ovation.


Desire of Flight: Valeriy Sychev and Malvina Abakarova

Alexis Gruss and Flavio Togni were the class of the festival with their horses already safe in the stable by the time the audience had finished their ovation.

Alexis Gruss and his 6 stallion “maypole.”


Alexis Gruss with a Portuguese Stallion hind leg walking.

The Sokolov Troupe. In their first incarnation we knew them (in two different BAC seasons) as Kovgar Troupe. Sokolov is the second generation. Their act is a fun tribute to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with his music and costumes from the 18th century. Great tricks and super audience response.

Willer Niccolodi, the unlikely ventriloquist, fresh from his appearance at Circus Knie and BAC, filled the tent with peals of laughter.

Both the men’s and women’s Acrobatic Troupes of the “National Circus of China” were outstanding. (I’m not so sure that there is a such-named troupe except for one to prepare for festivals … drawn from several other groups around their nation.)


The National Circus of China: The performer has jumped and is diving through a hoop eight feet from the ground.

Another memorable routine was performed by the hand-to-hand acrobats, Scherbak and Popov, Gold Clown winners from the Ukraine.

The Caselly Family elephants (African, no less—known to be more difficult to train than their “cousins” the Asians) were superb.


The Caselly Family: The elephant on the left has just hit the teeterboard, and the performer (in white) is in the air on his way via a double somersault to the the back of the elephant on the right.

Laura Miller and her aquatic aerial ring was unique.

Encho, the hand-balancing strongman, with whom I had the privilege to work at Circus Sarasota, was most memorable.

And several more …


Standing alongside Katya and Nelson Quiroga of the Flying Tabares.

I was especially pleased to be in the company of Mary Jane Brock, Big Apple Circus Vice Chair, and her husband, Charley, along with five of her friends, from school and early professional days.

It was a thrilling four days, one that reinforced the Big Apple Circus’s vitality and vision as an organization.

Nov 112014

The trip to Israel and Jordan was a wonderful one.

There are pictures of the Holy Land many places online, so I don’t want to put up a thousand more images of places of worship, monuments, ruins, and expanses of desert. But I do want to show some of the best photos from my trip so that you know where I went.

We began our trip in Israel. We stayed in Jerusalem but toured to many other places.


This is the winding path leading up to Masada, site of an ancient city and fortress. You can take the path up or you can travel like we did by cable car.


These are some of the ruins of Masada. And a lot of tourists.


The same day that we went to Masada, we visited the expansive Dead Sea. This is a photo of the Dead Sea taken from Masada.


And at the Dead Sea you can find the lowest bar in the world, which is 418 meters (that’s a lot!) below sea level.


This photo was taken from the Mount of Olives looking towards Jerusalem. You can see the New City in the background. The gold dome is the Dome of the Rock, a holy mosque for Muslims. It stands on the Temple Mount, the site of the second Temple of the ancient Israelis, the holiest site for Jews.


This is part of the wall of Jerusalem. It’s one of the gates to the Old City.


This is the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed by some Christian denominations to be the location of Christ’s crucifixion and burial.


This olive tree is located in the Garden of Gethsemane. The small plaque commemorates the visit of Pope Paul VI.


This is the Western Wall, also referred to as the Wailing Wall. It’s all that’s left of the second Jewish Temple.


I put my hand on the holiest of Jewish monuments.


This text is from the YMCA where Shelley’s conference was held. It’s written in three languages, promoting coexistence for which it was founded.


This is the Arab quarter of the market in the Old City.


On our last night in Jerusalem, we visited the Tower of David for the light show.


And then it was onto Jordan. These are some of the Roman ruins still standing in Jeshra.


Including an ancient Roman theatre.


This is a view of a reservoir in the Jordan River Valley.


On the floor of the Eastern Orthodox Church of St. George is this ancient mosaic map of the Holy Land.


There is a monument on Mt. Nebo memorializing Moses’s burial place. There is also a map looking towards Israel, which indicates all of the cities that you can see in the distance.


At least you could on a clear day.


This is a rock carving the desert at Wadi Rum that commemorates the alliance between Lawrence of Arabia and the Jordanian tribes.


Petra was the capital city of the Nabataeans with buildings that are carved out of the sides of the mountains, including well-appointed caves which were their residences. In order to get into the city, you have to travel one mile through this canyon which is as narrow as 12 feet in some locations.


