Big top, koko-bop

Why are we fascinated by a poodle in a sparkly blue minidress jumping over hurdles, or Spandexed humans precariously balancing themselves on strange objects and high-wires?

It’s a secret kept in a tent. And starting Sept. 8, Detroit will be able to marvel once again at the wonders under the big top. Only this time, there’s an additional wonder, because UniverSoul Circus is the first African-American-owned
and -operated circus, and it’s setting up its traveling world for 10 days at Chene Park.

On the road with UniverSoul Circus: New Soul 2000, Margo Porter lives and breathes the life of a circus showgirl; she’s been a big top entertainer for more than 10 years. Porter’s a dancer in a white, feathered bikini, smiling and waving to the crowd while atop the clumsy, jeweled elephants. After the show, she lets us in on her perspective from the inside the ring.

Metro Times: UniverSoul is African-American owned and operated but, besides that, what makes this circus stand out among others?

Margo Porter: Well, our music ... because it’s urban music. It’s hip hop, a little bit of Latin ... it’s a little bit of everything. Our lights are great (the laser light show), and then our performers ... just to go in to see people do these death-defying feats, and then the fact that these performers are black ... takes it to the next level.

The soulful sounds throughout the UniverSoul experience are an alluring force that pulls people into this big top. After all, music is a universal language; it breaks down boundaries; it unites, and it was the main focus of UniverSoul’s creators before this circus was born.

Cedric Walker and “Casual” Cal Dupree (now ringmaster) were previously involved in hip-hop concert promotion, having booked shows by the likes of Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash and the Fat Boys. In 1994, Walker and Dupree set out to promote something of their own, geared toward African-American audiences, and they did it by combining one universal language (music) with another, (the circus), creating a place where all ages, lifestyles, colors and mind-sets come together, wide-eyed and mouths agape. The duo took a primarily European invention, the one-ring circus, and made it into their very own, very American hybrid, propelled by people of color from around the world, and captivating crowds with its music.

UniverSoul Circus: New Soul 2000 is blazing across the country with an all-new lineup, continuing to feature acts of either African or Latin descent. And it seems that audiences enjoy sharing their fascination for strange and extraordinary spectacles because UniverSoul’s popularity is growing, forcing the troupe to add destinations to its tour. The performances are held together by charismatic ringmaster Casual Cal and his little-man sidekick Zeke, by using a framework composed of gyration, exhilaration and music-induced rhythms.

MT: I’ve seen your circus before, and what really struck me was the energy ...

Porter: Exactly... and the ringmaster, I mean, he keeps the crowd going. And a lot of people I tell, “don’t come to the show tired, you’re gonna be standing up jumping, clapping the whole time, and it’s a workout.”

MT: I’ve been to a lot of circuses, but yours was different in that ... I don’t know, it’s hard to explain … it was almost more human.

Porter: More realistic …

MT: More approachable. It’s more do-able, like you could actually see yourself in it.

Porter: Exactly, and that’s another message we like to get across to everybody, that we’re just average, ordinary. We like our public to see that we’re just regular old people, but we just do something that’s neat. A lot of kids, they go home and actually try to do some of the stuff.

MT: Yeah that’s great.

Porter: And that’s cool.

Two highlights of this tour are UniverSoul’s “Little Miracles,” Lucky and Lunga, a boy-and-girl contortionist team from Johannesburg, South Africa. They’re not precocious; they’re not wise beyond their years; they’re just a boy and a girl who can twist and intertwine their bodies into insectlike shapes and positions, not humanly possible, or so it seems. And when they complete their unbelievable poses, they look toward the audience with the smiles and expressions of children looking for approval.

UniverSoul’s performers do not have a “take-me-seriously” attitude, but a “celebrate-with-me” attitude, and that’s the difference. With its tumblers, aerialists and ringmaster, UniverSoul contains many of the same types of acts found in a traditional circus, but it just has a different flavor, an incredibly refreshing one, that dances and sings whenever it can get away with it.

MT: Do you ever just look at the crowd?

Porter: That’s all I look at. When I come out on the elephant, I look through the audience and I see, “oh this looks like a family here, oh this is a family reunion, or this is a school.” Watch the faces at the end; you can see people crying, and some people just fidget, they’re so excited. The kids are jumping up and down; it’s hard to find anybody seated. You can see babies in there, and they’re wide awake watching the show the whole time.

MT: How do you like the Detroit audiences?

Porter: Detroit is cool. It’s Motown … they’re going to enjoy the show this year.

Anita Schmaltz is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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