Education and Artistry
Under The Big Top

by Julie Clay

FOR OVER TEN YEARS NOW, Circus Sarasota has been thrilling, well, Sarasota audiences under its classic Big Top with world-renowned acts from flying trapeze artists and trained animals to clowns, jugglers, illusionists and more. And now, Circus Sarasota is hitting the road for the first time, packing up the tent and setting up shop on the grounds of Miramar Outlets in Estero for two weeks in March. Yes, we southwest Floridians get to enjoy the Circus Sarasota experience for ourselves. And a good chunk of those in need will benefit from it. Literally.

Yes, Circus Sarasota is a full-fledged, non-profit, 5013(c), educational organization, its outreach helping several entities via the circus arts. “It’s all about giving back”, says Circus Sarasota founder and CEO Pedro Reis. Circus Sarasota conducts classes and programs serving disadvantaged children via Voices for Kids, the educational arm of Florida’s Guardian ad Litem organization, and those in various institutionalized situations through its Laughter Unlimited program.

Reis explains, “Laughter Unlimited is one of the best examples of giving back through the circus arts. Our professional clowns and entertainers visit nursing homes, adult daycare centers, assisted living facilities, etc.” It’s about building long term relationships, he adds. “We build a program where we will be at a facility at least once a week to at least twice a month as an ongoing program. We believe through multiple visits you have a stronger outcome. Laughter unlimited is about improving the quality of life of the individual.”

Circus Sarasota has even formulated its circus arts program into an educational model. According to their website, this innovative curriculum package was written by educational specialists for students in grades K-5, covering subjects including mathematics, science, social studies and language skills utilizing circus arts in action. Periodically, Circus Sarasota offers individualized programs to at-risk kids in Sarasota and Manatee counties, helping them to develop confidence, self-esteem, discipline, teamwork and leadership skills.

Reis shares, “For two years we’ve been discussing Voices for Kids. I got a phone call from Kim Becker who was a volunteer for the organization. We started talking about a fundraiser. As we talked more and more I realized this was a fantastic organization. It’s about kids and helping kids. I thought this is something that could grow and really ties in with our mission.” He continues, “I truly believe there is a thing called fate. I’ve been waiting for this phone call for a long time. I think it was meant to be. We really look forward to partnering with Voices for Kids in Estero. It’s not a one time thing; it’s about giving back to the community through box office receipts. Our goal is to give back. We create a program and the program could cost as much as $50-100,000 dollars eventually. We want to start the program and then sustain it by raising funds or coming back to perform.”

With community service as its mission, Circus Sarasota remains very much the true essence of a circus, right down to its Big Top tent with flags waving. Among the acts: Award-winning juggler Daniel Hochsteiner makes picture perfect magic, tossing tennis rackets high in the air. The four Ukrainians of Crazy Flight seemingly float in the air, vaulting, tumbling and balancing in what appears to be an effortless feat. Master animal trainer Ian Garden holds a spellbinding command over his charges. The Poemas are what they call a “traditional family” in the circus world: they juggle their kids! Circus Sarasota founder Dolly Jacobs takes to the air in her now-legendary aerial ballet style. Russian act White Crow puts years of acrobatic training and skill to the test high in the air. And presenting it all is ringmaster Joseph Bauer, Jr, a 15th generation Swiss circus family member whose father was invited personally by John Ringling to come to America and perform with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1954.

Circus vets Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacob started Circus Sarasota as a labor of love stemming from a combination of a lifetime in the circus and the drive to give back to the community. A native of Cape Town, Africa, Reis’ first introduction to the circus came at age 12 when he attended a flying trapeze school at a YMCA in a town called Observatory. He says, “I realized it was something I really wanted to do. The training I got…it could be a way of life. The flying trapeze school developed into a children’s circus school. It was a means of keeping the kids off the street and giving them a focus. A lot of the kids from the circus school actually traveled to Europe and abroad. The schooling and the discipline that was taught really rounded you for a way to have a productive future.”

Reis toured Europe for four years before coming home to South Africa to start a new act called ‘The Survivors’. This extremely dangerous act put his group 40-50 feet in the air with no nets. 1984 was the year Reis made his American debut as a member of Ringling Bros. “We traveled to Venice, Florida. My performance was the ‘Cloud Swing’. I created a trick where I would leap from one rope to another rope, again with no safety devices. The rope was actually a bungee. It looked like I was falling, but I wasn’t.”

Then while traveling with the Big Apple Circus, fate caught up with Reis and a fall broke both ankles. Right around this time, he met Dolly Jacob, a renowned aerialist in her own right. With his bones mended, they created an act called ‘Wings of Love’ and performed for two years before the whole thing got a little tiring. “For me personally, that passion, that flame, of being that artist kind of waned a little”, Reis says. “I wanted to start something else like Circus Sarasota. We wanted to raise the perception of the circus in America and to use the circus arts to give back to communities through the circus art and organization.” Long-term plans are to establish a sustainable business and grow an outreach to communities, with a circus school as the eventual outcome.

Learning from the ground up what it took to run a nonprofit has been quite the incredible journey for Circus Sarasota’s founders. “I had to learn how to be fiscally responsible to donors, to foundations that were giving us money, how to be a 501c3”, says Reis, “The first few years were extremely rough. Eventually we developed a process of being fiscally responsible, having a good board. Now we have 10 full-time employees. We have a $1.3 million dollar annual budget. We have programs going year round.”

As for their Estero visit, Circus Sarasota focused on establishing the business in Sarasota County, looking forward to the time when they could begin to travel and bring not just the circus but the education and the programs with them as well. “The goal is to create satellite programs outside of Sarasota. We want to create the pilot program and sustain it by returning next year. The idea is longevity,” Reis says. “Estero is the first step out of Sarasota. It’s baby steps, but giant clown shoes.” •

from the March-April 2008 issue

Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs strated Circus Sarasota as a labor of love stemming from a combination of a lifetime in the circus and the drive to give something back to the community.
"My performance was 'The Cloud Swing', a trick where I would leap from one rope to another rope with no safety devices. The rope was actually a bungee. It looked like I was falling, but I wasn't"

Dolly Jacobs


The Big Top
Miromar Outlets
• Estero
I-75 Exit 123 at Corkscrew Rd.

March 11-14, 18-21, 25-28
at 7pm
March 15, 22 & 29 at 2 & 7pm
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