Bill Allen's interest in the artistry of circus acts has taken him all over the world in search of talent. During the past two decades, he's supplied production companies and touring shows with all manner of aerialists, jugglers, gymnasts, contortionists, quick change artists and acrobats.
But in 1998, Allen was given an opportunity that he couldn't have anticipated. He received a telephone call from Erich Kunzel. The former Cincinnati Pops conductor had seen an aerialist Allen had promoted and was interested in trying to feature the performer in some type of orchestral concert.
“My exposure to orchestras at the time was as a listener,” Allen said recently. “I told Kunzel I'd see what we could do but I needed to do some research. So I brought over some technical experts from Moscow to see if such an idea was possible. Our first experiment matched circus artists with a full symphony orchestra.”
The result was “Cirque de la Symphonie,” a touring production that showcases an ensemble of circus artists who perform live with symphony orchestras all over the world. The production will close the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's 2012-13 pops series this week.
“In other parts of the world, circus performers are a real institution, a concept that is sort of foreign to people in this country,” Allen said. “After becoming involved with circus administrators and seeing the quality of the performers in Moscow, I thought these artists deserved to be recognized on a higher plane than we what we normally think.
“That began a long quest with the idea of raising circus art to a fine arts level. I thought classical music might be the glue that could fuse the art form of circus artistry to symphony orchestras. Our production with Kunzel became so popular that PBS broadcast it nationwide in 1998 and then showed it repeatedly for the next five years.”
While the artistry of the featured performers in “Cirque de la Symphonie” was unparalleled, Allen had some concerns about what type of musical repertoire to use in his symphony concerts. His goal was to enhance the orchestra's performances with visuals, not detract from the music.
Over a period of several years, Allen assembled a body of classical music that he believed would complement any type of circus act he wanted to feature: “The Toreador Song” from “Carmen” for a spinning routine, “Danse Macabre” for an aerial rope act and the “Can-Can” for a ribbon dance.
That repertoire has since been expanded to include music from film (“Hook,” “Harry Potter”), Broadway (“The Phantom of the Opera”) and Latin America (“Tico Tico”). Depending on input from orchestra conductors, the playlist can change slightly or dramatically from one city to the next.
“The emphasis is on balancing the two aspects,” Allen said. “We like to provide opportunities for the orchestra to shine by itself because patrons have a loyalty to their hometown symphony. But we also want to provide a visual element that enhances a live orchestral performance.
“I like to tell people that if we do our job right, 1 plus 1 equals 3. That means the whole is greater than the parts. When you mix great music with brilliant visuals, audiences feel that exhilaration and their jaws drop.”