ANNALEE HUBBS – COPY & DIGITAL EDITOR
The Acrobats of Cirque-tacular are among the last remaining American circuses, and they’re coming to Chautauqua Institution this week by way of aerial tricks and contortion.
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 8 in the Amphitheater, the Acrobats will be performing a variety show for the third time at Chautauqua, and the first time since 2016.
Tad Emptage, producer and director of the company, said along with aerial acrobatics and contortion, the audience can expect to see ground acrobatics and a variety of circus specialty skills.
“We’re very much looking forward to having live people in the audience,” Emptage said. “It is the thing that performers miss the most. It’s not just a job — it’s most assuredly a passion and a calling to share these moments in time with people.”
Founded in 2007, the company has multiple touring stage productions — including an all-purpose variety show that is scalable in size and content that does most of the touring to accommodate different venues. They have performed in all 50 states and in over 70 countries.
All but two of the cast members are new to Chautauqua, so there will be plenty of surprises, high energy and new things to see for those who came to the 2016 show, Emptage said.
“The beautiful thing about the circus is that it’s something that appeals to all age groups and all interests, because it’s visual and fast-paced,” he said.
Each act tends to be three to four minutes long. If one act isn’t appealing, Emptage said, there will be something new to experience in no time.
Emptage has always been a performer. Growing up in rural Ohio and Michigan, he found an interest in musical theater. Around 15 years ago, he befriended a few circus performers in New York City. His time to hang out was their training time, so pretty soon he was learning tricks just for fun.
“Well, after a couple years touring with them I had learned enough tricks that I was a bona fide circus performer myself,” he said.
Emptage eventually decided that circus performing was more fun than musical theater, so from that point forward he changed his path.
It was never his intention to start a company — that sort of happened on a whim.
“Once I decided to be in the circus, I started combing the streets of New York looking for venues that had enough ceiling height to be able to accommodate us,” he said. “I would walk right in and tell them, ‘Hey, you don’t have a circus, but this is why you need it.’ Eventually, I landed a couple gigs.”
After finding more performers to join him and snagging regular gigs, Emptage slowly began informally managing his performers. People would ask for someone who could do aerial work, and he would point them in the right direction. Eventually, he needed to make things a bit more formal. So, he got a contract, and the company was born.
“It was quite by accident,” Emptage said, “but it was organic.”
COVID-19’s hit on the performing arts industry was a huge hurdle Emptage and his company had to vault.
“I didn’t expect that it was going to be as bad as it was,” he said. “As the eternal optimist, I was thinking it was just going to be a couple of months. I didn’t expect to have to furlough or lay off the artists to get them on unemployment.”
The unemployment was a lifesaver. Emptage said the Acrobats make 100% of their living from touring and performing live, which they could no longer do. A year and a half of shows were canceled within the span of six weeks.
The company has been open for a few months now, slowly coming back to life.
The biggest challenge has been that most of the circus training facilities in the New York area did not survive the economic challenges of COVID-19, so the Acrobats haven’t had a place to train. The few shows they’ve had in the past couple of months have allowed enough opportunities that the performers are getting back into physical shape.
“But we’re happy and optimistic that this is going to be a good rest of the year, and a great performance at Chautauqua,” Emptage said.
When the company came to Chautauqua Institution for the first time in 2011, they were in development for a show called “Art of Circus,” and they used Chautauqua to do a soft premiere at the end of their original variety show.
“People stayed,” Emptage said. “They were our first audience and our first feedback as we were in development. That was really special.”
The Acrobats plan to do the same thing this year, performing a three-act sneak peak of an entirely new show called “Vivaldi and Vaudeville” at the end of their variety show on July 8. The new show follows the theme of envisioning a new future that’s connected to the past.
“The show is about rethinking what was common knowledge in the past in a way that pertains to today and tomorrow,” Emptage said. “Rethinking things that are both familiar and not familiar. It’s about collapsing time and allowing contemporary minds to merge with minds of the past.”