Scotsman John Bill Rickets brought the first circus to the United States in 1792 and performed their first show in his circus building in Philadelphia on April 3, 1793. We can trace the origins of the circus back to ancient Rome. The circus, according to Wikipedia, was a building for the exhibition of horse and chariot races, equestrian shows, staged battles, gladiatorial combat and displays of trained animal, which the human participants did battle to the death with. The Romans traced their circus origins back to ancient Greece. The Greeks had hippodromes, which were stadiums for horse and chariot races. The first circus in Rome was the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. Eventually the circus would seat over 250,000 people. Pretty good attendance numbers for ancient Rome. You don’t even get 250,000 in a professional football or soccer stadium.
Philip Astley is recognized as the founder of the modern circus, which he opened in 1768 in England. A scant 24 years later Ricketts brought the circus, a scant 10 years after the end of the American Revolution. Then we get to P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey, whose circus first performed on April 10th, 1871 and recently folded on May 21, 2017. Few would complain about a 146-year run at the top of the circus ladder.
Where the American circuses have the famed “3 rings”, European circuses were always more personal experiences, with smaller audiences and just one ring where all of the action would take place. Clowns have always between-act entertainment among the audience while various equipment is taken down and other equipment is set up for the next performance.
In 2012, Italian entrepreneur Manuel Rebecchi created Cirque Italia, deemed the Water Circus. It is billed as, “one of the most innovative traveling shows to be staged in the United States.” Rebecchi himself is descended from a circus family. His late aunt, Moira Orfei, was a theatrical acrobat, horse rider, and trapeze artist dubbed, Queen of the Italian Circus.” She was the ultimate performer in the 1960s and in 1962 she started her own circus. She was often seen in sword-and-sandal films such as “Ursus,” (1961), “The Loves of Hercules,” (1960), “Fire Over Rome” (1965), ultimately appearing in 42 movies in Italy and elsewhere. She also had two children that were winners of the Circus Oscar, “Clown d’Argent.”
Rebecchi thus comes from a tried-and-true circus family, a pedigree that serves him well as owner of Cirque Italia and their 35,000-gallon water tank that is central to their shows.
A traveling circus is a family more than anything else. Many of the performers are married to each other. There are about 18 performers and 32 support staff in Cirque Italia’s Silver Unit. This doesn’t mean that the only things the performers do is practice and perform, no, this is circus life. On the day I travel up there to interview some performers, Gimmi Fornaciari, a Verticalli (balance) performer is dressed in a t-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops. Fornaciari with his heavy Italian accent, discusses his performances “I balance, I do handstands and as I’m performing while singing Caruso (opera).”
Each performer has several jobs outside of practice and performances. Fornaciari is busy unloading the trailer from a tractor-trailer. Rows of the large trucks line the area as the work is being done setting up the massive tents, infrastructure for the performers, concessions set up, inventories, etc. Fornaciari and another performer work as they release cargo straps from the trucks, followed by Fornaciari jumping in a forklift and unloading the heavy equipment.
Other performers and support crew go around tying down the tents with steel cables and massive plates with anchors driven 4’ into the ground, through the asphalt. Performers are setting up souvenir stands, working in the ticket booth, checking, double checking and triple checking the ropes and wires and other pieces of equipment that their aerial performances will center on at heights up to 30’ above the 35,000 gallon tank.
One of the performers I meet is Morgaine Rosenthal. She is an aerialist and the unit manager. She is in constant motion from the time she wakes up until the end of the show, and only then after the cheers and crowds have long gone and the cleanup completed sometime around midnight. Being the unit manager means that she, like the other multitalented and multifaceted performers, doesn’t “sleep in” and wake up at the crack of noon, “I’m the unit manager but I’m also an aerialist. I do a thing called “aerial straps”. My boyfriend and I do a romantic dance in the air. I’ve been performing for 10 years but I’ve been with Cirque Italia for 6 years.” Managing the unit is a demanding job in itself, “I make sure everything runs smoothly between us and the city, us and the mall (Mall of Abilene) and I deal with the permits, the inspections and ensure everything is safe. I do a little bit of everything but everybody here does a little bit of everything. Everyone wears a lot of different hats. During show time, some of the performers are selling concessions or selling you your ticket. That’s something about Circque Italia that I think is truly unique. It’s really a group effort. It’s everyone coming together to put on the best show possible. Our performers also set up the tent.”
