In November 2021, Omnium Circus — the innovative circus dedicated to inclusivity and diversity — was all set to open a seven-week run under a big top in Tysons, Virginia. A bill of circus acts was announced, to be performed by an unprecedented multi-abled, multi-ethnic cast. Then came omicron, and Omnium had to cancel.
But for one special public performance, a matinee on February 26, 2022, the show did go on. It wasn’t under a tent but in the grand-new Main Theater at Capital One Hall — a fully inclusive, fully accessible show called I’Mpossible. DC Theater Arts writers Sophia Howes and John Stoltenberg were there and are still talking about what they saw.
John: Being a circus lover since I was five, I was thrilled by I’Mpossible. I found it more feel-good than I ever imagined a circus could be. I went wondering/worrying how well a tent show could work mounted on a proscenium stage, but my doubts vanished as soon as the performance began. The production values were worthy of the best big stage shows: a spectacular lighting design, a vibrant music track tightly cued to the action, and often enhanced with a bass beat for the hearing-impaired. (For the sight-impaired, audio-description devices were available). As a theatrical spectacle with heart-stopping scenes and an unforgettable emotional arc, Omnium Circus utterly surpassed my expectations.
And I had a lump in my throat from the very beginning when the Ringmaster sang the National Anthem a cappella in a gorgeous baritone while the lyrics were simultaneously and sublimely signed. Then he introduced us to the story of Johnny (coincidentally my childhood nickname). I was enthralled.
Sophia: The story of Johnny, a boy who ran away with the circus to follow his dream, is a story everyone can relate to. Those who have been told you can’t live from your heart are being told “It’s impossible.” Omnium Circus is all about I’m possible. The sheer talent, joy, and celebration on the stage reminded me that we can always be our best selves. Omnium’s founder and executive director, Lisa B. Lewis, quotes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which are inspiring to anyone who faces obstacles in life: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” The bright costumes, beautiful smiles, and incredible skills of the performers were so uplifting, I felt a glorious sense of possibility.
John: There were performers with evident disabilities (they used a chair, for instance), and there were others whose disability could not be discerned from the stage (they were Deaf, for instance). Yet what was always foremost and overwhelmingly apparent was the performers’ skill and versatility and joy.
“Disability visibility” took on a whole new meaning. We learned to see completely past the performers’ deficiency. We learned to see always their excellence. In that sense, Omnium Circus was much more than a thrilling entertainment; it became a profoundly personal transformational experience. Even as the show was happening, it was changing how we perceived the people in it.
This was particularly poignant in the solo acts where performers were literally out there on their own. The aerialist spinning silver hula hoops in the air, the artist whirling around the stage on the big Cyr wheel, the contortionist upside-down hitting a target with bow and arrow, the acrobat balancing on a ladder — one could not watch without admiration and without thereby exercising and flexing one’s own capacity for identification with another’s humanity.
Sophia: The King Charles Troupe’s high-energy basketball-on-unicycles group act was an intense and fun experience. Later, I was surprised to learn that they are now in the fifth generation! They made history as the first all-Black group to perform with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson made a similar breakthrough: at 22 he was the first Black Ringmaster of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. He remained as Ringmaster until the circus closed in 2017. Lisa B. Lewis is a graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. The group juggling act artists were multi-ethnic and multi-abled, with Johnny in the middle. It was a beautiful example of how Omnium makes everyone part of the fun.
Among the stars are the latest generation of the legendary circus family the Españas. Noe España and Marcus Ponce perform on the breathtaking Wheel of Destiny. Vivien España amazes us with her head-balancing trapeze–and–aerial-hoop, or lyra, act. In the next generation are Noemi Lee España with her hula hoops, and her brother, Elan, with his astounding Diabolos. Noe España is also the artistic director. As Lisa B. Lewis says, “Omnium is leading the world into a new era of fabulous family entertainment — thrillingly joyful, seamlessly inclusive, and completely accessible.”
John: The kids in the audience looked and sounded like they were having a great time, some waving rainbow-lit wands their grownups bought them from the merch booth. This was definitely a show for the whole family. There was even a cute dog act. But I can attest there were also high points that might have significant emotional meaning for adults.
The act that absolutely blew me away, for instance, was the acrobat and aerialist Jen Bricker-Bauer. Born without legs, she performed breathtaking feats of stunning beauty and strength suspended from silks. Several moments into her athletically balletic act, a man walked on stage playing a trombone. A curious juxtaposition, I thought. Then he set down his horn and joined Bricker in mid-air, where together they did an astonishingly muscular and tender pas de deux that moved me to tears. Never has a circus or dance performance so dissolved me. As I learned later, that man was Dominik Bauer, Bricker-Bauer’s partner in art and life. After the show, when several Omnium cast members came out into the lobby to meet and mingle with the audience, I quite by chance was face to face with Bricker-Bauer in her chair and Bauer beside her, both humbly smiling, graciously greeting people, and evidently in love. I meanwhile was weeping and speechless. Except I got out the words “Thank you.”
Sophia: There is an old saying, “Nothing is impossible when you work with the circus.” The emotional roller-coaster ride that is Omnium was in many ways unique. The performers weren’t in the Big Top. The only animals were Gail Mirabella’s adorable Disc Doggers, who seemed happy and well-treated, and were applauded wildly whether they caught the frisbee or not. On Omnium’s website, you will find the following words: “Sharing in the joy and excitement of the performing arts is an experience that should be available to everyone, regardless of background, race, gender, or ability.” This is truly the circus of the future, full of limit-defying and life-affirming feats, boundless entertainment, and empathy for all.
Omnium Circus performed I’Mpossible February 26, 2022, in the Main Theater at Capital One Hall, 7750 Capital One Tower Rd, Tysons, VA. For information about future performances in other cities, visit omniumcircus.org. For more about the amazing artists, visit omniumcircus.org/#performers.