LAS VEGAS — In a cavernous audition space, one by one the circus performers contorted, twirled, twirled, danced and stood on their heads (at one point while on someone else’s head), drawn from all over the world to this circus casting. But there was a notable absence in a room full of would-be emcees, ghoulish clowns and more than one person capable of hanging from a hoop suspended from the ceiling.
Not a single animal act.
Five years ago, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus packed up their proverbial big top for what they said was forever, ending a 146-year streak in the face of falling sales and growing public disgust at acts of lions, tigers and elephants. once synonymous with this circus. But for the past year, in places like Las Vegas, Ethiopia and Mongolia, the circus has been quietly sizing up talent and preparing for a comeback.
On Wednesday, the company announced that it will officially return, with its first show on September 28, 2023 and a tour of more than 50 cities, but without any animals.
“Ringling has always evolved: Logically, to be successful for 146 years, you have to constantly change,” said Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, which bought the circus in 1967. Feld is betting big on a revamped circus. show that focuses, not on things like elephants standing on their hind legs, but on narrative lines and human exploits.
“It’s been through every economic boom and bust we’ve ever had,” Feld said of the circus. “It has been through two pandemics now; always adapted.”
The circus is just one part of Feld’s entertainment offerings, which also include franchises like Disney on Ice and Monster Jam, where giant trucks perform stunts. The company blames the collapse of its circus not on condemnation from animal rights activists, but on what it called an outdated business model. In an era where video games and the metaverse compete for children’s attention, he carried things like his trapeze gear, motorcycle cages, and a crew of 500 people and 100 animals around the country on mile-long trains, an expensive endeavor.
As some states, such as New York and Illinois, began to move toward banning the use of elephants in traveling shows, Feld retired his herd, with the final appearance of elephants in 2016. He sold the trains with their specially designed cabins for the cast. after it closes in 2017. Artists will drive or fly from city to city in its new iteration and stay in hotels, a tremendous savings made possible by the fact that there’s no longer a need to check in with, say, a big cat.
Not everyone is convinced that Ringling Bros 2.0 is a sure thing.
“You can call it a circus, but I think your audience is going to be disappointed,” said one competitor, Justin Loomis, co-founder and producer of Loomis Bros. Circus. He still has 12 ponies, five tigers, and Ellie and Tina, his two elephants; Loomis gets around restrictive laws by skipping tour dates in cities where they are banned.
The return of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus
“The Greatest Show on Earth” is back after closing its big top five years ago.
“People will assume that’s what they remember,” he offered, “and then when they come in and buy their ticket and sit through the show, they’ll say, ‘Where were the animals?'”
In fact, when Ringling closed in 2017, it was still selling elephant-shaped plastic cups at its concession stands. But Feld Entertainment has sculpted its comeback around the concept of the circus as a “365-day-a-year experience,” though what exactly it looks like is still a work in progress. Ringling-branded housewares 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 for branded NFTs or non-fungible tokens.
He has also hired Giulio Scatola, a veteran of Cirque du Soleil, another human-only circus, as his casting and acting director for the new production, which he continues to bill as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Citing influences such as the TV show “America’s Got Talent,” where both the contestants’ personal journey and their art are showcased, Scatola is plotting a narrative show, rather than the three-track extravaganzas of yesteryear, that will interweave its performers. . bring stories back to the tale. In addition to casting around the world, she has solicited submissions online, looking for “people with stories and people who can use their bodies to tell that story.”
Still, animals have been a part of circus history since its inception in 1768, said Jennifer Lemmer Posey, curator of circuses at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Florida. It was then that the “ring” of three-ring extravaganza was invented: at 42 feet in diameter, it is prescribed to hold a galloping horse with a rider mounted on it. “At the bottom is that relationship,” she said.
He continued: “But the circus has to respond to the world around it in a really flexible way,” he said. “We carry these computers in our hands and it’s very hard to be amazed at the way it used to be.”
Ringling Brothers’ move has been applauded by animal rights groups.
