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M.J. Daugherty Written by M.J. Daugherty
Nov. 10, 2010 | 12:09 PM

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Review by MJ Daugherty

For most people, the word “circus” conjures images of death-defying feats, glamorous costumes,  and childlike delight, all wrapped up in a big bow of dazzling color and lively music.  For the subjects of PBS’s six part documentary miniseries, CIRCUS, the word means a place of freedom, passion, achievement, sacrifice, and family.  Immediately following the television premiere, PBS has released the entire program to DVD, giving viewers a chance to revisit (or perhaps meet for the first time) the fascinating and inspirational people who make up the acclaimed Big Apple Circus. 
With this series, Co-Creator/ Director, Maro Chermayeff and team have pulled off a feat as amazing as any performed on a high wire.  Combining beautifully shot footage of the performances themselves with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the performers and staff, it follows the course of the circus’s entire six month touring season - from the creation of a new show to the final performance.  In so doing, the creators also managed to capture the riveting drama of a period of adjustment in the organization as it faces a transition in leadership, along with the realities of a shrinking economy and an underappreciated art form.  It’s also a period of significant changes in the personal lives of those involved with the circus, some joyous and some with heartbreaking results.  To give any more details of the story would ruin the journey.  CIRCUS is full of unforeseen complications and unexpected triumphs.  It is the sort of narrative in which viewers will find themselves cheering for and saddened for almost everyone.     
There’s a remarkable honesty to the footage and interviews captured by the documentary team.  Real-life dramas are played out before the cameras as if they weren’t there.  Yet there is also a deep feeling of affection and admiration from the series’ creators for their subjects.  This isn’t a documentary about the differences between “circus people” and “regular people.”  Instead, it is a story about a group of ordinary people with extraordinary talents and skill who have chosen a challenging lifestyle in order to fulfill their callings.  As the circus’s director puts it “What happens in this big top…is a testament to all of us.  It’s an affirmation of the human spirit that anything is possible, and that we have the potential to do that because they’re doing it.”  PBS’s CIRCUS gives viewers a chance to join these remarkable people, at least for a short while, and to run away with them to join the circus.           

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