In the middle of an award-winning choreography career, Peter Pucci joined the circus.
For the past 18 months — when he hasn’t been teaching Juilliard first-years how to approach a script or choreographing and teaching at Manhattanville College or helping to stage musicals — Pucci has been thinking about jugglers and acrobats.
Starting Thursday, the fruit of the Mount Kisco choreographer’s labors fills the Big Apple Circus’ big top in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, as the circus’ 33rd season begins its New York run.
This season’s circus, aptly titled “Dance On!,” marks a change on several fronts at the one-ring wonder, where no seat is more than 50 feet from the action.
For one, it’s the first season under artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy, who succeeds founding artistic director Michael Christensen.
For another, there’s Pucci, a former Pilobolus dance troupe member, whose contribution has broken the mold of the little circus.
He uses the artists’ downtime to make “Dance On!” even more playful, inventive and family friendly than past seasons at the playful, inventive, family-friendly circus.
Instead of having the separate acts appear, perform and then sit backstage awaiting the curtain call, Pucci has created a community of players through dance.
For example, when the members of the Chinese Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Troupe aren’t performing, or getting ready to go on, they take to the ring and balance basketballs on their heads or join in the dance moments that fill the spaces between the acts.
The central character of “Dance On!” is Mark Gindick as Man Who Dances, a character who mixes clowning with an irresistible love of dance that proves infectious. When Man Who Dances starts moving to the music, the acrobats, contortionists and jugglers can’t seem to keep from joining in, wordlessly answering his call to let loose.
The effect is a more playful circus. And play is exactly how Pucci managed to get Kenyan pole climbers, Chinese acrobats, Mongolian contortionists and an Ethiopian juggler to accept his plan for “Dance On!”
For four weeks in upstate Walden — where the circus takes shape each summer — Pucci gathered the international cast to build those dance moments that carry one act to the other.
He had to overcome circus conventions and language and movement barriers to get the artists to buy into his concept.
He did it over a three-day “creative period.”
“I had hula hoops and basketballs and umbrellas and Frisbees, all kinds of props that I thought would be appropriate,” he says. “I started playing and I got them to start playing. I didn’t know that the Chinese (acrobats) could balance balls on their heads. Or that the Mongolians (contortionists) are really good with hula hoops. I tried to find out what their other talents were outside their acts.”
“They loved it, because I don’t think they ever get to do that, to just play,” he says.
Pucci says that once he won over the artists, they sought his feedback on their acts.
“They’re very eager to have input from the choreographer because they don’t usually have that. I’ve had my hand, movement-wise, in everyone’s pies.”
Pucci also had to make sure to give the artists ample time to warm up for their real jobs, ones not associated with Man Who Dances.
Running off to choreograph the circus isn’t too far a stretch for Pucci, a fixture in the world of dance and a former member of the dance-theater troupe Pilobolus, masters of form and balance.
“In a weird way, the circus fits all of the things I’ve done — dance, theater, Pilobolus — and I’m working with all different kinds of artists so all the skills I have are being used to the fullest.”
His playful approach in “Dance On!” has its roots in “Pucci Sport,” a dance piece he conceived in 1999 that integrated baseball, basketball, Frisbee and other sports into dance.
The takeaway from his circus work is simple: “How to get people who are nondancers to invest in making movement. I’ve done that a lot, but I’ve learned that circus people — who are very much specialists — are very eager to do other things. Because it gets boring doing the same thing.”
Pucci has made a career out of rarely doing the same thing.
He has choreographed for groups ranging from the Joffrey to Chautauqua to American Dance Festival and Dance Theater of Harlem.
In 2008, he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for outstanding choreographer and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Choreographer for his work on “Queens Boulevard (The Musical).” He won a special Drama Desk award for his work on “Orphans’ Home Cycle,” nine newly adapted plays by Horton Foote.
In 2009, ArtsWestchester named him Westchester Artist of the Year.
He works with Juilliard’s new drama students on their approach to scripts and is in his fourth year as artist-in-residence at Manhattanville College in Purchase, where he choreographs, teaches and produces dance concerts.
He’s also helping singer-songwriter Sloan Wainwright find the right movements to accompany her new songs. And in June, he worked on the musical “Johnny Baseball,” directed by Diane Paulus, who also directed the recent Broadway revival of “Hair.”
Still, the circus timetable was different from his dance work.
“You spend two weeks choreographing a 15-minute dance six hours a day,” he says. “This has been more like working on a musical.”
Before he choreographed for Big Apple, Pucci was a fan.
He and his wife, the hand model Ellen Sirot, have taken their daughter, Lara, to see the one-ring circus for 9 of her 10 years.
“It has been great to be on the other side, behind the scenes,” he says. “Besides learning a few words of Swahili and Mongolian and Chinese, it has been a great ride.”
“Dance On!” 123 shows, from Oct. 21 through Jan. 9 at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center, 62nd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues. $15 to $92. 888-541-3750. Check out the Big Apple Circus website.
Big top, small screen The Big Apple Circus is the focus of a six-hour documentary, “Circus,” set to premiere on WNET/Thirteen beginning at 9 p.m. Nov. 3. Subsequent two-hour episodes premiere at 9 p.m. Nov. 10 and 17. The six-hour documentary, produced by Show of Force, is a behind-the-scenes look at the circus’ artists during the 2008-09 season, from their start in Virginia, through a wicked New York City winter to a scouting trip to find new talent.
No West Nyack stop The circus, which started last season in West Nyack, started this season in Manville, N.J. There are no plans to bring “Dance On!” to the Palisades Center mall this season.
Photos by Vincent DiSalvio/The Journal News: (Top) Mount Kisco’s Peter Pucci inside the big top of the Big Apple Circus in Manville, N.J., the first stop for “Dance On!” which Pucci choreographed. The circus opens Thursday at Lincoln Center. (Bottom) Mark Gindick, left, as Man Who Dances, has a little fun with Grandma the Clown (Barry Lubin), in “Dance On!” the 33rd season of the Big Apple Circus.