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The Greatest Show on Earth

By Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science / July 13, 1999


Thirsty patrons stream into the lobby after a first act in comfortable, velvet-clad seats. They're ready for refreshments, but the line is long for the double-decaf mochas. The prospects look better at the croissant sandwich counter or maybe even the gift desk for a snazzy crystal kaleidoscope.

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Just another soiree with the symphony, you say? Or a night at the opera?

Try ... the circus. These days, ordinary peanuts and popcorn are out. The popcorn is gourmet, and the nuts are elegantly candied. Elephants? Don't even think about them. If the one-ring or no-ring event even has a four-footed performer, odds are the creature will be playing a role like Pegasus, a magnificent steed with a streaming white mane brought out for nothing other than acting a part in a dream sequence.

"It's a new economic formula," says Fred Dahlinger, director of collections and research at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., home to Ringling Brothers from 1884 to 1918. "The future of the circus audience is probably not with the masses," he says, pointing to the proliferation of pricier, more theatrical-style circuses such as Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Ingenieux, and Barnum's Kaleidoscape. "It's more the type who support ballet, symphonies, and other cultural stuff."

Because of this shift, Mr. Dahlinger says, the circus in America is being transformed from mere entertainment into an event more like the circuses in Europe, where they are considered an art form.

He points out that the large, three-ring circus typical of the late-19th century in the United States has been on the decline. One hundred years ago, more than 105 big, traveling circuses crisscrossed the nation. Today, that number is below two dozen.

"We still have the two big Ringling Brothers troupes," he says, that draw close to 10 million patrons each year. But it's the smaller, more theatrical-style troupes that represent the growth arena for the circus world today.

Under an elegant tent constructed in a parking lot behind high-rises in Century City, Calif., recently, Barnum's Kaleidoscape drew sellout crowds night after night at $48 for an upholstered ringside sofa seat. The "pavilion," as the arena is called, is carpeted, and the program lists the performers' biographies, such as one would find in a theater program. The top clown of the show, David Larible, is touted as "internationally recognized as the world's leading Renaissance clown."

Sylvia Zerbini, who rides a trapeze and works with a team of dazzling white horses, says she is "happy to finally bring this kind of dramatic theatrical-style cirque to the US."

More sophisticated audiences are also driving the development of the new circuses. Acts today face stiff competition from other forms of entertainment and a savvy audience, accustomed to technical wizardry from Hollywood films and TV.

Cirque du Soleil, regarded as largely responsible for the new trend in narrative, dramatic circus acts, is known for eye-popping gymnastic feats. These acrobatic stunts are now a prominent part of many other shows such as Kaleidoscape, Cirque Ingenieux, and the Big Apple Circus.