Big Top, Bigger Dreams

Come one, come all, to experience David Dimitri’s L’homme Cirque—the greatest show of the summer.

May 28, 2019

By Marilyn Millstone

When we think of a circus tightrope performer, most of us think of risk. Fear. Danger. But David Dimitri—whose one-man show L’homme Cirque helps celebrate the Music Center’s new Bernard Family Foundation Pavilion—sees it differently. He sees it as intimate, aerial poetry.

That sense of intimacy begins with the L’homme Cirque tent itself, which Dimitri—as a team of one—sets up by himself. It seats just 220 people. This allows the former Cirque du Soleil and Big Apple Circus performer to create a close connection with his audience.

Not that this connection always comes easily. “Teenagers with smartphones come in and look bored. They stare at their phones instead of at me. Then, suddenly, they look up,” he says. “They start to focus on what I’m doing up there. They drop their coat of prejudice and get sucked in.” Afterward, he notes, “they want to high-five me. Get my autograph. It happens every time. That really touches me.”

The son of famed Swiss clown Jakob Dimitri, David Dimitri grew up in a remote valley in the Italian sector of southern Switzerland. Naturally wiry and athletic, he spent much of his time alone, climbing trees and learning how to juggle and ride a unicycle.

Although he felt “very isolated,” his solitude was frequently broken by visits from artists who performed with his father or were inspired by his work, including legendary mime Marcel Marceau and renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Inspired by these entertainers and encouraged by his father, Dimitri entered a circus training academy in Budapest at age 14. At 19, he began studying dance at Juilliard. He still remembers how awed he felt when, at a barre class in Lincoln Center, he realized ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov was right in front of him, taking the class too. By fusing together his acrobatic and balletic training, Dimitri developed the lyrical performance style for which he won worldwide acclaim.

Then, in 2001, after years of touring with big circuses, Dimitri decided it was time for a change. In a big circus, he explains, “any individual artist can be replaced and the show still goes on. L’homme Cirque relies solely on one person: me.” While Dimitri didn’t intend to produce the show entirely on his own, financial pressures forced this father of two to do just that. “I couldn’t afford a technician. I had to do everything on my own. Now that’s become my signature.”

He chuckles as he remembers the countless times he’s seen confusion on people’s faces when he drives a truck to a performance site and begins setting up. “People assume I’m the technician and think ‘where is the guy who does the show?’”

So what, exactly, can one expect from a L’homme Cirque show? Dimitri’s signature tightrope acrobatics, including flips and somersaults. Moments of clown-type whimsy, as when—while lying on the tightrope on his back—he plays the accordion or the trumpet. And then there’s the moment when he shoots himself out of a cannon he designed and built himself.

“I don’t do it to be a daredevil,” says Dimitri. “I think the cannon is funny. But for some kids, they’ve started to like me and now they’re afraid for me.” After he successfully skyrockets across the tent, Dimitri says these same children are elated. “I think it shows them that you have to believe in yourself and your abilities.”

The show climaxes with a theatrical flourish: Dimitri opens a flap at the top of the tent and beckons the audience to join him outside, where he walks across a high-wire cable and disappears into a tower 50 feet in the sky.

There is, of course, an element of risk associated with each performance. Once, when performing the cannon shot at a festival in Connecticut, Dimitri fell and hit his head. Ever the professional, he continued his tightrope routine, unaware that the festival producer had called both the fire and police departments. He smiles as he recalls trying to “calmly finish” the show with police sirens blaring and firefighters with stretchers waiting below.

But despite the flamboyant acrobatics, Dimitri maintains that L’homme Cirque “is not at all about flash and crash. It’s about a guy who travels the world with his own little circus and wants to bring his art to the people. My story is about showing people that anything is possible. I want each person who watches me to think about their own dreams, then go home afterward and start fulfilling those dreams.”

Sometimes, he says, when he walks through the crowd after a show, many people have tears in their eyes. He considers this the ultimate compliment and a tribute to what his father—who passed away two years ago—taught him: “Do honest work. Be yourself. Your body language will communicate what words can’t.”