Professional circuses are always brimming with daredevil acts, death-defying stunts, colorful costumes and amazing feats of strength, all designed to elicit incredulous gasps from the audience.
But some of the most enjoyable – and often overlooked and underappreciated – moments under the big top are provided by the clowns. They offer a comic foil to the rest of the show, mocking the performers, engaging the crowd, and adding an element of general silliness to the experience.
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And unlike most of the other acts, which have their scheduled time in the limelight and then retreat, the clowns are on the go throughout the entire evening.
“I’d describe it as the show being a tapestry, and the clowns being an integral woven part within that tapestry,” says Taylor Albin, 28, who is Boss Clown of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus XTREME, which kicks off Friday at downtown Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena and runs through Jan. 18. “Because really from the very beginning to the very end, we’re there the whole time. We have our all-access pre-show that starts one hour before the show, where you’re able to come down onto the arena floor, try on costumes, take pictures and meet all the stars. And the clowns are there for all of that. We do all of the major production numbers within the show, and we even have our own featured act.”
Circus XTREME represents the 145th year of the Ringling Bros. franchise (“That makes us older than Coca-Cola, and older than baseball,” notes Albin). The concept of this year’s edition is “all about our amazing performers pushing themselves to the absolute max,” says Alana Feld, executive vice president and producer for Feld Entertainment, which is also responsible for the “Disney On Ice” and “Monster Jam” shows, among many others.
“We have an incredible human female cannonball, who is just unbelievable and really exciting,” continues Feld, who as daughter of company CEO Kenneth Feld joined the family business in 2003. “We also have freestyle BMX bikers, incredible trampoline acrobats, and free runners doing all sorts of crazy hardcore acrobatics off of different pieces of equipment.”
Albin – who says he knew he wanted to be a circus clown by the age of four after noticing that “they get to act goofy and silly, and all the people are laughing” – has been with Ringling since 2010, but is particularly excited about Circus XTREME.
“With this new show, we really wanted to create something that truly pushed the boundaries of circus,” he says. “One of my favorite acts is our Mongolian Marvels –it’s their first time here in the U.S., and they mix traditional Mongolian throat singing with strongman circus-style feats. But what makes it extreme is that they combine both of these things with a third element called ‘voltige.’ What they do is take the performers and they toss them from one set of hands to another set of hands. They throw them up in the air, they stack three people high, they do flips from one group to another – it’s insane, all these incredible athletic moves that you’ve never seen before.”
Speaking of athletic moves, clowns have been perennially underrated in terms of their strength and acrobatic prowess. Few observers realize just how strenuous and difficult it is to execute many of the moves the clowns pull off, and yet they make it all look effortless, sometimes even accidental.
“The Mongolian Marvels do this incredible display with feats of strength and body contortion, and as a clown, what’s the next best thing to do than to come right after them with a parody of their act?” he says. “We kind of spoof all the amazing stuff that you just saw, a clown version. And again, we wanted to make it extreme and push the boundary, so we decided to take big exercise balls like you’d find at a gym, and we do bounces and flips off of them and crazy acrobatic moves. And the audience seems to like it – every night we get a pretty thunderous clap from it.”
Talking about the circus wouldn’t be complete without addressing one of its other biggest draws – the majestic, exotic animals, such as the big cats and Asian elephants. But if you love watching the massive elephants do their thing, don’t put off catching a Ringling show for long. By 2018, they will be completely phased out of the show because of several legislative bans enacted at least partially in response to animal rights activists raising awareness of the elephants’ plight.
“It’s just become too hard for us to run a business where week in and week out there are inconsistencies in how we can work with our animals and what we can do,” Feld explains. “We just felt like it would be in the best interest of the elephants to remove them from the show.”
And rest assured, Feld says the elephants will be treated well in their retirement years.
“They will be migrating to our Center for Elephant Conservation, about 30 minutes outside of Orlando,” she says, “which is an incredible facility on 200 acres that was started by my father back in 1995, when Asian elephants were first becoming an endangered species. [The decision] was somewhat bittersweet for us, because there have been elephants in the circus since I was born. But Ringling Bros. has been around for 145 years because we are constantly changing, and as a company, if you’re not changing, you’re not growing.”