UniverSoul Circus aims to move the spirit in everyone
By Leah A. Zeldes For Sun-Times Media September 25, 2013 5:12PM
Elephants are among the acts presented at the the UniverSoul circus.
UniverSoul Circus, various dates through Oct. 6, Washington Park, 5531 S. Martin Luther King Dr.; various dates Oct. 11-20, Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph. $16 to $35. Visit ticketmaster.com.
Updated: September 25, 2013 5:12PM
‘What if we had lions and tigers and elephants?” That’s the question that occurred to Cedric Walker, founder and president of UniverSoul Circus, which opened last week in Washington Park, when he set out to create a family-friendly urban entertainment event in the early 1990s.
As concert promoter, Walker had staged rap festivals and gospel plays in the preceding decade. The rap concerts had appealed to young people, but not their parents or grandparents. With the plays, said Hank Ernest, a spokesman for the circus, “if parents brought their kids, the kids would be bored.”
“I had a vision to explore the various talents other than singing and dancing that performers from around the world had to offer,” Walker wrote of his company’s inspiration. “We had the idea to present something different, to create a show that presented a wide spectrum of talent to a wide demographic.”
After several years of research, the result was UniverSoul, which launched in Atlanta in 1994.
“We came across a single African American-owned circus operating in 1893,” Walker recalled. “That’s when the decision was made to create a new entertainment complex — a full-blown circus complete with its own big top tent.”
The single-ring circus today has no lions, Ernest said, but there are elephants and a tiger and performing dogs. It combines traditional circus arts, such as clowns and acrobats and aerialists, with elements of theater, as well as music that spans pop, classic R&B, Latin, hip-hop, jazz and gospel.
“It’s a one-ring circus, so everybody is close to the action,” said Ernest. “It’s up close and personal.
“Our acts come from every continent,” he said. This year’s artists hail from the United States, France, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Vietnam, South Africa, Russia, Ethiopia and West Africa.
Audience members get in on the act to, participating in a “soul train” line dance in center ring. “The kids love to see their parents and teachers getting down,” Ernest said. “You don’t to come to our circus to sit in your seat and watch.”
For the first time, the UniverSoul tent will be set up in two Chicago locations, on the South Side at Washington Park and the near West Side at Union Park. “We’ve been coming to Chicago for about 18 years, since we started touring,” said Ernest. “We typically run overtime in Chicago,” he said.
The Chicago performances, sponsored by the Black McDonald’s Operators Association and presented by the Chicago Park District, are part of a year-long tour that encompasses 500 stops in 43 cities. (The troupe marked its arrival in Chicago by holding a free one-day camp teaching circus arts to kids.)
New acts this year include the Giang Brothers, a balancing act duo from Vietnam. Jean Claude from Paris, whose high-flying aerial ballet on UniverSoul’s HBO special 15 years ago garnered an Emmy nomination for best choreography, has a new partner, Titiane, from Rio, for a swirling dance above the audience. A group of seven contortionists from Ethiopia perform in a group: “Seven beautiful women at one time, building and stacking on each other.” The live tiger is part of a magic act.
“Our event is all about lifting spirits,” Walker said. “Whether you’re sitting on the edge of your chair with excitement, dancing to the music or high-fiving our performers as they pass through the aisles, UniverSoul Circus is designed to move the audiences in positive, unexpected ways.”
“It’s truly a multicultural experience,” said Ernest. “ We believe that ‘soul’ is something you feel. It’s not a color.”
Leah A. Zeldes is a Sun-Times freelance writer.