Why use three rings when one ring has been doing the trick for 25 years? That is the case for UniverSoul Circus, the enterprise billing itself as the nation’s leading circus. This year, the spectacular that brings dancers on stilts, a dog act, motorcycles in a sphere (three bikes spinning at once), and trapeze and high-wire artists turned 25. And with it comes acts not seen in last year’s tour: Rough Riders Cossack Horse Act, a Cuban trampoline act and a high wire that circus founder and owner Cedric Walker calls “off the chain.”
“We’ve got a lot of the strong acts you want to see and a lot of new things that you haven’t seen,” Walker said. “We’re in the entertainment business and with that, you know that there is something new around every corner and it’s our job to present that to the world. I think the spirit of UniverSoul emanates from a culture that is always fresh and funky and always finding something new. People come here with their fresh ideas, so we just keep it funky.
“After all, the circus is not just the performers, it’s the audience and the interaction — it’s the whole experience, and that’s kind of what we strive to keep fresh.”
Q: Twenty-five years in the circus game, how does it feel?
A: It’s been an incredible journey. As you know, we started with a circus that was created to bring family entertainment that had an urban flair and bring it to the African-American audience. It evolved with time to be attractive to everyone. I think the biggest part of it that I enjoy is how much our culture is enjoyed by everyone. We have in our ring Asian performers, South American performers, but they all love the hip-hop, they all love the swag, the style, the energy of the urban culture, and that’s what kind of unites us and that’s what our show reflects. And conversely the audiences will start to see people from all those different countries in the audience as well, and that’s what America is and we are a reflection of America and the joy.
The one-ring show and the diversity of the people in the audience, all just enjoying each other and enjoying themselves and the show — that’s the greatest part of all this for me at this point. To see so many people come together and enjoy themselves and forget about the external problems outside of the tent. That interaction, that is just amazing to see people together from different places that may not have come together under any other circumstance but for a family outing to have fun.
Q: Did you always have your sights on this being a 25-year thing or were you more of the camp, “See how far this goes and hope for the best?”
A: It was an idea whose time had come. When the idea came to fruition, it was basically to fill a void — there was no family entertainment that reflected the urban experience or even the culture. So that was the idea and I didn’t put a timeline on it. I’m pretty happy and excited to be here 25 years later and very blessed.
A: I don’t have any regrets. It’s been an incredible ride. When I started, I had a history in the live entertainment and concert business and I was getting bored. So when we came up with the idea to do the circus, I think it made me 25 years old again. It lifted my spirits and allowed me to make major contributions again to an art that I love, that I’ve been involved in all of my life. Going forward, I’d like my vision to evolve and be shared among all people and generations of the world.
Q: Once Ringling Bros. closed, did that sort of open up avenues for UniverSoul that there hadn’t been before?
A: I was very saddened by the closing of Ringling Bros. I thought it took away something from America — an American icon. I think it left a hole in a global sense in the industry. I thought it was as American as apple pie, so for us, we’re moving forward. I don’t know if we’ve picked up a tremendous amount of new people, but there is more interest in the circus. It seems when you lose something you may miss it a little bit more than when you have it. So I think it’s sending more people to the circus who are curious about it, so in that sense it’s good, but not just for us, but all of the circuses. We have some tall shoes to step into, their accomplishments.
Circus has survived decades of change and evolved as one of the things that people all over the world hold in their heart. It’s a place where you can go and be a kid again — no matter if it’s Cirque de Soleil or UniverSoul Circus or Big Apple Circus. It serves a purpose in human lives — it brings joy and so many other things that are enriching. They will be missed, but we will continue on and bring our diversity, interaction and energy of the urban culture to the world.
Q: I know for Ringling Bros., the inclusion of the animals was a big issue, you’re not having any pushback for your use of animals?
A: There are people who continue to believe that animals shouldn’t be performing — we don’t exactly agree with that. We do agree that animals should be treated well and we strive to make sure that all of the animals are treated well. But yes, there is always pushback.
Q: You’ve had the helm for the last 25 years. Are you looking to pass the baton soon?
A: I’m excited about a lot of ideas of the younger generation and how they can change and perpetuate the circus. We’re grooming the young people from within. We have quite a few people who are up to the task of carrying on the torch and the legacy of UniverSoul. I want my family to continue to be involved in it, but in terms of the longevity of it, that’s what’s important. It would be very remiss of me if this didn’t go on well beyond my years. A lot of my task is to ensure that longevity and to be able to pass it on with that in mind.
Written by Darcel Rockett