Sunday, July 2, 2017

Still Life with Robin: The Folklife Festival's a Circus

Circus Arts image - Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2017
by Peggy Robin

It’s the 50th anniversary of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and it’s one of the best years ever. It’s the Greatest Show on Earth! And it’s free! There’s a Big Top with a complete circus performance – the kind you’d buy $40 tickets to see, if you were going through Ticketmaster.

The festival started on Thursday, June 29 and it runs through Sunday, July 9, with a day off on Wednesday, July 5. In addition to circus arts, the festival celebrates human migration….but that’s a much smaller and lower-key part of this year’s event. The circus dominates everything, starting with the Big Top which you can see from all over the Mall. That makes it quite a bit different from previous years, which had multiple themes, and you could wander about, without much planning, and catch a demonstration of this or that craft, watch a dance troupe, listen to story tellers, and it didn’t matter so much if you came in the middle of a show or left before the show was over. The shows repeated frequently, and you could always wander away, find something else of interest, and then come back for the beginning of the next show, if you felt like it.

This year, more advance planning is recommended, especially for the complete circus shows that take place under the Big Top. For example, the UniverSoul Circus performs a one-hour show at 2 PM through July 4. People start lining up for it about a half hour in advance. I joined the line about 15 minutes beforehand, and it already stretched a long way down the Mall. I’m not sure the people who joined the line five minutes after me were able to get in. When the Big Top seats are full, there’s no standing room (as is the case at the smaller tents, where audience members are free to wander in and watch for a while). But it was so worth the wait! This was one phenomenal circus! In addition to the usual acrobatics, clowning, and ten people riding the same bicycle (surely you’ve seen THAT before?!) there were all kinds of things I've never seen at the circus...and still have a hard time believing I actually saw. Contortionists who did things with their bodies I didn’t know could be done by human beings with bones in their bodies. There were fire limbo dancers. And the tallest stilt-walkers I’ve ever seen. And then there was this enormous double hamster-wheel sort of contraption was brought out, and these two men started running around the spinning wheels, and then jumping around the wheels, and finally, it seemed they were flying around those wheels. This was a Cirque du Soleil level show without the Cirque level admission price...or the spooky music, or the brooding, enigmatic theme. But you do need to plan your visit around the big show.

The schedule is here: - use the schedule filter to see the Big Top shows.

There are also some other open-air full shows you will want to see, including trapeze and high wire acts, clown performances, and juggling -- including contact juggling (and if you don't know what that is, here's an example: 

Now here’s my special tip for making your visit more comfortable: You can avoid the port-o-potties without having to wait in a long line to get into a museum building. Go to the Smithsonian Castle (it’s the one with the tower and the flags on top, nearest the Smithsonian Metro entrance on the Mall), where there’s seldom a line to get in – and if there is one, it will be short. Just to your right as you enter, you will see bathrooms. But those bathrooms probably will have a line, so keep going into the main hall. Then visit the large exhibition hall to your right. Along the right side of that hall, there’s a slightly raised corridor, and along that corridor there are two old-fashioned dark wooden doors. They look like closet doors. But one says “Men” and the other “Women.” These two smaller bathrooms almost never have a line, because so few people know about them (and I’m kind of sorry to share the secret!)

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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