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‘Modernized’ Ringling production headed for Tampa

Bill DeYoung

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Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey is not your father's circus. And it's not a circus, anyway. Photos provided.

Its official title is Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and the (copyrighted) phrase “The Greatest Show on Earth” is still prominently featured, but there’s something missing from the spectacle coming to Tampa’s Amalie Arena Jan. 5-7.

It’s the word circus. It’s nowhere to be found.

The scary clowns are gone, too. Nor will visitors see any parading elephants, snarling lions or tigers or galloping white horses with leggy showgirls balancing on their backs.

Feld Entertainment, the Manatee County production company that sends high-tech touring shows like Disney on Ice and Monster Jam to arenas around the country, purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in the late 1960s.

By the turn of the 2010s, the 150-year-old franchise was looking a little rough around the edges. The old European traveling circus model, combining acrobats, aerialists, white-faced clowns and the kind of animals that families in Podunk, Arkansas had only seen in the newsreels, wasn’t transitioning so well to the 21st century.

Competition from touring groups like Canada’s flashy, animal-free Cirque du Soleil was eroding the Ringling audience. And hauling the whole thing around the country by train wasn’t cheap.

The last nail was a $270,000 fine levied against Feld Entertainment in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allegedly violating the Animal Welfare Act. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals accused the company of mistreating its small herd of Asian elephants; a lawsuit filed by PETA and other animal rights groups was settled in Feld’s favor in 2014.

The writing, however, was on the arena wall, and in 2016 Chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld announced that the circus would discontinue all animal acts by 2018. The elephants were retired to a Florida sanctuary, the other animals sold off.

PETA’s website proclaimed: “The exciting announcement sends a powerful message to the entire industry, something that PETA’s been saying for decades: Cruelty doesn’t belong in the circus or in any other form of entertainment.”

So what’s in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which began its first cross-country tour in September?

On one hand, it looks like a Taylor Swift concert.

That’s because the production uses giant LED screens to go close-up and 360 degrees on the (nonstop) action, lots of lights and a constant blare of sound. This new show blends the tools of the modern arena spectacle with some elements of the traditional circus (ah, but we don’t use that word).

Juliette Feld Grossman, Chief Operating Officer and a producer of the Ringling show, told USA Today that for a generation “used to seeing things at the speed of TikTok, we’re hoping that our giant ring in which we’ll have various acts going at once will appeal to those attention spans. It’s a high-energy show that also uses technology, like giant screens and spotlights that can expertly track every performer.”

For what used to be breathlessly referred to a “death-defying feats,” Feld Entertainment recruited 75 performers from 18 countries, including:

The Lopez Family, sixth-generation circus artists hailing from Mexico and Chile, walking and cavorting 30 feet above the stage with the “Triangular Highwire” and “The Double Wheel of Destiny.”

A troupe of acrobats jumping, diving, and tumbling with acts ranging from Teeterboard, Hand-to-Hand Balancing, Hoop Diving, Foot Juggling and more. Then there’s the Ringling Rocket, with Skyler Miser launching across the arena at 65 mph.

Criss-cross trapeze. Nine trapeze artists will ascend to four pedestals, soaring front-to-back, side-to-side, and diagonally with flyers and catchers in a near-miss high-flying act.

Wesley Williams (“the One Wheel Wonder”) riding 10 different unicycles, including one with six stacked wheels, an accordion-style unicycle that grows taller with each pedal rotation, and the tallest at over 34 feet.

The Ultimate Playground. BMX riders take extreme sports to new heights via stunts on a unique trampoline box constructed in the center of a take-off and landing ramp. “Double-sided ramps allow the extreme athletes to mirror each other with epic side-by-side bike stunts that include high-flying flips,” Feld promises.

Nick Nack and the Equivocee Trio “leave the makeup behind” for a new take on clowning that blends Rola Bola, juggling, acrobatics, dancing and general silliness.

There’s a renewed emphasis on music, with three singing, dancing emcees and “show guides” replacing the traditional ringmaster character. And the Argentinian dance troupe Argendance fuses uptempo Boleadoras and Malambo.

“As passionate stewards of Ringling, we are committed to creating a lifestyle brand that connects with families and sparks real fun 365 days a year through live performances, digital content, consumer products, school curricula, youth circus arts programs and more,” Kenneth Feld said in a prepared statement.

“We are innovating all aspects of the live show and modernizing the franchise to create an engaging property that is built for today’s families and will last another 150 years.”

For all tickets and additional information, visit the Amalie Arena website here.

 

 

 

 

 

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