Ringling Circus is back. Lions, Tigers and Dumbo are not.

LAS VEGAS — In a cavernous audition space, one by one, circus performers twisted, turned, spun, danced and stood on their heads (at one point as on another person’s head), attracted from all over the world to this circus casting. But there was a notable absence in a room filled with would-be ringmasters, ghoulish clowns, and more than one person who could hang from a hoop hanging from the ceiling.

Not a single animal act.

Five years ago the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus packed their proverbial marquee for what they said was for good, ending a 146-year run in the face of plummeting sales and a growing disgust with the public for the acts of lions, tigers and elephants. once synonymous with this circus. But over the past year, in places like Las Vegas, Ethiopia and Mongolia, the circus has quietly assessed talent and prepared to return.

On Wednesday, the company announced that it would officially return, with its first show on September 28, 2023, and a tour of more than 50 cities, but without animals.

“Ringling has always evolved: logically, to be successful for 146 years, you have to constantly change,” said Kenneth Feld, the general manager of Feld Entertainment, who bought the circus in 1967. Feld is betting big on a redesign show that is not not centered on things like elephants standing on their hind legs, but on narrative stories and human feats.

“He’s been through all the economic booms and busts we’ve had,” Feld said of the circus. “It’s been through two pandemics now; he always adapted.

The circus is part of the Feld line of entertainment, which also includes franchises like Disney on Ice and Monster Jam, where giant trucks perform stunts. The company attributes the collapse of its circus not to condemnation of animal rights activists, but to what it calls an outdated business model. In a time when video games and the metaverse are vying for kids’ attention, he’s collected things like his trapeze gear, motorcycle cages, and a crew of 500 people and 100 animals across the country on trains. a kilometer long, an expensive undertaking.

As some states, like New York and Illinois, began banning the use of elephants in traveling shows, Feld retired his herd, with the last appearance of elephants in 2016. He sold the trains with his cabins specially designed for casting. after closing in 2017. Performers will drive or fly from town to town in its new iteration and stay in hotels, a huge saving made possible by no longer having to check in, say, a big cat.

Not everyone is convinced Ringling Bros 2.0 is a sure thing.

“They may call it a circus, but I think their audience is going to be disappointed,” said contestant Justin Loomis, co-founder and producer of the Loomis Bros. Circus. It still features 12 ponies, five tigers, and Ellie and Tina, his two elephants; Loomis navigates restrictive laws by skipping tour dates in cities where they are banned.

“People are going to assume that’s what they remember,” he offered, “and then when they arrive and buy their ticket and watch the show, they’re going to be like, ‘Where were the animals? ?”

Indeed, when Ringling closed in 2017, it was still selling elephant-shaped plastic cups in its concession stands. But Feld Entertainment has carved its comeback around the concept of the circus as a “365-day-a-year experience,” though exactly what that looks like is still a work in progress. Ringling-branded household items like toiletries aren’t out of the question, Feld said; a Ringling and Barnum & Bailey TikTok channel will debut in January 2023, according to the company, and there are plans to create branded NFTs or non-fungible tokens.

He also hired Giulio Scatola, a veteran of Cirque du Soleil, another human-only circus, as casting and performance director for the new production, which he continues to tout as “The Greatest Show in the World. “.

Citing influences like the TV show “America’s Got Talent,” where the contestants’ personal journey is as much on display as their artistry, Scatola crafts a storytelling spectacle, rather than the three-ring extravaganzas of yore, that will weave its performers together. stories back in the tale. As well as appealing worldwide, he solicited submissions online, looking for “people with stories and people who can use their bodies to tell that story.”

Animals, however, have been part of circus history since its inception in 1768, said Jennifer Lemmer Posey, circus curator at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Florida. This is when the three-ring extravaganza “ring” was invented: at 42 feet in diameter, it is prescribed to fit a galloping horse with a rider atop. “At the core, there’s this relationship,” she said.

She continued: “But the circus has to respond to the world around it in a very flexible way,” she said. “We carry these computers in our hands and it’s so hard to marvel like before.”

Ringling Brothers’ decision has been applauded by animal rights groups.

“Feld’s decision to bring the circus back without animals sends a very clear message to the industry that the circus can dazzle audiences with willing human performers and that no animals need be exploited,” Rachel said. Mathews, director of captive animal law enforcement. division of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation.

In 2009, PETA conducted a hidden camera investigation into the treatment of Ringling’s elephants. In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture ordered Feld Entertainment, the circus’s parent company, to pay a $270,000 fine to settle animal welfare law violations for its treatment of performing animals.

“What people see in the circus is a display of human dominance,” Mathews said. “The thing is, the public doesn’t want to see that anymore.”

Criticism of animal acts in the circus dates back at least to the 1920s, when the Ringling Circus, facing the backlash of a growing animal rights movement, removed lions and tigers for about a decade, according to Greg Parkinson, the former executive director of the Circus World Museum. , in the Ringling family’s hometown of Baraboo, Wis. (The sea lion and elephant shows continued.)

While the circus, with its striped tent and ancient aesthetic, may feel preserved in amber, it has in fact evolved, often in response to changing societal mores, said Parkinson, who is also an editor. from the Circus Historical Society’s journal, “The Moving Train”.

For example, freak shows — where bearded women, strong men, obese people and racial minorities were displayed as curiosities — were once an integral part of many shows. But by the middle of the last century, these shows were largely phased out of most circuses, including Ringling, and were increasingly seen as exploitative or racist by audiences.

“Thrills, spectacular acts, costumes and people; the human emotions they elicit are constant,” Parkinson said. “But the method with which showmen and showwomen present those things that have thrilled American audiences is constantly changing.”

Granted, other circuses have been able to operate without animals, although that may be an adjustment. Reopening without animal stars was a problem for Mexico-based Circo Atayde Hermanos, recalled Christopher Stoinev, 22, whose family operates the business. The circus, he said, had to transfer its elephants, Safari and Tommy, to zoos after a law banning wild animal shows came into force in 2015, he said.

“Once we stopped using animals, our circus really got worse because nobody wanted to come see a show if there were no animals,” Stoinev said during the Vegas auditions for the new Ringling show. His act? Juggling. He left his family’s four Chihuahuas at home.

The Hermanos Circus, like Ringling, also evolved; it eventually bounced back, he added, transitioning to theatrical storytelling in the absence of pachyderm wow. “After a while, we started finding ways to live without having animals on our show,” Stoinev said.

And the animals themselves have evolved. During Ringling’s last show at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, 46-year-old big cat trainer Alexander Lacey interrupted his number to speak out against the loss of wildlife. With no personal experience with such creatures as the circus offers, he told the audience then, he feared people would lose interest in keeping them in the wild.

With the circus work circumscribed, Lacey’s 14 big cats, including a leopard named Mowgli who rode a float at the Ringling Circus, now perform at Krone Farm, her family’s feline ranch in Munich, Germany.

“Animals are going to miss the opportunity for the next generation to care about them and care about them,” Lacey said in an interview in Germany. “If people don’t see lions and tigers around them, they really don’t think of them. I think the animals are really going to be missed in the long run.

For some, Ringling’s return is more than a revamped circus, representing the hope of resurrecting a tradition that offers not just a job, but a way of life.

In Vegas, Skyler Miser stood with her mom and dad, Tina and Brian, right after her audition, eagerly awaiting an encore. Her parents had been Ringling’s human cannonballs and were devastated by the closure.

Back on their property in Peru, Indiana is one of the disused circus train cars similar to the one Skyler grew up in down the road. His father flashed the screensaver on his phone: 11-year-old Skyler, shot down by a cannon for the first time. That day, the Avars learned that their daughter would likely be Ringling’s next human cannonball on the new animal-free show.

“Humans really need to step up their game,” his mother said as they returned to Indiana where Skyler plans to spend the summer training with the cannon they keep at home. “They have big footprints to fill.”

Leave a Comment