Circus Xtreme at Its Best When It’s Innovating

The mermaids dancing in the sky were pretty neat.EXPAND
The mermaids dancing in the sky were pretty neat.
Photo by Lynda Rouner

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is back in Houston again this summer, and it’s an excellent if somewhat strange show. It’s the first to appear here since the organization began retiring the controversial elephant performances, and the loss of such a staple has the circus trying out some innovative new things.

Basics first: These tours often live and die on their songs to add the energy necessary to the show, and this is probably the best circus music that has passed through Houston in the past four years. In an era when most kids are used to the high-power big musical numbers from Disney TV properties, all-ages shows often strive to emulate that combination of power and popdom.

The opening song easily nailed that combination, and set an exciting tone. The theme this year is of two explorers, Alex and Irina, traveling the world in a race to discover the best and most exotic acts to showcase. It’s not the most original of wrap-around stories the circus has used, but it gets the job done very well.

Following the big-budget intro, though, Ringling Bros. seems to be trying to make up for the lack of elephants with other animal acts, in this case camel riders. Though the all-female Mongolian Rider team was the epitome of grace and physical skill in their synchronized trick routines, the slow pace of the camels themselves kind of brought the mood down among the somewhat sparse crowd. Watching large mammals spin in circles just never seems to be that exciting, no matter how hard it must be to get them to do their moves.

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Things were back on track on the high wire with the Danguir Troupe. Here’s where most of the magic of Circus Xtreme started showing up. The team’s initial routine was fairly standard stuff if you’re a regular circus attendee. It was exciting and death-defying, but not really anything you hadn’t seen before until the end. In an incredible display of agility and skill, they created a human pyramid three people high and navigated the wire. After the slow build of the more conventional tricks, it took the act to the, well, extreme, and suddenly they had the crowd back in their hands.

Some real plaudits have to go to Alex and Irina. The leads in such storyline settings are usually something of a mixed bag. They often lead the clown segments, but otherwise rarely have much of note to do. Not these two. In addition to running the trained poodle act (about the only animal act that is inarguably fun to watch), they brought some enterprising clown segments that for the first time actually had me laughing out loud. In particular, there was a bit involving giant rubber balls that featured both clever and hilarious pratfalls with a true acrobatic flair on the end. Then there was the duo's tap dance with skis on. Funny, and very innovative.

Harder to get at first was the Mongolian Marvels, a combination of strong men, acrobats and contortionists that mixed the three in odd ways. They started with a juggling act using kettle weights, which is impressive if you know what kettle weights are and how heavy they are, but from a distance, the act kind of just looks like three guys tossing a few oddly shaped balls. Things got serious when their prime strong man lifted weights and four of the female members of the troupe with only his teeth. That was definitely something you don’t see every day, nor were the startling human towers, in which men would somersault and backflip from one precarious shoulder perch to another.

The highlight, at least for my daughter, was Gemma Kirby, the circus’s youngest-ever human cannonball. This remains a very traditional sort of act (and is still not as exciting as when the circus brought Brian Miser to town to be launched from a crossbow while on fire in 2012), yet it’s something that just flies in the face of all human sense and is therefore novel. It’s a bit long on buildup and short on actual action, for obvious reasons, but the payoff is so amazing when Kirby emerges from her landing pad after her superhero flight through the air that you can’t help but be amazed.

As Ringling Bros. continues to try new things to fit an evolving audience uninterested in many circus tropes of old, it sometimes stumbles and sometimes flies. Circus Xtreme contains way more of the latter, and is definitely worth the price of a ticket.

Circus Xtreme runs through July 31 at NRG Stadium.

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