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A Circus Life

circus symphony
Photo courtesy of the Cirque de la Symphonie.

Bill Allen likes to joke that he got his fill of the “ologies” at NC State. As a CHASS student in the mid-1970s studying sociology, anthropology and psychology, Allen says it was NC State professors who inspired him to go out and travel the world trying to solve ecological problems as an anthropologist.

But Allen began to trade in his “ologies” for his love of theater and music after his international travel throughout the 1990s had exposed him to European circus performers. And in the 2000s, he gave up anthropology altogether, a move that, to this day, raises some eyebrows.

“I still have people calling me,” he says, “and saying ‘Bill, I heard you ran off with the circus. Did you meet some tight-rope walker?’”

alum bill allen
Bill Allen

It turns out that Allen, a Shelby, N.C., native and childhood friend of David Thompson, did more than run off with the circus. He started one.

Allen is the executive director and producer for Cirque de la Symphonie, a performance company he co-founded in 2005 that blends the European circus tradition with symphony performances.

“You’ll see a mime who is a juggler and a contortionist who works to a melodic piece,” Allen says of the performances in the Cirque de la Symphonie, which makes its way to Raleigh Dec. 20-21. (The NC State Alumni Association is hosting an event with Allen before the Dec. 20 performance.) “There’s a lot of aerial acrobatics. You’ll see people fly out over your heads. You don’t see that in any other cirque show.”

Allen says the idea came to him in the 1990s, when he made 38 trips through Russia. In his down time, he would take in the famed circus in Moscow. He would go early before the show and watch the performers practice.

With those connections, he started to serve as an informal pipeline for those performers to find their way onto American stages. He says it seemed only natural to marry performances to metropolitan orchestras, and he’s never had to look back.

“It’s the kind of thing people don’t get tired of,” he says. “It’s repeat business every year. It turned out to be more than a hobby. It’s serious business.”

By Chris Saunders.

This article first appeared in NC State’s alumni association blog, Red and White for Life.