Alberto Giovanni Zoppé may be a circus clown, but he's also an artisan.
His idea is to deconstruct the modern circus, which he believes has become too big, industrialized, and distanced from the audience, and take his 160-year-old Zoppé Italian Family Circus back to its roots, when small groups of performers able to accomplish amazing and amusing feats toured the capitals of Europe.
"I always wanted to bring the circus back into the tent, back to the way the circus used to be," he said. "The way it's supposed to be. The way a child thinks of a circus."
East Valley residents will get a chance to see the result beginning Saturday , when the circus opens for a nine-day run under the large Circo Zoppé tent on a ballfield just west of the Chandler Center for the Arts, northwest of Chandler Boulevard and Arizona Avenue.
The show's 22 performers - ranging from trapeze artists to equestrian acts - are all either family or close friends, Zoppé said. The performers also do all the manual labor, such as hoisting the tent and driving in the large tent stakes by hand, without the use of heavy machinery.
"Everybody's a performer and everybody is crew," he said.
The company planned a Christmas dinner together Thursday night in the circus ring - a short break from setting up the circus, grooming the dogs and horses, and rehearsals.
"The ring is our gathering point, our place to be together," Zoppé said.
Zoppé, 43, is the sixth generation of his family to choose the circus. His father, who helped establish the circus in the United States after the family moved here from Europe around 1948, passed away in March. Nevertheless, the circus held 18 performances across the country this year.
Home is a small yet comfortable trailer he shares with his wife, Amy, an aerial acrobat, and their 2-month-old son, Giovanni Julian Veneto Zoppé.
The circus' white canvas tent houses seating for 500 on bleachers surrounding a single large ring. No seat is more than 20 feet away from the ring, Zopp�!3aid. The performers wear antique costumes and are accompanied by Italian folk music.
It's an attempt at simplicity, Zoppé said.
"What we wanted to do was something that was real, that had texture and history," he said. "We didn't want to depend on lights and sound to make the audience go wild."
The performance is centered around the escapades of Nino the clown, played by Zoppé. Zoppé rejected comparisons to the popular Cirque du Soleil.
"They are trying to be the circus of the future," he said. "We are the circus of the past."
The Zoppé performance could be compared more accurately to a Fellini film, he said.
According to Zoppé, the circus began in 1842, when a young French street performer named Napoline Zoppé met a Hungarian "equestrian ballerina" named Ermenegilda, and the two ran off together to Venice to found a circus that over the years became renowned throughout Europe.
"They fell in love, moved to Italy, and opened a circus," he said.
The family came over to the U.S. at the behest of director Cecil B. Demille, who was looking for performers for his Oscar-winning 1952 film "The Greatest Show on Earth," Zoppé said.
He said he's been a performer since the age of two.
"I'd stand on my dad's hand, basically," Zoppé said.
The profession has its risks, of course. In 2001, Zoppé fell 30 feet to the ground and spent four days in a coma after failing to catch a trapeze.
"I was showing off, basically," he said.
This year is the first time the Zoppé family circus has visited Chandler, although Zoppé himself had visited a couple of times previously as a performer with other circuses. The company normally winters in the Chicago area.
"We've been looking for a Christmas home for a couple of years now," he said.
Chandler is an ideal location, given the arts center facilities and the weather, he said. The Center for the Arts is handling the ticket sales and advertising.
"They're not sold out yet. I know they're going well," Zoppé said.