The evening at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey didn't start out well. Arriving 90 minutes early enabled audience members to tour the animal cages backstage and chat with the performers during the preshow...that was the theory, anyway. In reality, what you got was a huge mass of bodies, no movement, long lines and the feeling of being herded through with no time to really experience the wonder of the circus before curtain time.
Even worse, there was no going straight to your seat if you tired of the throng. The only path was through the narrow openings set up for the animal open house, and even when you did make it to the main area, you arrived at floor level. You know, where the sections aren't numbered. People just milled about lost until they were finally able to reach their seats. It was like a combination of Astroworld and shopping at Ikea.
How much of that was poor planning on Ringling Bros.' part and how much of it was just poor execution by Reliant, I couldn't say. Herding a toddler through it wasn't fun, but when the lights went down, the actual show itself proved to be a magnificent and well-oiled machine.
Admittedly, there is more of a musical feel to the event than I remember from childhood circus trips, though ringmaster Brian Crawford Scott is able to pull it off with sheer charisma and a voice that is as powerful as his strongman. If the tunes are a little lacking in depth and a little heavy on repetition, so be it. You're getting a dazzling array of talent and awe-inspiring tricks all around you.
The music itself is worth mentioning. Ringling Bros. still uses live musicians, and they are masters of timing that lend emotional stings to every moment of dexterity and tension. That being said, I swear to Pop Music Jesus that I heard songs that were just slight variations on Berlin's "Metro" and Nu Virgos's "Stop Stop Stop."
Tabayara the animal trainer was one of the main draws on this tour, and he offered some impressive feats with horses, tigers and Asian elephants. His showcase with his tigers was part trick act, part lighthearted comedy routine, and really showed the connection that he maintains with his wards. The elephant display, however, was something that must be seen to be believed. His troupe is perfectly in sync in their dances, and the human dancers that gracefully ride them in the midst of their steps are at home with the massive mammals.
Another massive mammal was strongman Dmitriy Nadolinskiy. His contribution to the night involved the ability to expertly spin a massive, telephone pole-sized rod of heavy wood like a majorette would twirl a baton. Watching him do it was an exercise in disbelief, as it seems to laugh in the face of all physics. Even then, he topped it by using an even bigger pole with a pair of swings to support two girls.
But when I think of the circus I think of aerial feats, and Ringling Bros. didn't disappoint. There was no trapeze act, but the Danguir Troupe jumped rope, tap-danced, rode bikes and even leapt from on top of each other's shoulders on the tight wire. Meanwhile, the Fernandez Brothers maneuvered the three-story spinning wheels.
Alberto seemed somewhat ill at ease in the act, and while initially confident, he flubbed several spots that seemed to shake him. Guillermo, by contrast, seemed more comfortable on the wheels than he did on the ground. He stopped hearts when he launched himself effortlessly into a somersault at the apex of the wheel and landed adroitly when it reached the bottom.
He even leapt casually from his wheel to his brothers near the end of the act, something that was shocking because it had no build-up. He just did it as mundanely as the rest of us step over a curb.
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Even the Fernandez Brothers couldn't top Brian Miser, the Human Fuse. You think you've seen one human cannonball, you've seen them all, but Miser turned it up to 11. Instead of a cannon, he launched himself out of a crossbow, but even that wasn't it. What really sold it was he set himself on fire first.
The best part wasn't even the flight. It was the way Miser casually rolled off the landing cushion and stood staring at the audience through his goggles for a few seconds while completely sheathed in flame. Never in my life have I seen a man more solidly state, "I am more awesome than you will ever be," than by ignoring gravity and fire simultaneously, then walking out of it like it ain't no thing.
That's what Ringling Bros. still manages to deliver, moments when man isn't man, but spectacle incarnate. That's why it's the greatest show on Earth.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey runs through July 29 at Reliant Stadium.