Our amazing afternoon at the multi-abled Omnium Circus

Two DC theater critics take in the world's most inclusive circus and are blown away.

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.

The cast of Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible’ onstage in Capital One Hall before an audience of delighted kids and grownups. Photo by Maike Schulz.

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.

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson with poet, acrobat, and dancer Anna Gichan signing in ASL in Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible.’ Photo by Maike Schulz.

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.

Hula hoop artist Noemi Lee España in Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible.’ Photo by Maike Schulz.

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.

Acrobat and juggler Elan Alex España topsy-turvy on the Cyr wheel in Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible.’ Photo by Maike Schulz.

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.

Acrobat and contortionist Noemi Lee España shooting a bow and arrow with her feet in Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible.’ Photo by Maike Schulz.

“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.

Acrobat Ermiyas Muluken as “Johnny” teeters atop a ladder in Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible.’ Photo by Maike Schulz.

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. 

The King Charles Unicycle Troupe plays hoops in Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible.’ Photo by Maike Schulz.

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.

Ermiyas Muluken as “Johnny” (center) watching juggler juggle in Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible.’ Photo by Maike Schulz.

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.

Aerialist Jen Bricker-Bauer, who was born without legs, and musician Dominik Bauer, her husband, dancing on silks in mid-air in ’I’Mpossible.’ Photo by Maike Schulz.

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.” 

Animal trainer Gail Mirabella and her adorable hoop-hopping, Frisbee-catching pooches in Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible.’ Photo by Maike Schulz.

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.

The finale of Omnium Circus’s ’I’Mpossible,’ in Capital One Hall February 26, 2022. Photo by Maike Schulz.

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.

Diverse, multi-abled Omnium Circus to play one special matinee

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John Stoltenberg and Sophia Howes
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.  Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time real estate editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.


  1. What a wonderful story! I hope this group returns to the DC area, since I would love to be there! Thank you for covering this!


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