A clown with a bulbous red nose stood before the audience. ``Konichiwa!'' (``Hello!''), he shouted. Casting furtive glances at their neighbors, the audience kept an embarrassed silence. Only a Western woman shouted back in response. The clown's shoulders drooped in an exaggerated and universally understood display of disappointment. He shouted out again. This time a few timid voices replied. Finally a third attempt brought forth a hearty greeting.
The ``Greatest Show on Earth'' has come to Japan, the first time this American circus has ever traveled abroad. And although the performers are finding it takes some effort, they have carried the excitement and humor of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus across geographic and cultural barriers.
``In my first week, I was a little bit nervous, because I was afraid that there would be a difference'' between Japanese and American reactions, says clown Robert Zraick. ``But, the more I performed, the more I realized that there was no difference.''
Even the delayed reaction to the clown's opening routine ``is the same in the States,'' explains clown Christopher Hudert. ``Some audiences are more verbally responsive right away and some of them take longer to warm up.''
``The children are the same,'' adds Mr. Zraick. ``When you shake their hands and look into their face and watch their expressions - it's all exactly the same.''
The reactions to the thrills and chills of the circus are equally universal. When the trapeze artists managed triple somersaults, the audience applauded with shouts of awe. While a high-wire walker skipped rope high above the ground, a woman beneath anxiously placed her hand on her cheek and then on her mouth as the act headed towards a scary climax.
But the performers - especially the clowns - have made some special efforts to tailor their acts for people with a different language and culture.
``I think we have to work harder here,'' says Mr. Hudert. ``Because in the States, we can kind of cheat and fall back on verbal things. Here, we have to rely on the gestures and the physical almost entirely.''
The clowns have found out that some gestures have a different meaning here, sometimes subtly so. In Japan, ``You indicate yourself [by pointing] to the face rather than to the body like we do in the States,'' Hudert says, with his forefinger pointing to his nose.
``We laugh Wa-ha-ha-ha, you know, like that - big,'' acts out clown Sue Doctoroff. ``Here it's more He-he-he-he - as the girls laugh, all covering up their mouths.''
The language barrier was, at the same time, helpful for the clowns in creating new entertainment.
``When I say hello [in Japanese] to the audience, a child comes up and starts speaking Japanese very fast. You have no idea what the child is saying,'' Zraick says. ``You look around [as if to say] `Help!' and everybody thinks it's funny,'' laughs Hudert.
``That may be a sign that, as clowns, when a child responds that way, they don't think about us being a gaijin [foreigner],'' observes Zraick with a smile.
The circus used some Japanese language to make their acts better understood. Singing Ringmaster Dinny McGuire spent almost a year learning the language and did most of his dialogue in Japanese.
For the most part, the circus has been transported to Japan for its four-month tour almost intact. The acts, with over 500 performers and animals to the accompaniment of a live orchestra, are basically the same as those performed at home.
But one well-known routine had to be changed. ``Packing the clown car with 17 people in the States, it's very funny seeing all those people get out of the little car,'' Hudert says. ``Here, they cram that many people in the subway and it's not as funny to them.''
When the circus opened for a one-month stand in the northern city of Sapporo, producer Kenneth Feld found one reaction particularly surprising. When the troupe of 16 elephants marched into the big tent, the entire audience, seemingly on cue, raised their hands together. Mr. Feld was completely puzzled by the mass gesture. But, he recalls with a laugh, he figured it out when they brought their hands over their nose, trying to block the smell of the pachyderms.
The scale of the three-ring extravaganza, which is being performed in a traditional, custom-built 1.5-acre tent, more than 50 feet high, has wowed the Japanese audiences. Japanese circuses are small-scale, rather shabby affairs, distant in nature from the romance of Ringling's glamorous show.
For many Japanese, the circus has a plaintive image. Older people recall being told as children that they would be sold to a circus if they behaved badly. This image was reversed by the American show.
``[This circus] is different, with the fast movement and the gorgeous colors of their costumes,'' Mr. Yokota marveled. ``Their use of colors is beyond an ordinary Japanese sense. I was totally dazzled.''
To some in the audience, the relentless upbeat rhythm was something essentially American.
``Every performer looked like they were enjoying themselves so much,'' Chieko Arayama observed. ``It made me feel that I could be part of the show. I wonder if it's because of the national character of the American people?''