For its 20th visit to Boston, the Big Apple Circus is presenting an art-themed show under its big blue tent outside the Bayside Expo Center. As ever, the theme weaves loosely through two hours of high tension and low humor, setting a general mood but never tying the performers too closely to the ground.
A lovely little homage to Magritte, for example, with cloud-painted doorways framing three bowler-hatted gentlemen, quickly evolves into a fast-paced, ferociously athletic display of flips and leaps by Big Apple troupers Andrey Mantchev, Virgile Peyramaure, and Valdis Yanovskis. Once the hats come off, they're remarkable gymnasts -- as Yanovskis gets to prove again in a breathtaking aerial act with Regina Dobrovitskaya. And the Gershwin-inflected score for the Magritte number adds to the fun.
Toward the end of the show, the remarkable Kovgar Troupe -- making its Big Apple debut this year -- opens with a beautifully evocative Chagall tableau that, like the Magritte, swiftly morphs into a dazzling acrobatic routine. The image is lovely, and nicely carried out in Mirena Rada's costume design, but this 13-person teeterboard act is so breathtaking that they could all work in sweatsuits.
Rada also contributes a delightfully scribbly Calder costume for hand-balancer Mei Ling, some can-can ruffles for a Toulouse-Lautrec number (the ruffles look especially fetching on Grandma, the Big Apple's perennially beloved clown), and an elegant Harlequin design for, appropriately enough, Picaso Jr. He's a Spanish juggler, also making his debut here, who manages to juggle five balls -- with his mouth -- and a whole handful of plates, while still charming the audience with humor and high style.
GuiMing Meng charms, too, with an unusual act of balancing huge Chinese vases on his head. If his costume and routine didn't have much to do with the ''Picturesque" theme, well, it was still impressive on its own.
So were the rapid twirls and dizzying dives of Roman Tomanov, filling in temporarily for the Mongolian Angels, who are sidelined with a sprain.
Also impressive was the Big Apple's new equestrian act, featuring Yasmine Smart and six gorgeous black Arabian stallions -- each with a Harlequin pattern combed into its haunch that would do the Fenway groundskeepers proud.
But honors for the most incredible animal act, despite its over-the-top gaudiness, must go to Svetlana Shamsheeva. She works with dogs, doves, and -- here's the incredible part -- trained cats. Who knew it could even be done?
As for the clowns, Vallery Serebryakov, the Russian master of prancing pratfalls, returns with some hilarious routines involving a stick, a ball, and the inevitable bucket of water. Standard props, maybe, but his impeccably catastrophic interactions with them render these old standbys newly hysterical.
And, of course, Barry Lubin, as Grandma, never disappoints; his musical tomfoolery is especially giddy this year. From torturing MC Dinny McGuire with a tuba, Grandma segued on Sunday afternoon straight into a duet with an apparently unsuspecting audience member. As the voices of Natalie and Nat King Cole streamed from the microphone, these two gave us a dancing and singing duet that was, truly, ''Unforgettable."
Now, that's art.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.