The acrobats are lining up at Camden Yards. The elephants will gather at 1st Mariner Arena. Clowns can be found at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Baltimore will become one big circus this winter and spring, with an unprecedented number of events celebrating life in, around and under The Big Top. The list includes a circus-themed exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a "perverse" circus show at Theatre Project, and touring productions from both the Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey organizations.
In an age of smart phones, Hollywood special effects and sophisticated video games, it may seem puzzling that some of the biggest shows coming to Baltimore in 2009 would have their origins in the circus, a form of live entertainment that has been around for centuries. But, according to circus historians and others, those throwback qualities may be exactly what will make the shows appealing to 21st-century audiences that have overdosed on retouched computer images and "reality TV" that isn't.
"The circus is appealing because it responds to something that is deeply rooted in our psyches - the need to see the extraordinary," said Dominique Jando, a former clown with Paris' legendary Cirque Medrano and former associate artistic director of the Big Apple Circus in New York. "Not in the way of tricks, like in the movies, but in front of our very eyes, by real people. That's why it has survived for so long. It fills our need to see and celebrate feats of human achievement. People have a need to see that, a very deep need. It's part of who we are."
Going to the circus is the opposite of staring at a computer screen, said Melinda Hartline, a spokeswoman for Ringling Bros.
"There's no rewind to what people see when they come to one of our performances," Hartline said. "It's not digital. It's not a video game. It's happening now. If a trapeze artist misses the bar on the triple somersault and falls into the net, he climbs back up and attempts the triple somersault again. It's live."
For many families, "it's a rite of passage" said Homeland resident Richard Flint, former president of the Circus Historical Society and instructor for a course about the circus with the Johns Hopkins University's Odyssey program. "It's a tradition to take your kids to the circus."
Next Sunday, The Baltimore Museum of Art opens A Circus Family : Picasso to Leger, an exhibit featuring more than 90 objects exploring circus life, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Fernand Leger. Next month, Camden Yards takes center stage when the Cirque du Soleil begins a three-week run of its latest touring show, KOOZA.
Meanwhile, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus returns to 1st Mariner Arena at the end of March. And earlier this month, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented "Cirque de la Symphonie," melding circus acts with a concert.
While the city's season of the circus may seem carefully planned, organizers say it was more serendipitous than anything. Ringling Bros. comes to Baltimore every year. This is the second stop in Baltimore for Cirque du Soleil, which has a different site and show than in 2005. Baltimore Museum of Art curators have been working on their exhibit for two years. Other arts organizations scheduled their shows independently as well. It was a happy coincidence, planners say, that these events are all taking place over the next several weeks.
Promoters say they believe the circus-themed events will have strong appeal. Even in hard times, the circus is an event for which people will save their money and buy tickets, Hartline said.
"It's part of Americana, just like the Super Bowl," she said. "The American people want something very solid and constant in their lives, some place they can run away, even if it's just for a few hours, and the circus provides that."
There's also a "wow factor" to the circus that's especially stimulating for kids, Hartline said. "It's bright and sparkly. You think, 'How did they do that?' We're always trying to get kids to go outside and play and get away from their video games."
Unlike televised reality shows or digital images that can be "photo-shopped," the circus is more credible because it happens right before your eyes, said Flint, the circus historian.
At the circus, "you really see the acrobats flying through the air with the greatest of ease, as opposed to watching something that's software- or Internet-based and can be fiddled with," Flint said. "When we see it in person, we know that it's real."
The three main circus-related events approach the subject in different ways.
A Circus Family