Once that day-job work is done, Rosenthal gets to do her thing, “My favorite part is performing. The reaction from the crowd, showing each individual community what I can do and my goal as a performer is to inspire the little ones and show them that they can do anything that they want to do and be anything that they want to be. If you want to be a circus performer, you can do it.”
Rosenthal doesn’t come from a circus family as many performers do, “I did circus recreationally as a kid and then I went to circus school. That’s one difference between me and most of the other performers; most of them come from many generations of circus families. I went to circus school in California for 2 years.” Circus school is just as demanding as any other institution of higher learning, “I learned how to do the aerial acts that I do and then I got hired by Cirque Italia. The rest of working for this company I have learned by doing. Our practice time varies based on the act. Typically they practice 2-4 hours per day. At the beginning of the year we had an intense 2-week rehearsal period with our producer who oversees everything and puts it all together. Every year we do a different performance. The performances during the show tell a story, all of the performances are woven together. This year’s theme is “A voyage through Italy.” Each act represents a different part of Italy and so you’ll see the things you might see in that region. We’re combining these death-defying performances with the history of Italy.”
Elena Sefanova is the next performer that I interview. She is an aerialist from Bulgaria who has been performing for years. “I’ve been with Cirque Italia for 7 years and I’m an aerialist. My act is called a double hammock. The heights vary because we go up and down so we are about 20’ to 30’.” With her years of circus experience even before she started with Cirque Italia, she doesn’t have a set practice, “We just practice when we feel like we need it. Some people practice daily, some people practice on a couple of days. I was in other circuses before I started in Cirque Italia’s silver unit and then went to the Cirque Italia gold unit and then I was doing the paranormal circus (Louisiana). I first started performing in the year 2000.” Like the other acts, hers is choreographed by the producer and tells part of the story of Italy, “We just do our acts. The producer is the one who creates the story and our role in it.”
Samantha Kulinski is another aerialist and her non-performing duties include being the on-site manager media and social media coordinator. The performers are integral to the day-to-day operations and Samantha, as with the others, stays busy when not performing three-stories above the 35,000-gallon pool, “It takes a village to run a circus, especially of this size and caliber. In order to have a large, elegant beautiful show with all of the acts and all of the stage and setup, we need to have people who are willing to wear different hats. There are 16 performers and about 40 support staff. We also have families here, children and parents. We are a very unique and lucky circus where we travel for 11 months out of the year throughout almost all of the United States so that means that we have to bring our families. We have our unit here, the Silver Unit, and 3 years ago we opened the Gold Unit and that is on the eastern side of the US. We also have the paranormal circus that is in Louisiana. We just keep growing and growing and want to bring that European style circus experience to the United States. Our show is very unique because we are the first traveling water circus in the United States. That means that we bring our 35,000-gallon water stage to every city that we’re in. We rain a water curtain from the top and we shoot water up in the air to choreograph with our music, sound, lights and acts. We have a new boat this year because our act is titled, “A voyage through Italy.” Every performance is tied in to a location in Italy or a point in Italian history.
Fornaciari was born and raised in Italy. He performs feats of balance and strength and he’s a 9th generation circus performer. His family has been performing in circuses for over 200 years. The circus is as much a part of Fornaciari as his soul. While many performers in other circuses do balancing acts such as handstands, one-hand handstands on objects, etc., Fornaciari does it with true Italian style; while singing Caruso. He sings it beautifully, no matter his position. Many might think he’s lip-synching but he’s singing live, “I was born in the circus. My father and grandfather raised me in the circus. Originally I’m from Verona, Italy. I started in the circus in America in 2012, when Mr. Rebecchi started the Cirque Italia. I went back to Italy for a year to perform in the circus then came back here.” Fornaciari is 45-years old now, an old hand at the circus but a refreshing act with style and substance, “I love the life. It’s like we work hard and we all are a family. It’s a community here. My ex-wife and my child are here with me. They work for the circus as well. When I’m not performing I build the stage and put up the tents and the equipment. We might take an hour to go eat but we work all week.”
