A New-Look Circus Sends in the Clowns, but Loses the Face Paint.

A New-Look Circus Sends in the Clowns, but Loses the Face Paint.

There are no tigers and elephants; in fact, the only “animal” is an electric dog named Bailey. The clowns are still there, but hardly wear any makeup.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, that self-proclaimed greatest show on Earth, is back seven years after folding up its big top for what was feared to be the last time. The circus, which had toured with scant interruption since Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency, shuttered indefinitely in 2017 as it faced lagging ticket sales in the wake of its decision to stop featuring animals.

Now as the show hits the road again for an initial run of 50 cities, audiences are encountering a human-focused spectacle with a Gen Z tilt that might leave it unrecognizable.

It’s something of an unlikely comeback for the institution that has faced pop culture shifts, dwindling attendance and accusations of animal mistreatment. The pandemic hit a few years after the pachyderms packed up in 2016 (They retired to a Florida conservation center.), making the return of the one-time touring staple even more of a question.

Performers such as the high-wire walker Maria Pontigo worried the circus had packed up for good. “It’s not just a show,” she said, adding. “It’s an iconic institution of art.”

As a child growing up in Chile, Pontigo watched her father perform his high-wire act, never sitting in the same place, the better to see the audience’s delighted reactions from different vantages.

She told herself that she’d be high up one day, capturing the eyes from far below. Pontigo, 40, became part of the third generation of her family to perform with Ringling when she joined in 2008.

Touring as part of the Lopez Troupe — along with Deysi Lozada, Johan Lopez and Jonathan Lopez — Pontigo was back to her high-wire moves some 25 feet in the air.

The focus on performers — human cannonballs, acrobats and now BMX riders — was central to Juliette Feld Grossman’s reimagining of the circus, which began in 2016 when she took over as chief operating officer for Feld Entertainment, the family company that runs the circus. Irving Feld, her grandfather, purchased it from the Ringling Bros. nearly 60 years ago and Feld Grossman, 40, has been immersed in the circus for as long as she can remember. She guessed that she attended her first circus at two weeks old; as a child, she and her two sisters were judges at Clown Contest graduation.

She knew the show needed an update but had a responsibility to keep “delivering those experiences that turned into those lifelong memories,” Feld Grossman said. “Out of all that soul-searching, the answer really was that the performers are the heart of our show. They’re the people and people come to Ringling to connect with others.”

Those performers now include Lauren Irving, a 36-year-old veteran theme park and cruise performer who had settled into baking cookies and cakes as she awaited her next gig. Then came an intriguing inquiry: Was she afraid of heights? It wasn’t until she was deep in the audition process that it dawned on Irving that she would be part of the revamped circus, where her performance of the Tina Turner classic “Proud Mary,” atop a stage that rises at the center of the arena, serves as a nightly showstopper.

It comes on the heels of a fiery Argentinian-style dance, part of a tightly paced show that packs in spectacle. Over the course of two hours, 75 performers run through 50 acts while the music, action or lighting shift every 3.5 seconds to hold the attention of audiences used to the quick cuts of social video. The center stage is a rotating turntable equipped with screens designed to magnify performance details.

“They have that heart and soul of what Ringling has always been, but the way it’s presented is done in a way where the technology enhances the performers,” Irving said. “It’s one thing right after another. There’s not a blackout. It’s just never ending.”

Whether the comeback story will be a fully successful one is up for debate. Jerry Apps, the author of “Tents, Tigers, and the Ringling Brothers,” is skeptical that a new-look circus can keep its cultural relevance.

“It was clear that the appeal of those early circuses was a combination of animals, acrobatics and clowns,” Apps said. “I’m curious what sort of interest the public will express with this new look. I wish them well, but we’re in an entirely different cultural situation today.”

Which brings us to the clowns. They are still there, but don’t expect any of the Pennywise, Bozo or face paint-plus-red-nose variety. These acts, after all, are designed to provide wholesome memories, not nagging nightmares. The clowns still perform their slapstick, and remain in their oversized costumes throughout the show, so that the audience can recognize the same performer at the beginning of the show and the ending.

Justin Verm, a Greensboro native, had attended the traditional circus as a child. As he watched the updated show, he found that he didn’t really miss the animals.

“It’s crazy for the ability for humans to do what they’re doing out there,” Verm said.

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