“Feld’s decision to bring back the animal-free circus sends a very clear message to the industry that the circus can dazzle audiences with willing human performers and that no animal needs to be exploited,” said Rachel Mathews, director of the app. captive animal law. division of the People Foundation for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
In 2009, PETA conducted a hidden camera investigation into Ringling’s treatment of elephants. In 2011, the US Department of Agriculture ordered Feld Entertainment, the circus’s parent company, to pay a $270,000 fine to settle violations of the Animal Welfare Act for its treatment of show animals.
“What people see in the circus is a display of the human domain,” Mathews said. “The fact is the public doesn’t want to see that anymore.”
Criticism of animal acts in the circus dates back to at least the 1920s, when the Ringling Circus, faced with pushback from a growing animal rights movement, removed lions and tigers for about a decade, according to Greg Parkinson, former executive director of the Circus World Museum. , in the Ringling family’s hometown of Baraboo, Wis. (The sea lion and elephant performances continued.)
While the circus, with its striped top and ancient aesthetic, may feel preserved in amber, it has actually evolved, often in response to changing social mores, said Parkinson, who is also an editor of the journal Circus Historical Society. “Car.”
For example, freak shows, in which bearded women, strong men, obese people, and racial minorities were displayed as objects of curiosity, were once an integral part of many shows. But by the middle of the last century, these displays had been largely removed from most circuses, including Ringling, and were seen as increasingly exploitative or racist by the public.
“Emotions, spectacular acts, the costumes and the people; the human emotions they arouse are constant,” said Parkinson. “But the method by which the men and women of entertainment present those things that have thrilled American audiences is constantly changing.”
Certainly other circuses have been able to operate without animals, although it may be an adjustment. Reopening without animal stars was a problem for the Mexico-based Circo Atayde Hermanos, recalled Christopher Stoinev, 22, whose family runs the business. The circus, he said, had to move its elephants, Safari and Tommy, to zoos after a law banning performances with wild animals went into effect in 2015, he said.
“Once we stopped using animals, our circus really got worse because nobody wanted to come see a show if there weren’t any animals,” Stoinev said at the Las Vegas auditions for Ringling’s new show. His act? Juggle. He left the four chihuahuas in his family at home.
The Hermanos circus, like Ringling, has also evolved; he eventually recovered, he added, by turning to theatrical storytelling in the pachyderm wow’s absence. “After a while, we started to figure out ways to live without having animals in our program,” Stoinev said.
And the animals themselves have moved on. At Ringling’s final show at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., Alexander Lacey, 46, a big cat trainer, paused his performance to denounce the loss of wild animals. Without personal experiences with creatures such as those offered by the circus, he told the audience, he feared that people would lose interest in conserving them in the wild.
With circus work circumscribed, today Lacey’s 14 big cats, including a leopard named Mowgli who used to ride in a float at the Ringling circus, now perform at Krone Farm, her family’s cat ranch in Munich, Germany.
“The animals will miss out on the opportunity for the next generation to care about them and care about them,” Lacey said in an interview from Germany. “If people don’t see lions and tigers around them, they don’t really think about them. I think the animals are really going to miss out in the long run.”
For some, Ringling’s return is about more than just a revamped circus, representing the hope of resurrecting a tradition that not only offers employment, but also a way of life.
In Las Vegas, Skyler Miser was with her mom and dad, Tina and Brian, right after her audition, anxiously waiting for a call back. Her parents had been Ringling’s human cannonballs and were devastated by the closure.
In the back of his property in Peru, Indiana sits one of the decommissioned circus train cars similar to the one Skyler grew up in on the road. Her father showed her phone screensaver: 11-year-old Skyler being shot from a cannon for the first time. That day, the Misers learned that her daughter will likely be Ringling’s next human cannonball on the new animal-free show.
“Humans really have to step up their game,” her mother said as they headed back to Indiana, where Skyler plans to spend the summer practicing with the cannon they have at home. “They have big footprints to fill.”