As acrobats in green satin costumes and pantaloon-legged firethrowers stretched their muscles backstage behind the big tent, Nir Kaplan wandered among his performers, gathering chuckles and exclamations over his new coiffure, a closely shorn brush-cut dyed white-blond.
“It’s the shock value,” he said, grinning. “Yesterday I was just a guy who was going gray.”
Then again, this is someone who is used to gaining peoples’ attention.
Kaplan is the owner of Florentin Circus, a Tel Aviv-based circus of acrobats, clowns and flame throwers. Named for the artsy Tel Aviv neighborhood where he first established the circus in 2002, the circus is now housed in Hakfar Hayarok, just north of Tel Aviv, and travels around, setting up for weeks at a time at various locations around the country.
This has never been a circus that included animals and their stunts, although Kaplan has worked with a tiger or two in his time. Instead, the focus is on aerial artists and acrobats, magicians and jugglers, contortionists and clowns. He was once one of the performers, conquering the crowd with stilts, clowning it up, even slicing through the air on the tightrope on occasion.
“Basically, I’m a clown, but I do it all,” said Kaplan. “It’s an important part of who I am, being a monkey.”
He caught the performance bug in high school, watching a crew of stilt walkers stalk the streets of Tel Aviv. He eventually made his way to Europe for a summer before the army, where he hung around city squares and piazzas with other teen circus wannabes to watch the skilled maneuvers of the street performers.
It was only after the army that Kaplan began training in earnest. He spent time in Paris as well as the Far East, attending circus school and studying theater, clowning, aerial work and the flying trapeze. He eventually wanted to return to Israel, and found that the only way to continue to clown, so to speak, was to start a circus of his own.
That’s been something of a challenge in Israel, where there isn’t a plethora of circus artists at hand. And so, Kaplan draws upon his international network of circus colleagues, bringing performers to Israel for stints of varying lengths — for example, three weeks over Passover in Jerusalem, or for a circus school held during the summer.
As a result, there’s a babel of tongues in this temporary town, as most of the performers are not Israeli-born but gathered from Kaplan’s circle of circus performers, including Uzbeki gymnasts, Ukrainian tightrope walkers and the New York City-native clown, Peter, who also performs with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and the Big Apple Circus.
“Iiiiimaaaa,” he screeched during each performance, pinpointing the motherly-looking women sitting in the front row, and then catapulting his gangly, long-legged body into their laps. Or, at other times, “Aaaabbbaa,” shanghaiing equally clueless dads to join him onstage for one of his juggling tricks.
“Yeah, it took us a while to get Peter up to speed with his Hebrew,”said Kaplan.
A few of the acrobats are Russian-born Israelis, but the total number of locals is just seven, including Kaplan and Doron, the Israeli ringmaster.
Its remained a small circus, and Florentin’s 18 performers often double up on their acts to extending its limited parameters. The handful of acrobats bounce off a giant trampoline in the first part of the show, then take their gymnastic stunts to significantly higher reaches in the second half of the show. So do the balance beam artist and his team, who clown around as part of their two acts. Even Doron the ringmaster takes a turn during the water portion of the show, blowing giant, extended bubbles and clouds of tiny, iridescent spheres to the delight of the mostly young crowd.
It works, because the audience gets to know the performers, and the big tent feels intimate rather than intimidatingly large and overwhelming. Kaplan views the big top as a kind of theater, albeit one that involves its audience.
“We’re actors,” said Kaplan, “but there’s less ego involved in a circus than in regular theater.”
And when a two-week stint ends, as it recently did in Jerusalem’s First Station complex, the entire team lends a hand in disassembling the circus tents and equipment in a scene familiar to anyone who has ever watched “Dumbo.”
“We work hard, and we do it all,” he said. “We perform, and we build a city each time” — he gestures at the red-and-white striped tents surrounded by a temporary village of caravans used by the cast and crew members –, “then we break it down again.”
Kaplan holds out hope that his circus school, held during holidays and for three weeks during the summer, will eventually produce some bona fide Israeli circus performers, possibly even a trapeze artist or two.
“It’s a certain discipline, and not everyone gets it,” he said.
That is, not everybody runs off to join the circus.
Kaplan likened his own attachment to a disease of sorts, musing on whether it was his father’s guffaws while watching old Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films that got him hooked.
Then again, a relative recently told him that their family is related to the founders of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, so the circus bug may just be genetic.
“I don’t know what it is exactly,” he said, shaking his bleached head. “What are the chances that you get hooked by the circus world? But I can’t imagine doing anything else.”