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A High-Flying Night at the Orchestra
If you mention to Sagiv Ben-Binyamin that he is living the dream of generations of American boys and girls, he laughs in recognition, even though there are no animals, carnies or big tops in Cirque de la Symphonie, the circus in which he stars.
And while the Israeli native crossed oceans to reach his destination, he didn’t run away to do so.
Instead, in 2000, at the age of 23, Ben-Binyamin arrived in southern California after finishing his stint in the Israel Defense Forces and post-IDF backpacking around the world. “When I finished my traveling and money, I had friends here in southern California who said to me, ‘Come over and we’ll try to make it work here,’ ” he said in a telephone interview just a few days before traveling to the East Coast to prepare for Cirque de la Symphonie’s first performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Jan. 3 and 4.
For this former resident of Hadera, located roughly 28 miles from both Haifa and Tel Aviv, joining one of the number of circus troupes that formed in the wake of the success of Cirque du Soleil was a logical move. Ben-Binyamin finished first in his class at the Hadera School for Elite Athletes, and he continued his gymnastics training at Wingate University in Israel. His prowess has led to the titular character at Universal Studios’ “Spider-Man Rocks” show in Los Angeles, as well as roles in the movie, The Polar Express, and in numerous concert tours.
“For a while after I joined the army, I completely stopped gymnastics,” Ben-Binyamin recalled. “When I left the army and moved to the U.S., I found it again. When you think about the circus, you think elephants, lions — that’s how I grew up. Here, I found a different type of circus where people are stars and it is more creative.”
Despite the obvious parallels to Cirque du Soleil, Cirque de la Symphonie has gotten creative in defining its niche. The Atlanta-based troupe performs in tandem with orchestras around the world, pairing routines by aerialists, contortionists, dancers, strongmen and more with classical music.
In Philadelphia, Ben-Binyamin, who travels from his Los Angeles home to each gig, will perform a solo rope act to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and a hand-balancing tango act with fellow Cirque member Aloysia Gavre to a Cuban-inflected danzón. The orchestra and Cirque will also work together on Sibelius’ “Finlandia” and selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
When one thinks of Verizon Hall, the only acrobatics that come to mind tend to be of the aural kind; the space was not designed to accommodate aerialists flying directly over the audience’s head. Not to worry, says Jeremy Rothman, the orchestra’s vice president of artistic planning and the person responsible for bringing the two organizations together. The Abington native has been a fan of Cirque de la Symphonie ever since it performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during his tenure there.
“I really wanted to share this experience with Philadelphia audiences,” he says. “Verizon Hall, given that it is a beautiful, modern symphonic hall with seating in the round, requires creative solutions to get everything installed in there.”
The orchestra has contracted with professional riggers to handle the logistics in a way that will both be safe and provide attendees with unfettered views of both groups of performers. “Some seats will need to be closed in order to accommodate the show, but people will be surrounding the performers, bringing the show to life even more,” he says. “It’s such a perfect combination of great artistry — our musicians playing a symphonic classical repertoire, accentuated by these incredible acrobatic and aerial feats. It’s really a presentation that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
For those so inspired by the troupe’s exploits, Ben-Binyamin offers a way to — temporarily, at least — pursue dreams of flying through the air with something approximating the greatest of ease. He and Gavre run the Cirque School in Los Angeles, where students of all ages come to learn circus arts. The school’s motto seems tailor-made to bring fence-sitters to the other side: “For anybody with any body.”
IF YOU GO
Cirque de la Symphonie with The Philadelphia Orchestra
Jan. 3 and 4 at Verizon Hall
300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia