For more than a century it was billed as "The Greatest Show on Earth." Now, after what Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is calling a reimagination, America's most famous circus is back from a six-year break. But there are some major differences.
Ringling Bros. ended its original run in 2017 after 146 years beset by falling ticket sales, increasing costs of hauling hundreds of staff and dozens of animals across the country, and an expensive legal fight with animal rights groups who argued the big top was no place for big cats and elephants.
Ringling won a $16 million legal suit against the Humane Society and others but lost the public relations battle to present live animal acts.
As performers practiced ahead of this weekend's kickoff of the 147th edition of the circus in Bossier City, Louisiana, the focus is on the athleticism of its human acts now.
"It's about celebrating these performers," said Feld Entertainment producer Juliette Feld Grossman. "We have 75 performers from 18 different nationalities doing just remarkable feats, pushing the limits of human potential."
That means cannon ball acts, gymnasts, bicycle daredevils and more.
"The set, because it's 360 degrees, everything has to be out on the floor. We have almost no backstage," said Grossman. "So the entire environment was inspired by the idea of a playground or a toy box spilled out onto the floor."
But a circus without clowns? Lauren Irving, who is called the host of the performance, insists that even without them, people will feel like a kid again.
"Every day I come into rehearsal I'm amazed. I'm in awe," she said. "I have the same feeling I felt when I was a little girl and I went to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show."
But that doesn't mean there won't be some characters clowning around over the two-hour show.
Juggler Jan Damm has worked circus comedy with face paint and without.
"From our earliest meetings, the directors made clear that they really wanted to, instead of adapting the performers to fit the show, they wanted to adapt the show to fit their performers," he said. "And that's true for the acrobatic troupes or the aerialists and specialists here, as well as for the characters that speak on stage. And there's been an effort to personalize the script and the different beats of the show to show us off well and to let our personalities shine."
The tour hits the road for at least 50 cities after its Bossier City opening. Tour dates can be found on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey website.
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