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Circus, circus 

by Ann M. Colford


The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & amp; Bailey Circus brings its 131st edition to the Spokane Arena for seven performances starting today. Filling three rings of entertainment, all of the usual suspects will be in attendance, including acrobats and clowns, contortionists and dancers, a singing ringmaster and plenty of exotic animals. The self-proclaimed Greatest Show On Earth (a designation first claimed by founder Phineas T. Barnum in 1872, incidentally) doesn't get to Spokane often, so circus fans in the area are happy to see this group come to town.


"This is a great event for Spokane," says Ed Clark, who's handling publicity for the circus on the local end. "We haven't seen them here for three years. I saw this unit perform in New York this past spring, and it's really an amazing show."


The group coming to Spokane is the Red Unit, one of two complete touring companies for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & amp; Bailey Circus. Each unit tours for two years and has its own unique lineup of featured acts.


Although the concept of the circus dates back to Roman times, the modern American circus emerged in the mid-19th century, at a time when the growing middle classes first had leisure time and disposable income on their hands. Thanks to colonial expansion and the growth of industrial capital, items from all over the world became increasingly available in the marketplace. Anything that could be described as exotic or primitive was turned into a product and put on display, especially animals and people. In fact, one of P. T. Barnum's first successful promotions, begun in 1835, involved a black slave woman who was alleged to be more than 160 years old and a former nurse to George Washington. Later, he formed an exhibition that included the midget General Tom Thumb and the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng. To his credit, Barnum also brought Swedish diva Jenny Lind to American audiences for 95 concerts in 1850.


The showman and promoter was already 60 years old when he created "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus" in 1871. Soon after, the show had evolved into the three-ring tented circus that has become a mainstay of the American imagination. Barnum continued to showcase his "freaks," but that aspect of the circus was soon upstaged by acrobats, clowns and trained animal acts. From the 1890s through 1950s, the traditional tented circus survived the death of P. T. Barnum, a merger with the five Ringling brothers of Baraboo, Wisc., and two world wars. By the 1950s, however, the tented circus was becoming difficult to operate profitably and ceased touring in 1956.


The last of the Ringling relatives hired Irvin Feld, who was one of the early successes in the promotion of rock 'n' roll concerts, to handle booking and promotion of the circus. Under Feld's direction, the circus moved indoors and began touring arenas around the country. In 1967, Feld purchased the Ringling Bros. Circus. Although Irvin Feld died in 1984, Feld Entertainment maintains control of the circus with Irvin's son, Kenneth, at the helm.





Even after the circus moved into the arena, the programming remained much the same, continuing to rely on clowns, trapeze artists and exotic animals. But under the leadership of Kenneth Feld -- who is also responsible for the Disney On Ice shows and Siegfried & amp; Roy at the Mirage in Las Vegas -- the Ringling Bros. circus in recent years has once again evolved, taking on a glossier, more theatrical look. In addition, competition from newer shows like the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, which moves the concept of the circus toward art and fantasy, is resulting in some changes to the Ringling Bros. programming. For the first Ringling Bros. circus of the 21st century, elements from blockbuster Broadway musicals blend with the current fascination with extreme sports and daredevilry to produce intriguing results.


One of the new acts featured in this year's edition of the show is the Max-Air Blizzard Battalion, a team of world-champion freestyle skiers, snowboarders and trampoline artists who have moved their gravity-defying stunts from the slopes to the arena. The skiers zip down an aluminum ramp on specially designed skis and then perform acrobatics in mid-air before coming down on an inflatable landing strip. Meanwhile, the trampoline specialists perform their own tricks, soaring 20 feet into the air while wearing skis and snowboards. Their grand finale adds pyrotechnics to the mix, creating a spectacle that's sure to grab any child's attention.


The clear headliner of this show is Bello, recently named by Time magazine as America's Best Clown. The 32-year-old native of Sarasota, Fla., whose full name is Dimitrius Bello Nock, comes from a long line of circus performers. The Nock family has been performing in Switzerland for several generations. Bello's father was a circus daredevil, and his uncle was also a clown with Ringling Bros. Bello himself began performing at the age of six in a production of Peter Pan, playing Michael Darling to Cathy Rigby's Peter. Later, he headlined New York's Big Apple Circus before joining the current tour of Ringling Bros. Sporting six inches of red hair that stands straight up, Bello blends physical comedy with full-blown acrobatics and athletics in his performances, and he often shares the ring with a 10,000-pound partner, Bo, an Asian elephant.


One hour before each performance, ticket-holders may enter the center ring in the arena and interact with clowns, jugglers and other performers in what's called the Three Ring Adventure. Elephants and horses are available for up-close investigation, and children can learn about makeup and costumes, along with some of the more technical aspects of circus performance.


Add to this the song-and-dance talents of ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, the youngest ringmaster in Ringling Bros. history, the Folklorico Do Brasil dancers, more high-flying acrobats than you can count, and animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel, who is continuing in the tradition of his father, Gunther Gebel-Williams, who passed away in July. The resulting show blends the traditions of circuses past with new show-biz style that's designed to appeal to children accustomed to fast-paced entertainment.





The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & amp; Bailey Circus takes place at the Spokane Arena


Sept. 13-16 with shows at 7:30 pm on Thursday and Friday, at 11:30 am, 3:30 and 7:30 pm


on Saturday, and at 1 and 5 pm on Sunday. Tickets: $10-$25. Call: 325-SEAT.

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