The new and improved circus

Oct 6, 2008 at 1:10 p.m. ET

My father made sure we went to the circus every time it came to town. I was never quite sure whether we went for us kids or for him. Honestly, I think it was for him. He loved the animals and the clowns and the high-wire act. I liked most of that, too, but I found the whole experience a little smelly and a little sad. The animals, you know, on both counts.

Circus Tent
As an adult, I didn't have much interest in circuses. My association was always the circus I saw as a child. I didn't think there was a reason for me to consider circuses beyond that association - until I heard about a circus out of Montreal, that is.

A new kind of circus

My first time going to a Cirque du Soleil show, in the early 1990s, I didn't know what to expect. I'd heard that it was beautiful and arty, and that there were no animals. I didn't know what else. I certainly didn't expect the performance to be such a revelation of color and sound and feats of flexibility and strength. It was all those things.

I left that first performance with my jaw agape. I enjoyed it in the moment, to be sure, but it took days to process what I'd seen. The feelings and the meanings - and the feats of flexibility and strength. My husband and I were hooked. I knew that from then on, we'd make a point of seeing Cirque du Soleil shows whenever they were in town.

The kids love it, too

When the kids were small, we started taking them with us to the shows pretty much immediately. We tried not to overthink it (perhaps we underthought it) and just wanted the kids to experience something we really enjoy - and there were matinee performances. We felt confident that if the music or imagery became a little dour or dark, we could reassure them and help them hide their eyes. We've watched more than a couple of shows with kids in our laps - but every time we get just as much enjoyment watching the wonder in the kids' eyes as we do from the performance itself.

We went to a Cirque du Soleil performance last month, and it was just what we expected: absolutely amazing. It was my husband's and my eighth show, the fifth for the Alfs and Woody, and the third for Sunshine. The kids were so excited in the days leading up to the performance, their faces showed their awe all the way through the performance, and they talked about it for days afterward, telling all their friends about what they had seen. I did have to remind them that the way some of the performers can move their bodies is the result of years of training and not a little genetic influence. That is, no attempts at double-somersaults off the couch, please.

Now, granted, taking the family to such performance is a splurge, and only you can judge whether a particular performance is right for your family. To us it's worth it. And if you can make the effort to take your family - or even just yourself! - to a performance of a "non-traditional" circus, I highly recommend it.

A whole new world

Cirque du Soleil opened my eyes to new ways of seeing, it opened my ears to new forms of musical expression and language and challenged my ideas of what makes a clown a clown. The costumes are inventive and functional. The performers use the audience, so a circus can be more than a performance and can be an interactive experience. It opened my mind to circuses again.

More than that, Cirque du Soleil opened my eyes to what a circus could be. It's not just what I remember from my childhood - it can be whatever a performer dreams, from the all youth circus Circus Smirkus to a romantic trapeze performance for adults or any other non-traditional circus out there (there are lots of small regional circuses for personal experience). It's another form of artistic, and often athletic, expression. It's well-worth a look.

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