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Send in the Clowns

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By David McCabe

For most Americans, the ideal of a circus is clear: three rings, lots of animals, flashy acts and lots and lots of flare. But for attendees at this weekend’s Zoppé Family Circus in Westhampton Beach, things are going to be a little different.

That’s because the circus is of the traditional Italian variety, and has been since 1842 — since it was founded.

While visitors to an American-style circus might be accustomed to maintaining a level of distance from the performers, the artists in the Zoppé circus greet their guests at the door of their one-ring big top.

“It’s like going to somebody’s house,” said Giovanni Zoppé, who runs the circus that was started by his family six generations ago. He added, “At the end of the show, we’re going to say goodbye.”

Zoppe described the circus’s setting as intimate, saying that no seat in the tent is more than twenty feet from the ring.

The acts in the circus are also more evocative of shows past than of the arena spectaculars we know today. When Zoppé looks for performers, he says he wants to find acts that are unique and are based in more traditional circus skills. Case in point: one of the newest acts in the Zoppé Circus is a young man who does head stands on a trapeze while in motion.

“It’s an antique circus act that nobody does anymore,” Zoppé said.

Likewise, attendees at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center aren’t going to see many of the animals common in American circuses, like lions and tigers, in the ring. The show does feature 12 horses, one miniature horse, 12 dogs and four chickens. The dogs perform with Zoppè’s sister, who trained the chickens during the winter to incorporate them into the act.

While Zoppè said he isn’t philosophically opposed to using wild animals in shows — a topic that drew protesters to the site of the Cole Brothers Circus at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation a week and a half ago — his show doesn’t feature them because they would not have been used in the circus when it was founded.

After a season during which the program for the show is developed, the Zoppe Circus travels all around the country from June until January showing off their different type of circus.

Even the clowns are different. Giovanni Zoppé said that the clown he plays, Nino, does not fit the mold of the big-shoe-wearing, heavily made-up clowns of the American circus. His character wears very little make-up, and lacks the colorful outfits of American clowns.

“I don’t make balloon animals,” he said.

“Nino is actually me,” he said. “When I’m not Nino is when I have to act because I’m very comfortable being my clown.”

Still, Zoppé said that he doesn’t believe one type of clown is better than another. They’re just different.

“There’s good clowns all over the world,” he said. “It’s about what your soul’s about, not what your makeup is about.”

And surely the soul of the Zoppè Circus lies in its history, which could be straight out of a romance novel. In 1842, an Italian clown named Napoline Zoppè met a ballerina named Ermenegilda in Budapest. Her father, the Zoppés claim, would not allow his daughter to marry a clown. And so the pair eloped, supposedly, to Venice, where they opened the circus that still runs today.

While Giovanni Zoppé says that the show has only a loose plot, it does seek to tell the story of the Hungarian ballerina and the Italian clown who loved her.

Napoline’s great-grandson, Alberto, eventually brought the circus to American shores. Giovanni is his son.

And Giovanni Zoppé has a son of his own. While he says he hopes that his young son will consider getting into the family business, he believes that’s a choice only his son can make.

“What my children do in their lives, it’s their choice. I just want them to enjoy what they do,” he said.

Still, if his son does choose to pack up and join the circus, he won’t have to run away from home to do it. Because ultimately, he’ll be joining a tradition that spans more than a century and ultimately relies not on flashy effects or exotic animals, but the simple act of human connection. It’s  tradition that is reflected in the way Giovanni Zoppé selects acts for the show.

“I pick acts only if they can look at the audience and smile and relate,” he said. “It’s more about a personal experience than a phenomenal trick.”


The Zoppé Family Circus will run at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center from August 3-5, with both afternoon and evening performances.