Once you get through the canyon, though, you come upon the Treasury. It may look like a building, and it is. But it’s carved directly into the rock. This was a sophisticated culture.


This is a burial site at Petra. You can tell because of the staircase leading the souls to heaven.


After the Roman army conquered Petra, they carved a Roman theatre into the rock.


We finished off our trip by spending an evening and night with Bedouins in a desert camp.


These rock carvings were left behind by ancient peoples.


And these two ancient people got to go on a camel ride through the desert.

Nov 052014

We’ve had dromedary camels at the Big Apple Circus before. They’re amazing looking animals. They’re called the “ship of the desert,” and the truth is they’re very unusual looking. They have thick wooly fur, long eyelashes, and humps of fat. Yes, fat. And they can store four days worth of water. They’re also funny looking. Someone once said, “A camel looks like a horse put together by a committee.”

Well amongst a ring full of other exotic animals, Jenny Vidbel has a pair of camels featured in this year’s Big Apple Circus show, Metamorphosis. Standing over six feet tall and weighing about a thousand pounds each, the pair is quite impressive.

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Performance of the Big Apple Circus’s “Metamorphosis” at Lincoln Center, photo by maskirovka77

On our second day in Israel on our way down to the Dead Sea, which is more than four hundred feet below sea level, we stopped at the sea level marker where Shelley climbed onto the back of a camel for a photo opportunity. In fact, this was the very first picture that I took on our trip:


So when I got to Jordan, I thought I might try riding a camel. Why not?

We didn’t actually encounter too many camels in Israel. With all of the tourists around us everywhere we went, there simply wasn’t room. But there was room at Wadi Rum (pronounced “room”) in the Jordanian Desert. Okay, I’m playing with words here. But it was true. We finally had the opportunity to try out camel riding when we visited Wadi Rum in southern Jordan and stayed one night at a Bedouin desert camp. Wadi Rum is actually where Lawrence of Arabia approached Arabian chieftains about joining the fight against the Ottoman Empire during the Arab Revolt.



Now, riding a camel is not exactly like riding a horse. It took a bit of time, discomfort, and hump negotiation, but by the end of our first ride I finally started to get the hang of it. Yeah, hanging on of it.




Trying to hold onto the camel in the process of standing up or kneeling down, though, that’s another story …


Go see the Big Apple Circus. Jenny’s camels are exquisite.

Sep 122014

Over the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed blogging stories and photographs from my trip with Shelley to Africa, but, believe it or not, I’m running out of photographs to share with you, so, this will likely be the last installment of “Paul Binder’s African Adventure.”

First, the animals. I thought I was finished with pictures of animalsI had quite a few posts about our safari in Zambia. But then I remembered that we also encountered some interesting critters in Cape Town too. In fact, the first animal that we saw in Africa was this big guy here:


This enormous tortoise roamed the grounds around the Vineyard Hotel, where we stayed in Cape Town. Tortoises are remarkable creatures right out of prehistoric times, and it was surprising to watch this one move at full speed. Sure, he’s not as fast as a hare, but believe me, he’s surprisingly agile.

South Africa is relatively close to the south pole, but I was still surprised to see entire groups of penguins nesting on the beach in Simon’s Town. This one below walked away from the other penguins in order to preen himself for the photos being taken by the tourists, including myself.


He was definitely posing. “All right, Mr. Paul, I’m ready for my close-up.”

And then we saw some birds of a different color.


I think you can tell from the photograph that this particular ostrich got to be a bit of a handful. But in no time at all, I had him eating out of the palm of my hand.

We also saw dozens of sea lions, and I even got a picture of a lone springbok.



As I mentioned in my last post, Cape Town is a beautiful city with lots of things to do. Perhaps the best known tourist destination in the area is the Cape of Good Hope, the most south-western point of the African continent. I know that because the sign said so …


You can get a sense of the dangerous winds and tides by looking at our hair.

And man oh man is the Cape of Good Hope a long distance from homeaccording to this sign post, over 12,000 kilometers.


Even though Shelley and I had a fantastic time in Cape Town, the city is not just a hot spot for tourists. The city still reflects the past century of South African political history, and the remnants of apartheid are very apparent.

