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NO ELEPHANT CIRCUS: STEP RIGHT UP
The strings, The brass, The clowns
No Elephant Circus brings a new dimension to orchestra, and some bright ideas to non-profit circus in America!
by Bill Giduz
Juggler's World, June 1984
THE CONDUCTOR OF A LEADING American symphony turns toward the audience. They are mostly school age, with many attending their first classical concert. He takes the time to introduce the youngsters to the orchestra.
"We have woodwinds," he says, cueing the oboes and bassoons to a short solo. "We have percussion," and the bass drum thumps out a flurry of notes. Introductions continue, with strings, brass, and others offering the audience a short musical handshake. The conductor then concludes with the unlikely words, "And, of course, no orchestra would be complete without the clown section!"
Kids squeal as the members of the No Elephant Circus dash on stage to begin their "Circus and Symphonies" show. For the next hour, they join musicians in presentations of popular classical pieces such as Stravinsky's "Petruchka," Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Espagnol," and Rossini's "William Tell Overture."
While the musicians play, the circus stars juggle, unicycle, eat fire, walk on ropes, and do comedy and gymnastics.
THE CREATIVITY OF DIRECTOR Bob Daraio, who spawned this music and manipulation show, has earned the No Elephant Circus a reputation as one of the leading non-profit performing arts organizations in the nation.
Not only is their skill enlightened and entertaining, the entire artistic concept of the New York City-based No Elephant Circus is unique as well. Consider some of Daraio's statements:
"We're a union shop; the only circus in America that's equity." That allows members to participate in a year-round health plan and gain unemployment and pension benefits. "Why shouldn't performers be able to have the same kind of protection in their lives as anyone else who has a job?" Daraio asks rhetorically.
"We do more charity work that any other theatre company in New York."
Last year, 50,000 children saw the show for free, and many more got in for reduced prices. But it's no financial burden on the performers, because they set aside 20 percent of the receipts from their fully paid shows to pay themselves for the charity shows!
"Performers aren't in a financial position to give anything away," Daraio stated. "But being tax-exempt means that the public at large supports us by paying the taxes that we don't. So, we want to make damn sure that what we do is available to them. The charity program does that for us. "
"We're really an artists' cooperative. We make changes to accommodate people and their artistic growth." Recently the personnel felt themselves to be skills heavy, but weak at theatrical performance. To alleviate the discrepancy, they hired a director and performed a play, gaining theatrical experience.
"We want everyone to learn every part of our shows so that people can take time off without stopping the show. It's pooled skill and cross-training so we can sub in
FOR THESE REASONS, AND THE quality of their performance, the six member group has attracted a lot of business since its 1977 beginning. Last year they presented 150 performances of their three different shows in 15 states. The State of New Jersey has contracted them for four months of twice a day, five days a week performances in public schools throughout the state.
The State of New York Arts Council has given them a $5,000 grant to hire a funding intern to raise more money. Daraio says the circus budget has doubled every year for the past three years to a current figure of $100,000.
Daraio founded the No Elephant Circus in 1977 when he graduated as a theatre major from the State University of New York at Purchase. Besides himself, the original cast included present and past IJA members Woody Davis, Jessica Hentoff, Marjorie Wood, George Northam, Joshua Silver, and Lenny Wright. Once Daraio recognized the effort as a long-term investment of his time, he attended New York University and studied arts management. Besides directing the circus, he holds down a full time job as a videotape editor with ABC television.
THE ROSTER OF NO ELEPHANT Circus performers has varied over the years. The only founders left are Daraio and Wright, a veteran soap opera actor, clown and fire eater. The current group also includes Barbara Nadel, an original cast member of the Broadway show "Barnum." William Shaw, a talented unicyclist, juggler, and piano player; John Grimaldi, an actor, writer, and computer engineer at Columbia University; and Greg Millstein, a recent graduate of the Ringling Brothers Clown College.
Tony Duncan, the reigning record holder of the IJA's seven-ball event, is on leave after three years with the cast to work on solo material, but sits in on performances occasionally. Duncan performs his new material, usually on weekends, at the Mostly Magic club in New York City's Greenwich Village.
"Circus and Symphonies," written with help from Michael Christensen of The Big Apple Circus, was first performed with the Nassau County, N. Y., orchestra. Great success there led to jobs with orchestras in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, Dayton, and Houston.
"We use the circus as a draw to get kids to come hear classical music," Daraio said. He claimed a 60 percent increase in attendance at concerts, which include the No Elephant Circus.
The juggling in the show includes Shaw's three-ball comedy routine, and a two-person spoof of takeaways and slapstick. Grimaldi juggles, and also spins plates on poles as high as 20 feet. Shaw does a club juggling routine on a six-foot unicycle, and the troupe passes torches. A very special skit recruits 20 children from the audience and to hold up a length of rope, on which a cast member stands, walks, and juggles.
"The juggling is a special part of the show, because it's all about rhythm and so is music," Daraio said.
A project to enhance the correlation between the two is just underway. Daraio is trying to create a juggling "song" by placing different material inside clubs to cause them to make specific noises when they hit the jugglers’ hands. He explained, "The Flying Karamazov Brothers have created beautiful music by striking clubs against things, but I'm trying to have the club itself become the instrument."
Besides the "Circus and Symphonies" show, the troupe performs a general circus show titled "Klowns," and a socially relevant scripted show about three out of work circus clowns called "From Soup to Nuts." That show, written by the famous unicyclist John Paul Jenack, sold out a week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and led to a feature article in "The New York Times."
The No Elephant Circus At Avery Fisher Hall
As part of the Happy Concerts for Young People, series the Little Orchestra Society of Manhattan is presenting the No Elephant Circus, a troupe of jugglers, dancers, acrobats and clowns that tours with symphony orchestras. Under the baton of Dino Anagnost, who takes the time to talk to the young audience about the music the orchestra is playing, the wily circus performers eat fire, walk on stilts and clown on unicyles. They just don't have any elephants. No matter. The rousing circus-theme music, by such composers as Copland, Dvorak and Bizet, excites the audience just as well, conjuring up images of cotton candy, calliopes, sawdust and far-flung aerialists. Tickets to the 50-minute programs, which are performed without intermissions, are $15 to $28, at the Avery Fisher Hall box office or through the telephone numbers above.
THE NO ELEPHANT CIRCUS was a non-profit tax exempt theatre company whose purposes are to provide quality entertainment to the public, promote arts awareness and arts education, and to reach out to the "special populations" - the poor, the handicapped, the orphaned and the elderly who may not have the opportunity or means to participate in other arts programs. TNEC operated from 1976 to 1996 under Actor's Equity Association's Theater For Young Audiences contract.
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