There are no days off in this circus, it’s working 7-days a week, “On Mondays we travel, then we unload the trailers, then we put up the tent. It’s a true love being in the circus. I’ve been performing since I was a child, this is my life. I’ve performed in Italy, Germany, Jordan, France, Iran, Iraq and Dubai, all over the world. We are artists and can perform anywhere. I spent 6 years performing in the circus in Germany. I speak English, German, Spanish and Italian.” And with all of that experience, he knows how to make his performance deep and intimate as he connects with the audience, European circus style.
In the tent, even the furthest seats are close enough to the stage to feel the water. No one is in “nose bleed” seats and they all give a great view of the water stage and the performers. That “European feel” that they spoke so much about is there. You feel like you’re the only one in the tent watching the performers. They make eye contact with the audience, smile at you, wave at you and make you feel like they are there just for you. The water takes the show to a higher level, adding an element of panache to the show.
Between performances an Italian clown keeps the audience entertained. He’s not the American circus clown with big, floppy shoes, a polka-dot gown and big red ball for a nose. His act is unique, dressed as an Italian peasant in the style from a century ago. He involves the audience in many of his performances, coaxing people onto the stage so he can make them part of the show. The tent fills with applause after each segment. Coming full circle, one of his acts involves coming in wearing a Roman legion uniform, a nod to the origins of the circus.
Hawkers walk the stands, selling everything from theater masks to glowing swords and snow cones in cups with flashing lights along with the usual circus fare of funnel cakes, cotton candy and popcorn. One moment you’re buying a bottle of water or being shown to your seat by someone and a few minutes later that same person is performing 30’ above the water tank.
Fornaciari comes out, dressed in black slacks and a white dress shirt, complete with glitter. The sound of his voice takes you to his hometown back in Italy, it mesmerizes you as if he’s singing for Caruso himself. He sings as he strolls to the stage and into the lights, the shadows playing perfectly along with the white shirt and black slacks. He’s the epitome of style and grace, his movements measured and purposeful. He takes the stage and begins his balancing act, still singing with the pirate ship backdrop making him seem like some ethereal spirit trying to lure sailors from their wooden ship. The audience gasps in awe as he balances himself on a stand, with one hand bearing all of the weight of his body and his voice still singing without missing a note.
There is an intermission after the first hour during which parents and children have the opportunity to get their photograph taken on stage with a T-rex and performer in a butterfly costume.
It’s an enthralling experience, every second rife with excitement. Their aerial acts art spaced apart with a performance by an archer with a compound bow who pops balloons held by his assistant. It’s traditional circus fun. But as with all of performances the archer takes things up a notch by using several crossbows at one time in his grand finale. Then there is the juggler whose hands move so fast that you can’t focus on them. A balance artist who stacks platforms under him that he balances on cylinders arrives in the spotlight. He then balances cylinders on cylinders as he stacks them on platforms. He also balances on a basketball and stacks more platforms. The feats seem impossible but they’re real, the balancing skills, like all of the other acts, taking years to perfect.
There is also the “ Wheel of death” performance. It’s a large, rotating apparatus that looks like something off the space station. When the act starts, the performer is standing in the metal “wheel” end of the apparatus. As the act progresses, he moves to the outside of the wheel, gaining speed as he revolves over the stage, the crowd’s “oohs” and “ahs” echoing throughout the tent. The performer takes out a rope and starts jumping rope as he spins over the stage, coaxing more sounds of amazement from the audience.
The aerial performances by Stefanova, Kulinski, Rosenthal and others are beautiful and elegant. They seemingly defy gravity as they spin with the scarfs or from hoops, solo and in concert with their partners with the water curtain reflecting the lights and adding a glow that isn’t found in other circuses. The “Voyage Through Italy” takes you through the Italian countryside and Italian history. From the origins of the circus to Caruso to the old Italian sailing ships, the 35,000 gallon pool is the element that bonds the experience to you, making it something more than just a show, more than just a couple of hours of entertainment. It’s an experience.