‘Circus Xtreme’, by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey

Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas; 16th June 2016 – The Circus Diaries Goes TransAtlantic

IMG_9572The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus has a heritage dating back to 1860s. As the separate touring companies of James Bailey, the seven Ringling siblings, and PT Barnum gradually grew, merged, and acquired other smaller companies, the name came to dominate the US entertainments scene, utilising a marketing expertise that made the show a globally known brand, synonymous to some with the very idea of circus. Today the show is owned and run by the Feld Entertainments group, who have administered the company since 1967. Nicole Feld becoming the show’s first female producer in 2004, joined later by her sister Alana.

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So what is it the pair now produce? The company tour two unit, Red and Blue (after the additional Gold unit was disbanded last year), each with a different show. The Blue unit is currently rehearsing a new show themed around space which will take place on ice, while I saw the Red unit who are still touring their Circus Xtreme show, directed by Michael Schwandt. As is usually the case with circus productions, the show evolves throughout the season. This year saw the historic retirement of all the company’s working elephants to the Ringling Centre for Elephant Conservation at the beginning of May, leaving the Circus Xtreme animal element as: Robert Stipka’s herd of camels, ridden Cossack style by the women of the Khadgaa Troupe; a group of 16 tigers, trained and presented by Tabayara Maluenda (Taba) inside a ringed enclosure at the centre of the arena; a posse of performing poodles; a couple of horses (only seen briefly in the Spec – a.k.a. the introductory spectacle that involves all performers inhabiting the space at once). Horses hold a far less prominent position in circus iconography this side of the Atlantic than they do in Europe.

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Danger high wire troupe with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus

The big acts sit in between expansive company transitions, which combine aerial and floor based work to create a sports arena sized spectacle, filling the massive space with ant-like bodies. Many are of superb quality and, in cases like Gemma Kirby’s human cannonball, on a scale not seen in the UK since last century. This gigantic scale though is alienating and adds to the sense that one is watching a far away collection of animated characters brought to life from a children’s TV show.  Benny Ibarra’s Wheel of Death (here retitled ‘Wheel of Steel’), for example, doesn’t contain the thrill usually associated with such an act, because he ceases to be a human being with whom we can connect, and we watch more in the way we would a clip on YouTube. His skills are clear, hanging outside of the wheel to increase his visibility to those of us at the opposite end of the arena, skipping and somersaulting on top (although, admittedly, an attempt to walk on his hands doesn’t achieve verticality and so comes across as weak). It is the setting that reduces the impact of the act from its potential.

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The Mongolian Marvels strength act during Circus Xtreme

The self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Show On Earth’ (don’t forget the ™) takes great care to announce time and time again that it is for children of all ages, in the large glossy programme and in the announcements of glittering ringmaster David Shipman. He himself is dressed after the fashion of a Willy Wonka confection, his multiple costumes all a rainbow coloured swirl of sequins and sparkle designed by Amy Clark. Where Roald Dahl’s character genuinely offers food-for-thought to readers of all ages, however, Circus Xtreme seems geared exclusively towards the actual child.

The presentation is tied together with the loose premise of a Phileas Fogg style race around the world between Alex and Irina Emelin, who play an adventurous brother and sister trying to reach each destination point before the other. Shipman’s narration, sometimes spoken and sometimes sung, has been written by a team whose credits include Sesame Street and Shrek, and utilises simple rhymes and uncomplicated storytelling in between the technical statistics that explain more about the physical feats.

‘Look over there at the charmer, Look at her charming that snake. She’s not wearing armour, She’d better not make a mistake.’

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Tabayara Maluenda and his team of tigers with Circus Xtreme

An attempt to scale Mount Everest leads to a high wire number from the Danguir Troupe, who confidently leap over each other and balance on top of one another while crossing the cable far above the arena floor. Aerialists dressed in mermaid costumes take us under the ocean for a gracefully poetic composition of multiple moving bodies, which sadly masks the exceptional skill of three women performing triple trapeze moves from a globe-like frame that rises and sinks at the centre of the spectacle, the whole picture becoming less than the sum of its parts. A nice link between a tiger’s roar and the roar of the city brings us to the concrete jungle that offers a playground for stunt bike riding, parkour and trampoline, appealing to the more contemporary cool kids.

The most engaging act is the energetic poodle party, presented by Alex and Irina while the live band plays a medley of recent chart favourites. The full-size and miniature pooches crawl, bounce and pirouette with their human and canine partners, and the large performance area gives them a chance to run full pelt, and truly show their frisky potential in a wide combination of well-practised tricks. Alex and Irina also clearly communicate their enthusiasm across the vast space, allowing us to connect with their personalities.

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The famous Clown Alley who appear in between acts to fill out the space do not engage directly with the audience, barring an entrance through the stands at the beginning of the second half. Instead, they present dynamic illustrations of clown images, their bold presence reinforcing a heritage-based idea of how circus clowns appear. They are an ensemble rather than individual characters, and showcase a range of decorative tumbling, juggling, slapstick and eccentric dance skills that encourage they eye to browse over the whole picture rather than focus on any stand-out feature.

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During the interval (‘intermission’ out here in America) and before the show, the Thomas & Mack’s own food stalls offer soft and alcoholic drinks, hotdogs and nachos. The concessions who travel with Ringling are also set up around the perimeter of the audience seating, with popcorn and candyfloss, branded toys and accessories, and options for face-painting or photo opportunities. The tickets are very reasonably priced, but there’s plenty more opportunity to spend extra on your experience once at the stadium. The difference in price between a small cup of $7 lemonade and a larger $5 cup of (booze-free) pina colada seems confusing, but may be down to the difference between permanent and visiting concession stands at the venue.

IMG_9592Before the main presentation, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey also offer a ‘Pre-show Party’ that begins an hour before showtime. Audience members can enter the arena and meet the company of performers, get autographs signed in their programmes, try on costumes, learn bits of circus technique, and stroke some of the tamer pets. If you don’t have your tickets in advance, plan to arrive early as the scale of the show means large queues at the box office, and it seems a shame to miss this part of the event. Perhaps it would help create the human connection that this distant show lacks on its own.
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    1. Perhaps in the sense that ‘great’ means ‘large’? But probably not even that these days, thinking of Olympic ceremonies and suchlike.

      Personally, I prefer a bit more human connection in my entertainments.

      The director is more often associated with pop music arena spectacles and fashion shows, and it does feel like we are being ‘shown’, rather than any sense of mutual sharing or participation in the live event. It would function exactly the same even if there were no audience in the arena. Like telly.

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