Person of the Week: Paul Binder

Paul Binder has infused the circus performance art with compassion and care.

Oct. 24, 2008— -- For 30 years Paul Binder has walked into the ring of the Big Apple Circus with top hat in hand, sharing the spotlight with flying acrobats, trapeze artists, regal horses, playful clowns, towering elephants and a spellbound audience.

"It doesn't matter what happens in the day, you know, what I'm going through," he said. "It doesn't matter much. At one moment, and that's the moment the light goes on and I hear the music and suddenly I walk in the ring."

For Binder, every day in the ring has confirmed that his role as ringmaster is his calling.

"All of those woes go away and what replaces is an enormous sense of energy, an enormous sense of pleasure, an enormous sense of wonder," Binder, 66, said. "The connection with the audience is the final payoff for that."

The Big Apple Circus revolutionized the circuses in America. Since the circus premiered in 1977, many traditional one-ring circuses have followed, even one from Ringling Brothers Circus. Many credit the success of shows like Cirque du Soliel with the arrival of the one-ring circus brought about by the Big Apple Circus.

Binder, a Brooklyn native, got his start by literally running away with the circus, after collecting a bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Columbia University. In his late-20s, Binder and his friend Michael Christensen joined a mime troop in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Then, by mid-decade, they developed a comedy juggling act they took to the streets of Europe. Soon they were discovered by the legendary one-ring circus, the Nouveau Cirque de Paris.

"The next thing I knew I was standing backstage with Michael," Binder recalled. "We were peaking out from the curtain and then looking at each other and saying, 'Can you believe it, we're in the circus?'"

Binder fell in love with the traditional European circus, which was unlike the glitzy, frenetic three-ring variety found in America. Soon enough, Binder had a vision of starting an intimate, one-ring circus in America.

"There was something about the spirit of what was going on and the contact with the audience, the way they responded with their heart," he said, reflecting on his time spent with the Parisian circus. "And it said to me, this is something beyond France, beyond national boundaries."

In 1976, Binder and Christensen returned to New York and the first Big Apple Circus tent was raised in lower Manhattan a year later.

Beyond producing entertainment, Binder wanted to bring joy to others outside of the ring and generate compassion. He founded the circus as a nonprofit organization, which has created school programs to introduce underprivileged youth to the circus arts. For 24 years, its "Clown Care Unit" has brought clowns to visit sick children in hospitals, bringing laughter to their bedsides.

"Nineteen hospitals have visits by the Big Apple Circus clowns," he said. "Doctors of delight we call them."

And they run a Circus of the Senses for children with disabilities. Binder narrates the scene for the blind children, using detailed descriptions to bring the tent, animals and colors to life.

"The kids who can't see get to hear a play-by-play of what's going on in the circus," Binder said. "And the kids who can't hear see sign language interpreters interpreting the circus."

Even without sight or hearing, Binder makes their circus experience magical.

"My favorite, you know, the woman with the dogs, the dogs that were dancing around," one young boy said in sign language, after visiting the circus.

After three decades of living in a trailer and performing in the ring, Binder has decided to hang up his top hat at the end of this season.

"The feeling of, 'Boy, it's time to get off the road' has come. And it's come, and it's come," Binder said. "I can get off the road and I can still be a part of the Big Apple Circus. I can make its future be as bright its past, oh, even more bright."

Though Binder won't be in front of the audience anymore he will play a role behind the scenes as artistic advisor and, always, as the circus' biggest fan.

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