NEW YORK — CIRCUS publicists are not shy about using words such as stupendous, colossal, and electrifying, just as Phineas T. Barnum did 123 years ago. In the 1993 version of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which stopped at Madison Square Garden here recently, those superlatives were echoed by audience members.
The old circus magic still works. Children squeal with delight and mock horror at the flying trapeze and ferocious lion acts. Adults still guffaw at the antics of clowns. Even blase New Yorkers were roused to cheer performers such as Yuri Kaganovitch, whose quadruple somersault vaulted him into the grasp of fellow aerialist Viktor Mokrooussov.
The all-new edition of the Ringling operation celebrates 200 years of circus in America. The concept began in Philadelphia as a one-ring clown show. This year, Ringling's 19 acts will entertain 11.5 million people in 90 cities.
Irvin Feld bought the circus from the Ringlings in 1967 for $8 million; his son Kenneth now oversees a global family-run entertainment enterprise.
Kenneth Feld says that children identify with the young performers, many of whom come from generations of circus performers. "For children, it is live spectacle, not something off a TV screen," he says.
The Espana brothers, Ivan and Noe, "daredevils extraordinaire," do back flips, headstands, and perform blindfolded 40 feet up. Ivan was born in Mexico City and says he has been with the circus all his life. "My brother and I like to do what is fun and dangerous, to push ourselves to new limits. We are five generations of a circus family, and so I was, you might say, raised everywhere."
Top clown David Larible looks a bit like President Clinton, even when he puts on his trademark red nose. Mr. Larible says clowns are always expected to laugh, even though they may be sad. "The standard painted grin helps convey laughter.... Clowns are supposed to be 100 percent funny all the time...."
Larible says "To be a good clown requires every circus skill you can learn: acrobatics, juggling, music, mime, dance. When I told my father that I wanted to be a clown, he said I chose the hardest work of all."
Graham Thomas Chipperfield is a slim, almost boyish Englishman whose best friends, he says, are the collection of lions with whom he socializes every day. He says Chipperfields began training animals 300 years ago, and that he learned his act from his father. Mr. Chipperfield adds that his 10 lions respond better to traditional English traits like civility and grace under pressure.
Are his famous lions aware that they work for "The Greatest Show on Earth"?
"Indeed they are," Chipperfield says.
* Through June, the circus's Blue Unit (the unit reviewed above) tour includes: Des Moines June 18-20; Springfield, Ill., June 22-23; Cape Girardeau, Mo., June 25-27; and Texarkana, Ark., June 29-30. The Red Unit travels to Tulsa, Okla., June 17-19; Tucson, Ariz., June 23-27; and Phoenix June 29-July 5.