The Modern American Circus

Until last Wednesday, my children had never seen a circus. But when I had an opportunity to buy them preview night tickets for $15 apiece, I bought three: one for each child and one for the accompanying adult. Both Peter and I had low expectations, I have to say. Neither of us had been to a circus other than Cirque du Soleil in 30 years, and our childhood memories of circuses weren’t fond ones. I faintly remember stinky animals, lots of overpriced souvenir kiosks, and vaulting. It didn’t help that a few years ago, I took the children to our first (and likely, last) ice show ever, the truly dire Finding Nemo on Ice, which couldn’t even be bothered to license music from the movie, and played really moldy 60s music instead. And the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus just happened to take place in the HP Pavilion, where we’d seen the awful ice show.

As it turns out, Ringling Brothers have completely modernized their show, and it was so great and so spectacular that after Peter saw it on Wednesday, he turned around and bought tickets so I could see it, and he and the children could enjoy it again.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the modern American circus has been heavily influenced by the success of Cirque du Soleil. There were far more dramatically costumed acrobatic acts than I remember, and some of them were not only spectacular, but also breathtaking, like the acrobat who walked backwards and forwards along the ceiling. There were considerably less animal acts, though there were still elephants, horses, and tigers. But all the other animals were small, and except for one porcupine, strictly domestic like some goats, dogs, and miniature horses.

Most of all, the thing that impressed me about the circus was how it managed to make Cirque du Soleil look overpriced and pretentious. Matinee tickets to most shows could be had for $15 or $20, and for that we got all that Cirque du Soleil offers, including live music. There were clowns that were always on and funny, Cossacks doing death-defying stunts on horses (in Russian!), all sorts of acrobats including a funny act, audience participation, and a unifying story about a mischievious clown stealing the singing ringmaster’s hat and putting on his own (lame) show, while also defying San Jose’s bubble-free-zone laws, and going on simultaneously that it was impossible to catch all of the acts all of the time. The whole thing started out with the pledge of allegiance said while a pretty girl paraded the flag around while riding an elephant. Could you ever imagine that at a Cirque du Soleil show? Mais non!

Outside the arena, some animal rights activists were protesting the circus’ use and treatment of elephants, but they had an awfully hard time making their case. The animals in the show looked happier and better cared for than animals, say, at the zoo, and Neil could even swear one of the elephants was smiling as he (independently, without a cue) bopped along to the music. In contrast, some of the activists looked somewhat deranged, and we were careful to step around them.

We had a terrific time, and I was surprised that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey show was so good I could have enjoyed without having to have children along. We’ll certainly be back to see it again next year.

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