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Southwest Orange Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 1 year ago

Venardos Circus returns to Hamlin

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The Venardos Circus is performing shows through Sunday, Nov. 24.
by: Tim Freed Managing Editor

Under a red and white striped tent in an open field, an escape awaits in Hamlin. It’s a place where the extraordinary is on display and celebrated. A diverse group of performers has arrived — and have they got a show for you.

The Venardos Circus is back in Hamlin for a series of shows through Sunday, Nov. 24. It’s one of the final stops in a nationwide tour that has taken the performers from West Sacramento, California, and Tempe, Arizona, to Madison, Wisconsin, and Louisville, Kentucky.

Since the circus was in Hamlin last year, the traveling group has performed in 45 weeks under the watch of Ringmaster Kevin Venardos.

“In my wildest imaginings, I did not think that was possible,” he said.

Venardos, who had previously performed as a ringmaster with the Ringling Bros. Circus for five years, always dreamed of running his own circus.

In 2014, that dream became a reality, when the Venardos Circus held its first performance at the Los Angeles County Fair. Venardos said it’s his goal to deliver new surprises and a new show every year when returning to a city, and this year’s performance in Hamlin will be no exception.

“That means new music, new acts or reinventing of things you’ve seen before in such a way that it takes on a new quality,” Venardos said. “There are some familiar faces, but really for us, it’s been another huge step forward — the show that we’re going to present this go-around — from what we were able to do last time.”

The performance also is a circus-meets-Broadway-musical, Venardos said.

“The show itself this year is the story of the little circus that could — that’s what the show is,” he said. “We impart by the end — it is my intention to — a message of inclusivity, a message of diversity and also one of community. ... It’s the things that make you different that make you special and uniquely positioned to change the world for the better.”

 

Leonard and Antoaneta Stoica perform an impressive springboard act for the show.

THE FAMILY THAT PERFORMS TOGETHER

The Venardos Circus is an event for the whole family — just ask the Stoica family.

Among the circus’ returning cast from last year, husband and wife Leonard and Antoaneta Stoica — along with their 7-year-old daughter, Aissa Maria Stoica — perform an exciting gymnastics routine on a spring board.

The family has been traveling with the Venardos Circus for just more than a year. Originally from Romania, the Stoicas arrived in the United States with the Shrine Circus in 2015 — the same year that Leonard Stoica had heard about Venardos’ project to start a circus. 

The circus community is tight-knit, Leonard Stoica said, and eventually, the family took a leap of faith to join Venardos.

“It was a risk for us to come here, because we normally go where it’s something stable and already has roots,” Leonard Stoica said. “We kind of gambled — us and him together — but at the end, it was a good bet.”

Leonard Stoica’s circus journey began at age 15, when he saw gymnastics at the circus. While his friends started playing more common sports, Leonard Stoica chose to learn gymnastics. 

Antoaneta Stoica has been performing gymnastics since she was 5 and has performed in circuses since age 12 in Romania. She met Leonard Stoica in 2005.

With their daughter, Aissa Maria Stoica, the circus is an opportunity to give her the experience of performing in front of an audience. Leonard and Antoaneta will support her with whatever she decides to do when she’s older, but it’s something she can learn from regardless, Leonard Stoica said.

“It’s good that we started her small to perform, to engage with people and not be shy,” he said. 

Leonard and Antoaneta Stoica also perform a dangerous stunt with loaded crossbows, where Leonard Stoica demonstrates his accuracy by shooting balloons near his wife’s head — at one point with his back turned while using a mirror.

The fact that the Venardos Circus is inside a small, intimate tent that only seats a few hundred people makes it even more exciting.

“Everybody is so close that you can feel them — whether they like it or not and all of the emotion that they give you,” Antoaneta Stoica said.  

 

Aerialist Laura Gwendolyn Burch soars over audiences on silk and single point dance trapeze.

MAGIC IN THE AIR

Laura Gwendolyn Burch always finishes her act on a high note — 23 feet high in the air. The aerialist learned her craft later in life at age 28, but that hasn’t stopped her from soaring to new heights and impressing audiences.

Burch was first inspired to learn the art form after seeing a show in Las Vegas about 10 years ago, she traveled to Bellingham, Washington, and joined a circus collective to learn techniques.

It’s been an ongoing learning and growing process ever since.

“If you ever see a good aerialist, they spent a lot of time being really bad,” Burch said with a laugh. 

Burch’s acts use silk and single-point dance trapeze — a rope that is connected to one point and allows the aerialist to spin or orbit in a circular motion.

Performing in a small tent presents its challenges. The encroaching weather from the outside also plays a factor in the show.

“With silk, specifically, it doesn’t always do what you tell it to,” she said. “There are days where you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s new,’ and you troubleshoot around it. We’re not in a controlled environment, like if I was in a theater. Heat, humidity, cold — all of those things affect the way that the silk reacts to me. … You have to be really present.”

Despite those challenges, Burch has loved being a part of the intimate setting under the small tent. 

“Oftentimes, I perform in theaters or in a space where I’m really far removed from the audience,” Burch said. “In here, you can see everybody, which is great. As an aerialist, you don’t normally get that proximity to an audience.”

 

Juggler Vicky Zsilak is a third-generation circus performer.

JUGGLING FOR GENERATIONS

If there’s one thing juggler Vicky Zsilak thinks spectators might not realize about the circus, it’s how much work and practice goes into each act. A few brief seconds of wonder was the result of hours of practice, Zsilak said, adding that the pursuit of excellence and keeping audiences excited is a continuous journey.

“All my life I’ve been juggling — my first teacher is my dad,” Zsilak said.

The third-generation juggler, originally from Hungary, continued to learn how to toss objects into the air in impressive sequence at the Hungarian State Circus School. At age 24, she arrived in the United States in 1995 with her parents as a juggling trio with the Circus Vargas, performing there for a few years while traveling throughout California. She returned to the United States once more in 1998 to perform with the Ringling Bros. Circus and spent almost 20 years there until it closed.

The life of traveling with a circus and hopping from city to city has become familiar over the years, Zsilak said.

“I love it, and I’ve been raised in it, so this is what I know,” Zsilak said. “Actually, for me to stay in one place gets really boring and hard — I’m so used to traveling all the time.”

During her time at Ringling, Zsilak met Venardos and remained in contact after the circus closed. She joined his circus just over a year ago, along with her husband, Alex Petrov, who works as a tent master; her daughter, Sofia Petrov, who performs as an aerialist; and her son, Richard Zsilak, who also juggles.

“In the end, the main thing for us is to provide (the audience) with something that takes away from the everyday worries … to make them feel good,” she said. “It’s the best thing when the people react to us.”

Tim Freed was the managing editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and the Southwest Orange Observer. He previously spent six years covering the Winter Park/Maitland area and is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.

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