Friday, August 24, 2001

Circus people are just folks

UniverSoul performers have an extraordinary ability to entertain

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's five hours 'til show time and the UniverSoul Circus doesn't look like a circus.

        “It will, just wait. You're always a little nervous early on, but it always comes together,” says John Cartwright, talent manager and the guy in charge of seeing that the show goes on.

[photo] Ringmaster Casual Cal (Calvin Dupree Jr.) opens the show Wednesday night.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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        Midday Wednesday, walking around Swifton Commons' parking lot where 75 performers and 40 crew members are gearing up for five days of shows through Sunday, it looks more like chaos spinning out of control.

        Out in the center ring, under the huge blue and white big top, the 12-man Gabonese Acrobatic Troupe is assembling the stage to the deafening accompaniment of banging girders, clanging portable steps and grinding winches stretching steel cables.

        Now and then, the Gabonese lads stop for, say, a few impromptu handstands.

        “No one here has just one job,” says Chan Johnson, a dancer, aerialist, magician's assistant and, at the moment, tour guide. “The Gabonese are a wonderful troupe, but they also help set up the tent's interior.”

        Set-up in the show's third stop in Cincinnati in as many years is progressing loudly but nicely under the watchful eye of house manager Coco: “We're on schedule I think. The whole set-up process is about 24 hours.”

[photo] Contortionist Ricardo Sosa
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        Out behind the big top in their temporary trailer park — most performers live on site — the show's talent is wandering around, getting acclimated.

        But not Ricardo Sosa, the show's 35-year-old contortionist. He's lounging next to an inflatable kiddie pool — performers travel with their families — keeping an eye on Charlie, a spunky Chihuahua that's having way too much fun baiting a Rottweiler outside the next trailer.

        “I don't warm up, or do anything, until about 6:30. Then I do the splits and start flexing, doing handstands and loosening up. The last thing I do before the show is take a shower to warm my muscles.”

        This is his second year with UniverSoul but his 19th in the circus. “I studied four years to learn this,” he says, unconsciously twisting his arms almost totally backward as he talks.

    What: UniverSoul Circus
    When: 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. today; noon, 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; noon, 3:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday
    Where: Swifton Commons, 7030 Reading Road, Bond Hill
    Tickets: $10-$25
    Information: 562-4949
        Hair hanger Elizabeth Rodriguez, waist-length black hair tied in a bun, is on a frantic search for duct tape, winding through a maze of portable satellite dishes on tripods, more kiddie pools and lawn chairs.

        “I hang by my hair, but I'm not going to tell you the secret. There are only a handful of us in the world,” said the 25-year veteran from Mexico City. “I'm fifth generation circus. I learned this from my great grandmother, and it was very painful at first. But I wanted to do it so much, I made my mind overcome the pain.

        “I will tell you about this circus. I've been in a lot of shows all over the world, but this is one of the best.”

        UniverSoul's tigers probably agree: “They always sleep. That's all they do when they aren't working,” says Ricardo Perez, the 45-year-old lion tamer, pointing to white Bengal tigers Baku, Toshiro and Fushi, snoring in their spotlessly clean 18-wheeler, just a hair away from a makeshift pen where three elephants, tails wagging, are munching hay.

        Nearing the end of his first year with UniverSoul — they're on the road February through late November — Ricardo is pretty much finished working 'til show time. “I play with them and feed them, but that's finished. I'll just rest.”

        A lot of the performers were looking to rest Wednesday afternoon. “We just drove in from Kansas City and I haven't slept for two days,” says Onionhead the clown.

        “I'm mostly a full-time clown, but I'll do anything they need to keep the big top on the road. I just drove one of the bunk houses (large, communal trailers) in from Kansas. If they need me, I'll sweep, help set up the big top, anything.”

        Now in his fifth year with UniverSoul, he's a former fashion photographer who started as an assistant cook, then head cook, then jumped to tent crew, all the while learning the fine and raucous art of clowning. “It was busting my butt, my brother, doing all that at once, but it was worth it.”

        It's now about three hours 'til show time and the lot is clearing. Some performers are rushing in to rehearse. Others are curled up on cots. Ricardo the contortionist is stretching. The tigers are still sleeping and the elephants are still having their way with the hay, but at least the tent crew is on the verge of finishing.

        Oh, and Charlie the Chihuahua still has that Rottweiler straining at his leash.


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