We took a day trip to Robben Island, which is off the northwest coast of Cape Town. While on the island, we took a tour of the island’s infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years before the fall of apartheid.


Here is a picture of the cell in which Mandela was kept:


It was a very powerful location to visit, loaded with cultural and historic significance. It was a humbling experience, as was our visit to one of the many townships on the outskirts of Cape Town.


The quality of life in the township was sobering. Even though it’s been two decades since South Africa’s government switched over to majority rule, millions still live in these townshipsnearly half the population of the entire country. It’s important to note that townships do have some middle class housing. Some residents who grew up in the townships decide to stay in the community and build nicer homes. However, most of the dwellings are makeshift.


Yet despite the apparent poverty of the area, I was overjoyed to see children at play.


We also visited a preschool and kindergarten in the township. Here’s a picture of Shelley with one of the teachers:




These three large posters outlining the vision and mission of the school were hung on the wall. Here was an inspiring sense of hope within the township community, and the schools are a fundamental part of South Africa’s plan for a better future.

The school’s vision and mission were not entirely dissimilar from Zip Zap Circus School’s multicultural central purpose.

Zip Zap creates a platform for students (and partners) with a chance to turn dreams into reality providing an open door to a fun, safe place, with a sense of family and a clear focus to shape their confidence, skills and worth, critical to moving on as a new South Africa.”


Sep 022014

I’ve been so excited to show you photographs from our safaris in Zambia, that I haven’t written much about our days spent prior to that in Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is surely one of the most beautiful cities that I’ve ever seen, and it was an extraordinary visit.

When Shelley was invited to teach for three days at the University of Cape Town, I thought I could take advantage of the opportunity and plan my own trip to visit the Zip Zap Circus and School, to which I had been repeatedly invited in years past.


IMG_0253Under Artistic Director Brent Van Rensburg, Zip Zap trains a diverse community of kids in the Circus Arts in order to provide them with future employment opportunities and to help develop the next generation’s confidence and leadership skills. The Circus School has been in operation for over twenty years, co-founded by Brent and Managing Director Laurence Estève “to inspire young people and help build a new culture of peaceful coexistence in South Africa.”

Part of my visit was spent presenting to the students, followed by a very lively and inquisitive question and answer period. It’s always a thrill to speak to the next generation of circus artists, especially when my next encounter with these young performers could be anywhere in the world.



I had a great time at the Circus School, as no doubt you can tell from the photograph below:


For my next and last blog about the Africa trip, I’ll share a brief recap and some photographs from the rest of our time in Cape Town.

Aug 292014

You were probably beginning to think that I stayed behind the camera my entire trip. In fact, I did pose for a few pictures, and here is one of my favorites. It’s Shelley and me standing in front of Victoria Falls with a double rainbow in the background.


After our safari in the Luangwa National Park, we flew to Livingstone for our stay at a low-key resort on the Zambezi River called Tongabezi. Livingstone is along the southern border of Zambia. The Victoria Falls Bridge in the background here is an entryway into the neighboring country of Zimbabwe.


At the Falls, Shelley and I made friends with an Italian family who had been on safari the same time as us but had had separate tour guides and trackers.


To get a good view of the Falls, there’s a bridge for people to walk across. There’s so much moisture from the waterfalls that everyone puts on a rain poncho, hoping to stay at least partially dry.



And here’s another shot of Shelley and me with the Falls. You can see our ponchos in hand.


Helicopter tours of Victoria Falls and the surrounding area came highly recommended. And I know exactly why. The view of the Falls from ground level is spectacular, but the view from the air is absolutely breathtaking.





We even got to fly over a native village.


On our second day at Tongabezi, we spent some time around the lodge. Here’s a great shot of a joyous Shelley playing the marimba.


We went back to the Falls again, but this time we had a different view, from Livingstone Island.


I agreed to do something adrenaline junkies would have loved. After walking along the edge of the Falls, I climbed into a small pool of water in the river and was able to look out over the edge of the cliff. The guide reminded me to hold onto the nylon rope.


Let me tell you, the view from the top of the Falls was a gasp.



Aug 262014

So, we were still at the bush camp, but we hadn’t seen any lions yet. Our guide, Kanga, was scheduled to drive us to the next camp the following morning. He suggested that we wake up very early (a suggestion that was never my favorite) and, instead of driving directly to camp, we would see if we could track some lions.

