Standing in the center of a circus ring, Joe Lilavois watched his 7-year-old daughter, Brooke, smile Wednesday as she ran her hands through a long turquoise banner.
The slender, blond second-grader caressed the silky wrap, speaking quietly with its owner, Katerina, who minutes earlier had been using it to dangle 30 feet above the ground.
It was daring feat of strength and agility that Brooke, who is legally blind, might not have been able to experience had she not been attending the Circus of the Senses.
“This is my first time going with her, but I can tell she’s having a great time,” Mr. Lilavois said.
Asked why she looked forward to this performance, Brooke’s answer was simple.
“Because I love this place,” she said.
Big Apple Circus Artistic Director Guillaume Dufresnoy said the performance for the sight and hearing impaired packs just as much entertainment into the show, but in a way that’s better suited for the audience.
“We created the show, and once the show was established, we tried to make it as varied as possible with the main elements,” Mr. Dufresnoy said. “We always wanted to make sure it retained the quality of the production.”
Some ways to do that, Mr. Dufresnoy said, were to adjust the volume and lighting during the show for young audience members who are sensitive to that kind of stimulation.
“Strobe lights we can turn off,” he added. “Nothing too harsh.”
The typical two-hour performance was also shortened, and they eliminated the intermission, which can be problematic trying to get young audience members back in their seats in time for the second half.
The performance was free, and audience members were invited to watch one of several signers stationed throughout the big tent. Or they could use one of the provided headphone sets that broadcast the live narrations of Big Apple Circus founder Paul Binder and Bill Boots, leader of the Big Apple Clown Care program at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The traveling show and its Circus of the Senses has performed in the Dulles area 13 times. The first performance in Northern Virginia was in 2000. Though the Circus of the Senses performance has ended for this stay, the Big Apple Circus is scheduled to remain in Dulles through Monday.
Seven different school groups from throughout the D.C. area were invited to attend the Circus of the Senses, according to information provided by the circus. About two-thirds of the audience had a form of hearing or vision impairment, while the other third had some type of physical or mental disability.
Seth Bloom and wife Christina Gelsone — the Acrobuffos — were two of the most popular performers to visit during the hands-on session. The clown duo from Harlem in New York City, drew laughs during the show when they whooped and whistled at one another as a bickering couple. But it was their handmade masks and outrageous wigs that had the young audience clamoring to be next in line to try on the props.
“Because the masks are three-dimensional, the kids can take it and feel them,” Mr. Bloom, 37, said. “It’s not like makeup.”
One young girl particularly interested in Ms. Gelsone’s mask, which was attached to a large, gray-hair beehive wig, was 9-year-old Kayla Harris.
The fourth-grader from Lanham is legally blind and while she tucked her walking stick beneath her arm, she ran her hands over the bumps and creases of the mask, feeling its bulbous nose and dimples.
“I liked the clowns, and the girl performing on the loop,” Kayla said with a smile. “This is my second time here. … I just wanted to come.”
Watching her daughter explore the circus’ center ring, Sharonda Baker, Kayla’s mother, said the benefit of a show designed for impaired children also extends to parents.
The headphones with running commentary allow the children “to get a sense of what’s going on,” she said, without adults having to constantly explain the scenes unfolding before them.
Mr. Bloom said this was the first season he and his wife had performed one of their acts with the Circus of the Senses, and it’s taken their experience performing for audiences in 15 countries to deliver for this unique crowd.
“As clowns we’re performing for various audiences, and it’s very visual. We always work off the reactions of the audience,” he said. “In every country there are big laughs, but it’s the small laughter we try to find in every place.”