Some circuses are packaged as throwback entertainment, transporting the audience to an earlier, simpler time. The UniverSoul Circus, whose big top is spread over a Northeastern University parking lot this weekend, takes a classic venue and makes it appealingly modern. The music tends toward hip-hop and reggaeton. The tone is casual, sometimes even a little sarcastic.
But the acrobats? Same crazy skills as ever.
Founded 15 years ago to showcase the talents of black performers, the Atlanta-based circus is now an international affair, with acts from Brazil, Colombia, South Africa, New Zealand, and China. Among the highlights is a trio of acrobat-comedians from Capetown and Johannesberg, who mug satisfyingly while swinging from a rope and trapeze. They look like they're having a ball, and it's infectious.
But what truly spreads the cheer is the audience participation, a nod to African-American traditions. (The show's slogan, "Jabulani," comes from the Zulu word for joy.) With one ring and a relatively small seating area, this circus is appealingly intimate, and the audience is constantly asked to join the fun. The show is reciprocal from the start, when ringmaster Cecil Armstrong - the comedian known as "Shuckey Duckey" - leads the audience in a call-and-response chant: "When I say 'Soul,' You say 'Circus!' "
Armstrong and his sidekick, Zeke, step in and out of the ring regularly to mingle with the crowd, turning the space between acts into a raucous shared event. Among the inspired, low-tech tricks is an interlude when enormous rubber balls come bouncing through the crowd.
And when audience members are asked to step up and show off, they generally don't disappoint. At Friday night's show, one minuscule boy, invited into the ring for a children's dance-off, turned in a performance worth the ticket price.
But crowd contributions can go too far. In the too-long second act, an extended bit involving audience members asked to act out love songs went on so long that it turned a little uncomfortable. Fortunately, it was followed by a lovely routine on the silk ropes, a reminder that death-defying aerial acts can be romantic, too.
Human tricks are the lifeblood of any circus, and the acrobatics here are satisfying: a troupe of men and boys from Beijing flips expertly on poles and does a graceful human wave. A pair of child contortionists from Guinea are a bit harder to watch, but fascinating nonetheless.
And, of course, there are animals: horses with daredevil riders, tigers who wave on command. (Though if big cats were excised from circuses tomorrow, I wouldn't mourn.) Even a simple "Noah's Ark" segment, featuring pairs of animals circling the ring to a hip-hop beat, winds up being fun. Is a llama ever not entertaining?
Circus elephants have become a controversial subject, and I'll leave the debate for another venue. Suffice it to say that the pachyderms in the UniverSoul Circus finale do impressive tricks to the strains of a Rihanna tune. Like the audience members who take part in a gleeful "Soul Train," they've got rhythm, and they seem to know it.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org