Now, get the picture: there are four of us in the Range Rover—Kanga (our guide), Stuart (our tracker), Shelley, and me. We would drive a bit, then stop and look around. Every twenty minutes or so Stuart would say about four syllables in his tribal tongue. Kanga would translate, “Stuart says to look out there, he sees an encouraging sign.”

He gestured toward some circling vultures. We drove in that direction and they looked around (as always for footprints and droppings) and Stuart got excited when he thought there might be lions nearby. Again, the pukus sounded the alarm (Stuart, with ears that could hear the sound of a gnat’s wings at 50 yards) told us that we were close, and sure enough, after crossing a water-filled ravine, he spotted a lioness on the shady side of a bush.


Her muzzle was a little red—the sure sign that there’d been a recent kill. We followed along on the opposite side of the ravine, and suddenly Stuart pointed to a breeding pair, a young male and a seemingly undernourished female.


Kanga explained that when breeding, lions don’t eat, and from the look of her they had several days of hunger pangs.

I hasten to add that she clearly had had enough of his amorous gestures.



We noticed another lioness with a medium-sized cub and watched as she walked around a large bush.


We traveled around the bush in the opposite direction, and what we encountered was a stunning sight: three lionesses with nine suckling cubs of varying sizes.



Kanga told us that any of the cubs could nurse from any of the females. Here’s a photo of the male and female breeding pair arriving and completing the pride.


Kanga guessed that the male was about five years old and mentioned that he had recently seen a second pride led by what he took to be that lion’s brother. We sat in the Range Rover for about 25 minutes awestruck by the sight before we drove on to the next camp.

Aug 202014

IMG_0494On the afternoon of our second day at the bush camp, we had our first encounter with a major African predator.

At the bush camp we did a lot of walking and some Range Rover riding. There were always four of us. There was our guide, Kanga, our tracker, Stuart—call him our security officer—and the two of us.

First: some news on how we were briefed when we walked out. We were told to stay in single file. We were told that most of the animals we’d encounter are territorial and we must respect their territory. Soft talking is alright. When in the vehicle, don’t stand up and don’t climb out. Animals see the vehicle as a single unit so people in it are seen as part of that “creature.” Standing up alerts them to possible prey. The animals are used to seeing the Range Rover and don’t see it as a threat.

Trackers, who actually carry a gun in case there’s some danger (so long as we don’t intrude it’s rare, but not impossible), have the uncanny ability to see and hear things that other people can’t.

On our second day out while walking, we came across a family group of Burchell’s zebras. They graze in groups of five or six.


A little later, he heard the first sign of alarm. It was the warning cry of a puku (a big-eared deer/antelope). Thinking that we might have a predator within range, Kanga radioed for a Range Rover and we drove in the direction of the puku sounds.


As we approached the area where the puku had been, we slowed down, and there was a hyena lying, sphinx-like, on the other side of a ravine.



We were informed that that was a good sign. The hyena was nearby because he thought there was a kill coming. Up in a tree, a baboon was making a lot of fuss. Kanga said, “For sure, there’s something out there,” and we drove in the direction the baboon was looking.

When we came up the ravine we saw zebras running in one direction and impalas running in another. It was the same family of zebras we had seen before. We were certainly approaching something. I wish I had a photograph of the zebras and impalas running, but I was breathing a little too heavily at that moment to aim the camera.

As we came around the curve, we had our first leopard sighting.




Right beside us were a male and female leopard, which were described as a “breeding pair.” We stopped and quietly looked at them. And as they continued to move, we followed them. Kanga explained that it was a young male and an older female.


The female leopard jumped up onto a dead tree trunk. The young male jumped up after her and attempted to breed with her … but he didn’t quite get it right.



Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.

Kanga commented, “Well, it looks like he’s an inexperienced young male.” And to say the least, the female leopard was a bit perturbed with him.


But the guy with the camera (me), was very happy.

Aug 152014

As I said in my last post, on safari I saw elephants, giraffes, zebra, hippos, baboons, and many other animals, several of them up close. As you can see, a couple of them even posed for us. Below are just a few of my favorite animal shots from the trip.


















And the animals even had us pondering:

Why did the baboons cross the road?

Up next … the cats: leopards and lions!