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Bindlestiff Family Cirkus keeps it traditional

| Thursday, Sept. 13, 2007

The Bindelstiff Family Cirkus is a real circus.

The small troupe travels across the country, performing at theaters, halls, nightclubs and bars. They'll be at the Rex Theatre on the South Side on Friday night.

This kind of circus isn't supposed to exist anymore.

"I'd say that live entertainment has been missing in America for quite some time -- especially on a more intimate level," says Keith Nelson, Bindlestiff's resident clown and sword-swallower.

"The shows out there making it are so produced that you start losing the human element -- like Cirque du Soleil -- and have taken the circus and made it not popular entertainment, so unaffordable a family can't go," he says.

"In other parts of the world, circus is considered an art form, and in almost every other country, the circus has state funding that really allows it to exist," Nelson says. "It's not treated as something just for children. The Italian circus is kind of the royalty of the circus world. If it wasn't for the Canadian government, Cirque du Soleil and its offshoots wouldn't be where they are."

The New York City-based troupe has made it a mission to preserve the oddball talents of yesteryear's stages and bring them to audiences more at home at an indie rock show than a giant arena.

"I would say that we are a contemporary twist on American popular entertainment. We combine circus, sideshow, vaudeville, so you kind of get a roller-coaster ride from moments of beauty to jaw-dropping visceral experiences like sword-swallowing -- the full range of what the human body can do."

To get there, they had to learn how to do things like eat fire, swallow swords and ride a motorcycle on a tightrope 80 feet above a concrete floor. There aren't a lot of people around who can teach these skills.

"There are so few sword-swallowers out there, that nobody would show me," Nelson says. "So I went to see everybody who performed it, got the anatomy books out, got every story I could find about sword-swallowing, and spent two years teaching myself how to do it. Once I could do it, I had old-timers give me pointers how to do it better or easier. But, until you get 16 inches of steel down your throat, they won't give you any encouragement."

Most of the Bindlestiffs are self-taught. Nelson's wife, the ringmistress, taught herself a target bullwhip act. She asks an unsuspecting audience member to hold roses in his hand and in his mouth, then she uses a bullwhip to whack off the tip of a rose.

The Cirkus has a wire-walker and aerialist, a clown and juggler, and a Danish trick organist playing the music. The troupe's trick roper, ironically, learned his craft from an old vaudeville couple in the Bronx.

"Our trick roper grew up, basically, on the rodeo circuit," Nelson says. "He was a trick rider and trick rope spinner -- kind of a Will Rogers variety. Trick riding isn't very good for your knees, so he's now retired from the trick riding part, and now does just stage rope spinning.

"I'd say he's probably in the Top 10 trick ropers in the country, if not the world."

Additional Information:

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Admission: $15

Recommended for: Teens and older

Where: Rex Theatre, South Side

Details: 412-381-6811

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