NORMAL— Past and present are set to cross paths in high-flying style at the 85th edition of Illinois State University's Gamma Phi Circus this weekend.
A couple distinguished guests, an improved edition of an old favorite and a brand new thematic element are just part of the fun scheduled for the performances in Redbird Arena, at 7 p.m. Friday, and 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday.
Gamma Phi's director, Marcus Alouan, says he is especially excited about those special guests: Barbara Theriault, daughter of late circus founder Clifford Horton, who hasn't attended a circus performance for several decades.
Also in attendance will be Gamma Phi's longest-lived alumnus, Bob Walsh, who turned 100 this year and will make the trek from his home in Farmer City.
“It's very exciting to have Barbara coming to town since one of our traditions for each year's performance weekend is to visit the grave of Clifford Horton, where we leave flowers and tell stories about him that we've gathered over the years,” says Alouan, whose association with the circus began as undergraduate student at ISU in 1998 and climaxed with his becoming director in 2010.
“This year we'll have someone who was actually there for a lot of those stories,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the presence of Walsh, who was a member of the circus from 1933 to 1937, will also enhance the significance of the 85th anniversary, says Alouan.
Though they weren't around in Walsh's era, when the main attractions were aerial acrobatics and basic tumbling gymnastics, contemporary Gamma Phi staples like the Russian Swing, Wall Trampoline, Teeter Board and German Wheel will all be present and accounted for.
Of particular note is the Russian Swing, says Alouan, which has been completely overhauled and rebuilt, with custom design and construction all done here in town.
The swing, which facilitates high acrobatic jumps via swinging platform that rotates 360 degrees around the horizontal bar from which it is suspended, is now safer, says Alouan, as well as rigged to allow performers to reach even greater heights.
“We were able to hire a local welder construct, and we had a student studying engineering technology working with him, as well as a few of the coaches who talked it through the design. It was very much a collaboration, with a lot of trial and error involved -- it's not something you order out of a catalogue.”
Also on tap this year for the first time in over a decade is a thematic element developed through the entire performance -- in this case, the city of Chicago, with a little assist from the musical “Chicago.”
“We're doing this to bring something new and different to the show," says Alouan, "and Chicago seemed like such an appropriate topic since so many of our performers and alumni come from there, and the fact that city has been such a major influence on the state."
Various Chicago-related elements, from Navy Pier to the O'Hare Airport to Union Station, will be a part of each of the more than 15 acts performed by a total of 91 student aerialists, acrobats, gymnasts and clowns.
"We've been really aggressive about going after this centralized theme, and we've been working very hard to do something new and innovative with it," says Alouan.
Also back this year is the Student Alumni Association-sponsored children's carnival, which precedes the Saturday matinee at noon, with admission by matinee ticket.