By Laura Latzkzo
For families like the Zoppes, the circus isn’t just a way to make a living. It is part of their identities.
The Zoppe family’s circus, in its 177th year, will make its annual visit to Chandler from Thursday, December 26, to Sunday, January 5.
Seven generations of the family have been part of Zoppe: An Italian Family Circus.
The family circus was started in Italy in 1842 by French clown Napoline and Hungarian equestrian ballerina Ermenegilda and was moved to the United States by equestrian Alberto Zoppe in the 1940s.
Throughout the circus’ history, matriarchs have played a strong role in keeping the family tradition alive. Emma Zoppe was especially instrumental in making sure the circus survived through tough times of famine and war.
In honor of Emma Zoppe, the family circus will be presenting a new show entitled “La Nonna,” a term used for a grandmother in Italian.
Giovanni Zoppe, a sixth-generation circus performer and family circus’ director, says the new show is centered around and showcases the talent of female performers. Around 80% of the cast is made up of female performers from around the globe.
In each generation, one family member has really taken the reigns of leading the family circus. Emma was this person during the 1920s to the 1940s, and her son Alberto took over after her.
“This truly is a celebration of her life. This show is about the strength, power and beauty of all women, the Zoppe women in particular,” Giovanni says.
Giovanni hopes the show will empower women and promote tolerance of others and equal treatment of people from different backgrounds.
“The circus has always been an equal-opportunity employer because we’ve always accepted everybody,” he says. “No matter what country you are from, what color you are, what race you are, what religion you are, everybody’s always accepted.”
Giovanni says Emma endured a lot in her life, but remained dedicated to the circus. When the circus was bombed, she watched helplessly as the animals died.
“My grandmother was in tears, on her knees crawling back to the show,” Giovanni says. “Our animals are our lives for circus people. It’s what we live for—our animals.”
Giovanni says she is a testament to the strength of the Zoppe family’s strong women.
“The show collapsed multiple times, and she would always bring it back,” Giovanni says.
Like men in the show, female performers have always taken on different roles, including helping to set up and take down the tent.
“The women don’t just walk in a ring and take a bow. They also drive the stakes, put the tent up, help to drive. The women do everything on our show,” Giovanni says.
Now, Giovanni, his sisters Tosca and Carla and their spouses have been upholding the family tradition with clown, equestrian and dog acts, respectively.
During the shows, Giovanni plays an Auguste-style clown named Nino. Within this role, he showcases his circus skills that includes trying to take the attention away from other performers.
“You’re not supposed to play with other people’s props in the circus. That’s rule No. 1, but I always did,” Giovanni says.
This year, he will be play opposite a Russian-inspired babushka character named Natasha Vodkavitch, portrayed by ringmistress Aimee Klein.
Giovanni brings a Venetian comedic style of clowning known as Commedia dell’arte, and Klein plays the more serious clown to his fool.
This is the first time the family circus has had a ringmistress.
The show will also be breaking new ground with female-centered acts developed or reworked specifically for the show.
Audiences will have a chance to see the Zingara Riders, an all-female group of Cossack trick riders. This Russian style of riding is fast-paced and dangerous.
“These women are jumping on and off and doing incredible feats and going underneath the belly of a horse,” Giovanni says.
The circus will also showcase an all-female group of flyers from the Santos family, another multigenerational circus family. For the first time, 6-year-old twin sisters Alice and Elise Santos will perform the Perch Pole Act.
The show will have performances of Mongolian contortionism and an aerial act with two sisters performing on a lyra apparatus.
It took some time to find the right performers and develop new acts for this show.
Giovanni’s daughter Chiara,16, played a key role in writing and directing the show.
Giovanni hopes she and her brother Julien, a 10-year-old clown, will continue the family’s circus tradition, but he isn’t pressuring them.
“If the next generation wants it. I don’t want to force any generation to do it, but if they really like to do it,” Giovanni says. “My daughter is really showing a lot of promise…I have a strong feeling she’s going to be a huge part of what we are doing here in the future.”
The show will have a similar intimate feel as others presented by the family circus. The audiences are no more than 20 feet from the action, and their senses are all engaged, especially when the horses are running around the ring.
Giovanni, his sisters, their spouses and his children are part of an extended circus family that includes the other performers. Each year in Chandler, they set up and fill stockings and hold a Christmas dinner inside of the ring.
Giovanni grew up learning bareback riding, clowning, juggling and trapeze arts his father and other performers from the time that he was young. He can’t imagine another life than the one he lives.
“I don’t know what a stationary life is. Normal life to me is what I am doing,” Giovanni says.
During the Chandler engagement, members of the circus will be doing a three-day circus camp from Monday, December 30, to Thursday, January 2, where children ages 7 to 13 can learn low wire performing, balancing, clowning, jugging.
Giovanni says that the circus school not only teaches children circus skills but helps to instill confidence in them.
“When they are in that ring that last day, they just really shine like crazy,” Giovanni says.
Zoppe: An Italian Family Circus, Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N. Arizona Avenue, Chandler, 480.782.2680, chandlercenter.org, various times Thursday, December 26 to Sunday, January 5, $15-$40.
Zoppe Circus Camp, Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N. Arizona Avenue, Chandler, 480.782.2680, chandlercenter.org, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, December 30, to Thursday, January 2, $105.