Small Swiss circus wows the Big Apple
On 42nd street, in the heart of New York's theatre district, La Famiglia Dimitri performs to the delight of both children and adults.
In an area famed for its bright lights, the audience at the New Victory Theater took a 90-minute timeout to watch a circus that could have taken place a hundred plus years ago.
“I love the low tech aspect of it and the timeliness of the music, and the performances,” said Lars Hanson, 45, who had taken his young son and wife to the show.
The Dimitri family – father “clown” Dimitri, and children Masha, David and Nina, along with son-in-law Kai Leclerc – cycle, juggle, sing, dance, and perform acrobatics, along with a bit of magic, in a show devoid of microphones, video or recorded music.
The audience was captivated nonetheless – no small feat considering there were well over 100 small children watching.
“This is not your traditional American circus,” said Cheryl Krieg, 39, who attended with her husband and their two children, aged three and five.
“We’ve seen Ringling Brothers, Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil and this is much smaller and of course there are no elephants or any other animals. This show combines theater, music and art and we loved it.”
One of the most popular acts with the children was the whimsical and enormous “fat man” who danced across the stage while practising his pirouettes. “When he was wearing the fat suit, I laughed a lot,” said Ava Krieg, aged five.
At many points in the show, there were enormous roars of laughter in the theatre, with the white-faced clown Dimitri charming the audience with his physical comedy as he chased a butterfly attached to a pole on his back.
At other times, you could practically hear a pin drop. Adults and children alike were clearly focused when David walked the high wire above the audience’s heads. And they held their breath when he performed backward and forward flips on the tight rope.
Most people who came to the show didn’t realize they were seeing a Swiss circus beforehand. And besides a brief blowing of the alphorn, there were few tell-tale signs that the show was imported from Switzerland.
Dimitri the clown
One who did know, Alex Schibli, 69, originally from Chur in eastern Switzerland, came specifically to see the renowned Dimitri. “I have seen Dimitri on television in Switzerland and had heard a lot about him,” Schibli said.
“The way he made the children in the audience spontaneously laugh was wonderful,” Schibli said.
Dimitri first performed with his children back in 1973. Since then, his three children who perform in La Famiglia Dimitri have developed solo careers working in a variety of circuses including Cirque du Soleil, Big Apple Circus and Swiss National Circus Knie.
For the past two and a half years the family has been touring together.
“We do a mixture of theater and circus, and each of us has our own speciality. To put these five soloists together is quite exciting” Dimitri told swissinfo. “It’s fantastic to work together with my children.”
The timing for La Famiglia Dimitri was perfect, according to Masha, because she and her siblings were able to develop their reputations individually before working together as a family.
“I think we all had to go our own way to find ourselves and not just be our father’s children, which was not easy, and is still not easy,” she said.
“My father said to us: ‘I just want to be your prop master for the show.’ That would not have been possible a few years ago. Now he just wants to serve us in a way.”
Backstage, the family helps the patriarch Dimitri, who is 74. “We put props in his hands when he forgets, and we push him in,” Masha said.
The family will perform in New York until April 19, before returning to Switzerland for shows in Basel in late May.
Dimitri, who continues to make 100 solo performances each year in addition to touring with his family, has no plans to retire.
“I just want to end my life being on stage. If destiny allows me, I will continue to perform,” he said.
And we will continue to laugh.
swissinfo, Karin Kamp in New York
Dimitri was born in 1935 in Ascona, Switzerland.
At the age of seven he decided to become a clown because he loved to make people laugh.
He took theatre classes and studied music, ballet and acrobatics before travelling to Paris where he studied mime under Marcel Marceau. He later became a member of his troupe.
He has performed ever since, including three tours with Swiss National Circus Knie.
Dimitri and his wife Gunda founded the Teatro Dimitri (Dimitri Theater) in 1971, Scuola Teatro Dimitri (Dimitri Theatre School) in 1975 and the Compagnia Teatro Dimitri (Dimitri Theater Company) in 1978.
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