.Step Right Up!

UniverSoul Circus sparkles under the Big Top

Those jonesing for the spectacular, death-defying and often hilarious experience of the UniverSoul Circus have endured a long wait. The Circus hasn’t come to town since 2016.

But the wait is over. Through June 19, the Big Top welcomes all ages in its installation at Richmond’s Hilltop Mall. Founded in 1994 by Cedric Walker, UniverSoul Circus has gained fame and admiration for its acts from all over the world, including the Caribbean Carnival with its towering Moko Jumbie stilt dancers, the Fire Limbo Benders and ancestral carnival characters.

UniverSoul materials describe the show as “a refreshing cultural combination of global acts, driven with an urban flair of music, dance, and laughter, all infused with Soul’s spirit, style, and swagger.” Music pervades the experience, with genres including pop, classic R&B, Latin, hip hop, jazz and gospel.

Acrobats on the “Wheel of Death,” high-wire acts, and motorcycles flying and flipping through the air will please thrill-seekers, and kids—along with adults without coulrophobia—can’t resist Fresh the Clownsss.

This year’s theme is “We All Belong Together,” described this way by circus founder Walker: “We all belong to one human race. Everyone is coming together, different cultures, different people, a new transcultural fusion, a new generation inclusive and together in a UniverSoul experience.”

Co-ringmasters Donald “N.O.” Long and Cheyenne-Rose Dailey embrace that concept.

“I think that theme can change the future of the world,” Long said. His nickname, N.O, is short for his birthplace, New Orleans. The veteran of improv comedy was featured on stage, television and in film before joining UniverSoul in 2012. He had no circus experience up to that point, as an audience member or as a performer, but once he joined he felt he had belonged there since the beginning.

“I can see why someone with my [comedy/improv] skills was chosen,” he said. “Every performance is different, and I love that.”

Dailey, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, had never been to a circus before joining UniverSoul in 2016. “My dance teacher took me to see the show,” she said. “I realized how much fun it is, and how I could be part of it.” She started professionally dancing at age 8 in ballet, jazz, hip hop and traditional Caribbean, and uses all those dance skills in the show.

Speaking about this year’s theme, she said, “Seeing everyone [in the show] working together, enjoying what they are doing … it’s amazing for kids to see that.”

Long and Dailey both enthuse about the family-friendly nature of UniverSoul. 

“I do feel family fun is important, and our circus caters to anyone and everyone,” Long said. Family became even more important during the pandemic, he said, and UniverSoul is an event that “grabs the entire family to just have fun together.” At this point in the circus’s history, parents who saw the show when they were children now bring their own kids. “You won’t nod off!” he promised.

Dailey agreed. “Because it is a family-oriented show, it doesn’t matter who you are, you will have a good time.” Circus survives, she said, because its live emotional ups and downs take audience members on a journey. UniverSoul encourages an interactive experience, “unlocking feelings you didn’t know you had,” she said. “Clap, stand up, bounce around, and dance,” circus materials promote.

Joys of circus performance include “getting paid to be a professional child,” in Long’s case, and the “loving and supportive vibe” she feels, from each audience, for Dailey. Although being on the road for 11 months out of the year means being away from her close-knit family, she stays in touch via technology and it’s all worth it, she said.

There are some moments of tension during shows, too, Long said. Watching the genuinely dangerous acts, “I’m scared every time,” he said. But although “it’s torture,” it also “does not get old,” he said. “I love what I do, and the day I don’t, it’s time to retire.”

That day doesn’t appear to be near for either of the co-ringmasters.

Dailey related a story from the 2021 tour, the first time UniverSoul returned to the road as the pandemic began to wind down. An older woman approached her and said she had seen Dailey speaking about the circus on television. “She loved live entertainment, and she said when she saw me, she had to come and see the show and meet me,” Dailey said. The woman had purchased tickets for her whole family, and after seeing it, she said it reminded her of her childhood.

“We hugged,” Dailey said. “Having that effect on people … I never saw it like that. We impact so many people.”

Hugging also gets a big clown thumbs-up from Long. “I enjoy having little kids come up to me and ask for hugs,” he said. “Kids are very honest, and the energy they give is what they receive.”

UniverSoul Circus is renowned for acts that feature performers of every color. Asked how important it is for kids in the audience to see people who look like them, Dailey responded, “Representation is definitely important.” But even more important to her is “seeing all these people working together, enjoying what they are doing,” and perhaps, opening up possibilities for children they’ve never encountered.

The circus organization is also dedicated to giving back to communities in which they perform. One program is the Family Open House for homeless families.

“We love performing for families across the country, but our Family Open House is our way of reaching out to the local community and helping those in need as best we can,” Walker said.

The UniverSoul Circus Food for the Soul program helps stock local food banks that support homeless and low-income families. This is a partnership between local school districts, UniverSoul Circus and other community institutions. According to circus materials, “The Food for the Soul program encourages students to collect and donate non-perishable food items to help feed thousands of people in need throughout the year via local food banks.”

The organization also sponsors the UniverSoul Circus Humanitarian Award, which recognizes “outstanding individuals in the entertainment industry whose contributions are greater than entertaining,” circus materials state. Past recipients include actor/rapper LL Cool J and Chance the Rapper, among others.

Do people still dream about running away to join the circus? Even if not, it’s easy to run away to Richmond and, at least for a few hours, be part of UniverSoul Circus’s extended family.

UniverSoul Circus, 2200 Hilltop Mall Rd., Richmond, through June 19. Tickets available at www.ticketmaster.com.

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