The two horses gallop side by side at full speed, around and around the ring at the climax of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which opened its final Washington show Friday as part of its farewell tour. Verizon Center pounds with the sound of drums. (Or is it the thumping of thousands of hearts in the crowd?)
Each speeding horse bears a man on its back, and astride them, one dainty foot on a shoulder of each rider, stands a woman in yellow tights. The horses race so fast around the curves that they lean in, and the trio of riders leans, too.
There’s an unbearable instant of doubt as the gap between the horses widens and the riders’ bare arms bulge as they work the reins. Still the horses run, more apart than together, yoked only by the agile young woman who’s now stretched in a full split between them.
“Welcome to the Greatest Show On Earrrrth,” ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson had bellowed, two hours earlier. The staples are all here: clowns and aerialists, lions and tigers, motorcycles whizzing at highway speeds in a steel-mesh globe. There’s no small amount of novelty, including a tightrope act on a teardrop-shaped wheel, with three wire-walkers from Hungary gliding airily on its rim as the wheel swoops and rises under their toes. At one point, clear plastic globes descend from the arena’s ceiling. Inside, unfurling themselves like fiddlehead ferns, are tiny acrobats.
But nothing captures the danger, skill and sheer miracle of the circus like these equestrians. One rider places a hand on the woman’s ankle as her foot slips off his shoulder. The crowd may be breathless in an agony of fear, but he’s as calm and expressionless as a nun. The woman has never stopped smiling.
Feld Entertainment, which has owned Ringling Bros. for the past 50 years, announced in January that the circus will shut down in May, a victim of high operating costs and declining ticket sales. But it feels like exactly the wrong time to lose the circus, in a world of stresses that seem to multiply daily: uncertain job prospects, social isolation, political turmoil. Have we ever been more in need of miracles?
The circus keeps some of the most cherished human dreams alive: the longing for flight, freedom and unshakable trust embodied by the trapeze artists; the unity of human and animal perfected by the lion tamer. The dream of staring down fate and carrying on with grace.
The circus has long offered a refuge for misfits and restless thrill seekers, and if it’s no longer so easy to run away and join it, it’s a lovely myth nonetheless, part of the American ideal of reinvention. Circus folks live out what, for the rest of us, are fantasies.
There are other circuses, certainly, but Ringling Bros. is the Taj Mahal.
Suzy Zach, 55, drove two hours to Friday’s show from Loudoun County with her 13-year-old son George and his friends, 13-year-old Axel Oviedo and 12-year-old Jack Geremia. Zach, a self-professed “stay-at-home mom who’s never home,” has been bringing her kids and their buddies to the circus every year since they were small. One year, the ringmaster plucked George and Jack from the crowd and led them into the arena, where clowns doused the boys with shaving cream.
Ringling’s closing, she says, is “bittersweet.” No other show offers “that classic feasting of the senses.”
Emily Dickinson agreed. “Friday I tasted life,” the poet wrote in 1866. “It was a vast morsel. A circus passed the house.”
The first American circus opened in Philadelphia 224 years ago, almostto the day, on April 3, 1793. Equestrian feats were the main attraction. George Washington, an expert horseman himself, attended more than once. Perhaps he was seeking transcendence, like legions of other circus fans to come, craving the vicarious thrill of living dangerously through the performers, defying gravity.
“People want to see the unfiltered ways in which people navigate the world, facing our own mortality and how we respond to this world, and doing it together,” says Janet M. Davis, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the Big Top.”
We watch from a safe distance as the circus artists, after rehearsing themselves raw, finally deliver that mix of power and vulnerability that can only come from those who are risking their lives for their art.
“Every year, we give trophies to movie actors, people who pretend,” says Iverson, the ringmaster, in an interview just before a morning show for schoolchildren. “But the reality is, they can let go. They can switch off. There’s a real difference when what you do might cost you your life.”
Alexander Lacey, the “big cat” trainer, who leads a 12-minute act in a cage of lions and tigers, “can’t have an off day,” according to Iverson. “He can’t have an inconsistent show. Because they are what they are. He has to be perfect.”
There were thrilling flashes of wildness on Friday in Lacey’s cat act. After he had lined up more than a dozen lions and tigers, having them lie down together and then jump over one another, one of the tigers and a female lion misbehaved, refusing to make their exits. Lacey had to manage 700 pounds of snarling cat, prowling on either side of him. Assistant trainers appeared outside the cage, seeming to signal more than a hint of danger. Lacey, wearing a microphone so the crowd could hear his commands, stayed cool, speaking their names calmly. Finally, the cats sauntered out.
The Feld family dates the founding of its circus to the late 1800s, when showman P.T. Barnum and ringmaster James Anthony Bailey combined operations. “There really aren’t a lot of brands that have existed that long,” says Juliette Feld, chief operating officer of Feld Entertainment and daughter of company chief executive Kenneth Feld. “It’s older than Coca-Cola.”
The circus has a tradition of embracing new technology. At the turn of the 20th century, it was bicycles and Model T’s. Now, it’s video screens and projections. But audiences have been shrinking, a fact blamed on the departure of the elephants over animal rights concerns, as well as the ballooning range of family entertainment options. The romance of the circus has collided with the business realities of plummeting sales and the cost of transporting this show and its nearly 500 performers and crew around the country on a mile-long train.
Ringling Bros. is not the only circus with difficulties. It’s a tough time for circuses everywhere, says Juliette Feld. Indeed, Big Apple Circus has dealt with bankruptcy, and Cirque du Soleil has gone through restructuring and cutbacks.
“May all your days be Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey days,” Iverson tells the audience at the end of the show. “Thank you for seeing Ringling Brothers one last time.”
After more than 20 years, Iverson says he’s bracing for a traumatic farewell to the circus life he’s known: “As a ringmaster once told me, ‘When the sawdust gets in your veins, you’re never the same.’ ”
Murray Horwitz, the host of WAMU’s “The Big Broadcast” and a Tony-winning playwright, was a Ringling clown in his 20s. What sticks with him is the insistence on skill, without excuses. You had to be what you said you were. “If you called yourself a clown in the Ringling show, you got laughs,” he says. “And if you didn’t, there’d be a pink slip on your trunk.”
Horwitz reflects on the most wondrous acts of his Ringling years: the tightrope walker who worked without a net, turning back flips 40 feet in the air; the tumbler who landed a double-reverse somersault on top of a human pyramid, four men high. Ringling’s current cat act and motorcycle cage riders are the best he has ever witnessed. But after it closes, he wonders, “Where are people going to go for ‘Oh my gosh’?”
“There always will be a circus, forever and ever more,” or so the old song goes that used to close the Ringling shows. But will there? Or are we so used to impossible effects, digitally delivered on movie screens, that we take live human wonders for granted?
“ ‘Circus’ is not in the vernacular of kids today,” according to Juliette Feld. At any rate, Ringling Bros. is going out as it came in: big. Downsizing is not an option, she says. “It wouldn’t be ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ ”
From the time the first human did something no one else could, as circus historian Linda Simon wrote in “The Greatest Shows on Earth,” the circus has celebrated “the fleeting moment of magical spectacle.”
Back at Verizon Center, the pair of horses slows to an airy lope. The three riders salute the crowd, arms raised triumphantly. They swivel their mounts, and the horses dance back through the gate and into the darkness.
The circus has come to town, unloaded its muscle, courage and grace, turning them into miracles.
And soon it will be gone.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Out of This World” show will be performed at EagleBank Arena on the George Mason University campus in Fairfax, Va., April 7-16. www.ringling.com.