Change is Coming Soon for Famed Circus

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced Monday it would retire its famed elephants this spring.

After a month-long holiday vacation in Sarasota, Feld Entertainment’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus traditionally makes its first stop of the year in Miami.

On Monday, the company, which also produces Disney on Ice and other family arena spectacles, announced its 40 touring elephants would be retired to a Florida sanctuary. This would be our last chance to see the giant pachyderms perform in the ring and so my partner, his parents and I made our way to Miami’s American Airlines Arena for “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

We don’t catch the show every year. The tickets themselves aren’t expensive, but when you add in the processing and “convenience” fees, parking, and then the $8 snow cones, $14 cotton candy, $12 ice cream and $5 bottles of soda, well, a trip to the circus becomes an expensive proposition. We aren’t even seduced by the $18 and $24 stuffed animals and flashing wands or tempted to get our faces painted for $8 or a computer-generated photograph for $15. Quite frankly, I don’t know how a family with children affords a trip to the circus.

But there we were, seated in the arena as the lights went down for “Circus Xtreme.”

Changes have been coming to the circus for decades. Ringling Bros. long ago abandoned the traveling big top, preferring to perform in urban arenas with air conditioning and sophisticated light and sound systems. The circus band ditched their spirited marches in favor of pop-infused music. The sequin-bedazzled ringmaster—we counted four costume changes—now sings as he rides around the rings in a motorized platform.

The influence of Cirque-style productions has also been growing over the years with aerialists flying through the air on bungee cords a la “Believe” from one of Cher’s many farewell tours. Later they would float in the air with billowing mermaid tails.

The Mongolian acrobats, a staple of Cirque du Soleil, make an appearance, too.

Several traditional circus acts have survived, including the Danguir Troupe, walking the tightrope 35 feet above the arena floor; Gemma Kirby, the human cannonball; and, of course, the clowns.

The animal acts included a tightly choreographed pack of two-humped camels, trotting around the ring with beautiful Asian riders performing handstands and tricks on their backs, and the ferocious white tigers who seemed more like giant pussycats under the command of trainer Tabavara Maluenda.

Finally, the elephants arrived! Perhaps in response to the animal rights activists who follow the circus train from city to city—yes, the circus still travels by train—the elephant act focused on messages of education and conservation, justifying their lives in captivity and participation in the spectacle.

I’m not sure if they aren’t better off living within the circus. We hear about poachers everyday and their natural habitat continues to disappear as Asia industrializes. I do know they seemed to respond to the audience as they sat and rolled over and knocked giant beach balls around the arena with their trunks. And I’m glad we got to see them one last time.

So how will the circus survive without elephants? In keeping with the show theme, “Circus Xtreme,” producers have turned to extreme sports—daring BMX riders jumping and flipping around the arena on steel ramps and champion trampoline artists bouncing on an off of a large scaffolding, all accentuated with dazzling lighting and pyrotechnics.

Oh, and I can’t forget the trained poodles. They’re definitely not exotic like elephants, but they brought the loudest applause for their antics.

The elephants may be relegated to history soon, but the circus will go on from town to town, bringing smiles to “ladies, gentlemen, children of all ages” for many years to come.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presents “Circus Xtreme” at the American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami, through Monday, Jan. 18. Tickets start at $10 at Ticketmaster.com.


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