Change or die. It’s not just a popular book, it’s good advice for survival. It’s how circuses are making money these days — not with bearded ladies and strongmen and lion tamers, but with acrobats and jugglers and clowns. True, those last ideas aren’t new, but the focus is on them now; the others have been cut loose.
As luck would have it, you can see some of the best circus performers from around the world this week on the mall — for free! This year the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s celebrates 50 years, and they’re marking it with exhibits on circus acts and immigration.
Every year, people bring their children to the festival, hoping for an afternoon of fun and culture. Every year the kids glance somewhat carelessly at textile samples and pay little attention to lectures on the ways of South American llama farmers. They make their way to the children’s tent, where organizers are stocked with markers and paper and pipe cleaners and construction paper.
But this year is different! Everywhere you look are jugglers, aerialists, acrobats, clowns and more.
As part of Sunday’s events, a man in a swing flew back and forth high above the mall, coordinating his movements with a lady in red who leapt off the platform, sailing into the air on her flying trapeze. At just the right moment, she let go, putting all her faith in the man on the swing, and he did not disappoint, catching her by the hands, swinging her back and forth and letting her go again, as she glided gracefully through the air and seemingly effortlessly caught the trapeze again and swung back to the platform.
The Hebei Golden Eagle Acrobatic Troupe entertained a somewhat smaller group of people on the ground. This group of boys and girls from China took turns performing amazing tricks. A young woman lay on her back on a cart of basketballs while balancing a 20-foot pole on her feet in the air. The pole had a series of platforms leading to the top, which had a basket attached. By moving the heavy pole up and down with her feet, the young lady was able to bounce the basketball from platform to platform until she got it into the basket at the top.
A group of four boys took turns jumping through hoops, lion-style, but without the fire. Forward, backward, bent in half, they sprang through over and over, never even glancing the sides. They raised the hoops raised higher and higher. With a running start and a powerful handspring, one boy was able to soar cleanly through a hoop 10 feet off the ground.
Nearby, Circus Smirkus jugglers were demonstrating how to juggle up to eight balls at a time, and a young woman performed tricks with hula hoops until she got six hoops in motion at once. Hula hoops are available behind the tent for anyone who wants to give them a try.
A big top tent was erected on the mall for special performances, and Sunday’s was Circus Juventis. This performing arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota, put on a 45-minute show with an Alice in Wonderland theme, complete with White Rabbit and croquet mallets.
Acrobats performed silks-style aerial dances with chair-like props alone and in groups of up to four. The Mad Hatter repeatedly climbed to a raised platform to jump onto one of two teeterboards, sending acrobats flying to land on top of a human tower.
The legendary Flying Wallendas also perform a daily high-wire act.
This year’s festival also explores the theme of immigration. Through performances, workshops and demonstrations, participants tell the story of how America — a nation of immigrants — has been shaped and formed by the movement of different peoples across the land. Various events are planned daily, but the circus theme makes up the bulk of the festival events.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival runs daily through Sunday, July 9, but is closed on Fourth of July. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with evening dance parties at 5:30 and circus performances most nights at 7.