marks 25th anniversary with Chicago shows
ByTricia Despres – For the Sun-Times
In May 2017, after years of entertaining children of all ages, the curtain fell for the final time on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. For UniverSoul founder and CEO Cedric Walker, it was a piece of news that still leaves a little hole in his big heart.
“To me, Ringling was as American as apple pie,” Walkers says quietly during a recent interview. “I grew up going to see them, so it really felt like a piece of me was gone. Each of us operated at the same time and we might have had a different audience, but we shared in our commitment to bring joy to people through circus arts. So yes, I found it hard to smile that day. It was sad.”
When: Oct. 3 – Nov. 4
Where: Washington Park, E. 51st Street and S. Cottage Grove
And while Walker says its impossible to not notice the void left behind as a result of Ringling’s unfortunate demise, it currently leaves UniverSoul Circus as the largest USA-based circus in operation. Walker says it’s a leadership role that they now relish.
“There was a time where I think we lost the artistry of the circus in general,” Walker reflects. “It had become more about the spectacle of it all. But now, I look forward to helping to provide all that a circus can be to a community and to a country and to the world.”
Fresh off its first European performances, UniverSoul Circus is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Starting Oct. 3, they return to Chicago setting up their single-ring Big Top in Washington Park as part of their “We Are ONE 25th Anniversary Tour.”
“It’s been an amazing journey,” says Walker, who was recently selected by The Circus Ring of Fame Foundation, Inc., for 2018 enshrinement in their prestigious Circus Ring of Fame. “Twenty-five years ago, we started a show that would showcase many generations and many backgrounds and many cultures, and from there it has taken on a life of its own.”
Coming to Chicago to celebrate such an occasion is particularly special to Walker. “Chicago was a test market when we were just getting started,” Walker recalls. “Chicago surprised us. [Laughs.] It was one of the only test markets where we actually sold tickets.”
Many tickets were sold over the years, and UniverSoul Circus has expanded to showcase the talents of performers from virtually every corner of the globe, including South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Chile, Colombia, Russia, Guinea, Gabon and Mongolia.
“I think our circus mirrors the evolution we have seen out in the world,” says Walker, whose production in Chicago will also include new acts featuring a ballerina, a trampolinist and aerialists. “It’s all about watching people from different backgrounds who can sit across the ring from their neighbor and smile and laugh for a little while.”
Backed by an infusion of music ranging from hip-hop and jazz to gospel and R&B, the energy of UniverSoul Circus palpable.
“The music is a very important part of the whole recipe of the event,” explains UniverSoul Circus ringmaster Lucky Malatsi. “The music helps us stay relevant to what’s going on in society and to the generations that come see us.”
Malatsi started with UniverSoul when he was just 9 years old, while performing as a contortionist and an acrobat on the streets. Since then, he has played multiple roles within the circus, even performing on the trapeze and the trampoline before taking on the role of ringmaster.
“This circus feels very personal in the way that the audience is literally so close that they can touch us,” says Malatsi. “It can often feel like a family reunion of sorts. Everyone belongs, no matter who you are or what you look like or where you are from.”
And while the circus can give you a laugh and a few hours of stress-free moments, Walker says it can also infuse attendees with so much more.
“It certainly exemplifies the feeling that anything is possible,” Walker says. “It’s inspirational in that way. There is something about watching a high wire walker face their fears or a 7-person pyramid team rely on one another. It’s about realizing that one moment of focus and concentration can make something amazing happen. And if someone falls, they get up again. That is inspiring and that is life.”
As for the future, Walker says he looks to launch more UniverSoul Circus performances outside of the United States.
But some things will never change.
“Every circus still has the ability to turn you into a kid again,” he says. “That feeling still exists. A circus can open so many doors. When the spotlight comes on, the world can finally be closed out. We need that these days. It’s the medicine that this world needs right now.”