Before the show opens, equestrian ballerina Tosca Zoppe, Giovanni’s sister,...

Before the show opens, equestrian ballerina Tosca Zoppe, Giovanni’s sister, shares a kiss with one of her show partners. (July 26, 2013) Credit: Newsday/Jeffrey Basinger

The quaint space beneath the canopy of high wires and hanging rings feels nothing short of family -- cozy, comfortable, familiar. Each of the 500 seats inside the one-ring Zoppé Family Circus sits within 20 feet of the tent's inner circle. Spectators who make eye contact with a clown one minute may find themselves brought into the act the next.

Recently, the circus continued its 170-year tradition with four days of performances in Westhampton Beach, at the corner of Main Street and Potunk Lane. At the heart of the show is the relationship between a horseback-riding ballerina, Tosca Zoppé, and a clown named Nino, performed by her older brother, Giovanni Zoppé. In real life, the equestrian ballerina is married to another clown in the show, Jay Walter, who is also the ringmaster, but their roles under the canopy reflect the show's Italian origins.

The circus began in 1842 with a young street performer named Napoline Zoppé, who wandered into a plaza in Budapest, Hungary, and fell in love with an equestrian ballerina named Ermenegilda. Ermenegilda's father disapproved of their relationship, and the two ran away to Venice, Italy, and started the circus that still bears their name. The circus has survived political upheaval and wars, including a bombing that killed all of its animals during World War II.

"It's a very beautiful, intimate show," Tosca Zoppé said. "When we perform we really give our heart and soul to the audience. When people leave the tent they're either laughing or crying -- we bring out a lot of emotions."

This is the third year the circus company has performed on Long Island. While the entertainment elicits laughter and gasps from the audience, the work that goes on behind the crimson curtain is rigorous and sophisticated. It all starts when the circus comes to town and the performers -- who include jugglers and acrobats, children and adults -- build the tent, which takes a full day, from dawn to dusk. "This is the best circus," said juggler Richard LeBoeuf, 28, of Austin, Texas. "We all work together."

Besides the Zoppés and Walter, the Westhampton Beach show, held last month, featured 15 other performers whose acts ranged from juggling to unicycle acrobatics to the trapeze.

Unicycle acrobat Nick Harden, 29, performs with Wendy Allen, 31; both studied acrobatics at a Seattle college.

"One of my favorite things about the circus is doing things that people think are impossible, and bringing it into their backyard -- setting up this giant tent, and bringing it right to them," said Harden. "Like Wendy standing on me while I ride a unicycle."

Unlike some other circuses, the Zoppé Family Circus uses no safety nets or safety harnesses for its daredevil routines on the ground or in the air. Nor are animals central performers.

Wherever the Zoppé big top lands -- next up are performances in Frankfort, Ill. -- audiences will be welcomed by matriarch Sandra Zoppé, who everyone calls "mom."

"When you enter our tent, you enter our home," she said.

That is a sentiment she has passed down to her son, Giovanni Zoppé.

"We meet you in front of our home," he said. "We say goodbye to you when you leave. You're coming to our house and enjoying an evening with us. That is what circus is about."

For more about the Zoppé Family Circus, go to zoppe.net

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