Starting out in the mid-1990s at dive bars and punk-rock venues, Keith Nelson, co-founder of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, said performing for late-night crowds compared to families has one major difference.
“Six-year-olds will let you know if they don’t like it immediately,” he said.
The universal appeal of traditional circus is what has helped the production become one of the longest-running in New York.
The Bindlestiff Cirkus will come to town at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater as part of the Family Entertainment Series and Old First Night celebrations.
Despite this age of shorter attention spans and more competition for entertainment, Nelson said the circus endures because it reminds people of the magic of live performance.
“People sitting in a circle with entertainment and communication is one of the oldest things in humanity,” he said. “Watching amazing human potential is … the oldest art form.”
Acts planned for the evening include wirewalker Logan Kerr, who started out years ago working behind-the-scenes for the troupe.
“She pretty much grew up with Bindlestiff,” Nelson said. “It’s been amazing to watch her go from a really good stagehand to now being an amazing performer.”
Other acts include acrobat Ermiyas Muluken, juggler Kyle Driggs and aerialist Kylie Webb.
Driggs is best known for juggling umbrellas, which could prove to be a bit of an extra challenge in the open-air Amp, Nelson said.
“We’re hoping we’re not dealing with crosscurrents,” he said.
As the ringmaster, or master of ceremonies, Nelson said he ushers people from an everyday mindset to the fantastical one created by the circus.
“My role is to connect to the people and help them on their journey into this world of joy and wonder,” he said.
In terms of guiding people, the circus and Chautauqua have something in common, Nelson said. Both draw people together for a short time to “explode in magic,” then allow them to grow from it.
“Chautauqua, historically, is one of those magic meccas, and … it’s amazing to be a part of,” he said.
Bindlestiff Family Cirkus was set to perform last year on the grounds, but the performance on Aug. 12, 2022, was canceled following the attack on author Salman Rushdie earlier that same day.
“To be able to come back on to the grounds and do the show that we wanted to do will be an amazing moment,” Nelson said.
At its heart, the circus encourages people to take risks and “try the impossible,” even if it means an “exquisite failure,” he said.
“Failure moves us (forward) in life,” Nelson said. “Circus is one of those art forms where there are so many hours of failure before what you’re seeing in that ring. We would not be where we are as a society without tons of failure.”