I skipped the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus last year, but did have a chance to check out Fully Charged the year before. In the two years since then, there have been some improvements made in the latest tour, Built to Amaze, but not necessarily enough to justify a ticket to those hoping for a whole new experience.
One thing that was definitely changed for the worse was the music. Circus music is usually made up heavily of tunes that are more or less knockoffs of pop songs, but whereas Fully Charged felt like it pulled from more timeless melodies like Abba's "Mamma Mia," Built to Amaze seemed to try over-hard to tap into modern, drill-team-ready pop songs. They even busted out "Gangnam Style," which at this point is a pop culture crime.
Music aside, it's a brighter show than in previous years, trading mystery for bald performance. These included some really inventive highlights.
The King Charles Troupe played a Harlem Globetrotters-esque game of basketball, except that the Globetrotters don't do the whole thing on freakin' unicycles. Have you ever seen someone dunk from a unicycle? I have, and it's way more amazing that anything I've ever seen on a conventional basketball court. Every minute of the well-choreographed exhibition was moment after moment of amazement and excitement. You literally can't stop smiling while watching it.
Another unbeatable act was the tests of flexibility and strength put on by Duo Solys and Duo Fusion. I've never seen anything like it. Both acts are married couples that do hand-standing and other feats of strength while posed on their partners. What sets the two apart, though is that the women serve as the bases, not the men.
It's incredible to watch these women pull amazing feats like full backbends while a full-grown man performs a hand-stand on their bellies. I personally know a 90-pound girl who can dead lift 230 pounds, but even that was nothing compared to watching the core of might that was exhibited by the two duos. Even in the world of circus performance it was a unique sight to see.
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I'm sure many of you want to hear about the animals. There was a pretty significant animal rights protest presence this year, something I missed two years ago by going to a preview instead of a proper public show so I can't comment on how typical it was. For the most part I have mixed feelings on watching the animal acts.
There's no argument that the elephants have improved a great deal, bringing about more elaborate dances and movements. It was also fun watching acrobats dive over them, but between them and the tiger act the whole practice remains feeling somewhat weird and archaic.
By far the best animal performance of the night was dancing poodles. They alone seemed to really enjoy being part of the show, and I've never seen such fat, happy dogs outside of a dog show. The history of the circus may call for the taming of wild beasts, but they would probably save themselves some headaches and upped the quality of the show just sticking to dog tricks and trick riding.
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My four-year-old daughter's favorite performance of the night was Gemma Querida Kirby, a 24-year-old human cannonball and the first woman I've ever seen in that role. I love me a human cannonball act. It's probably the single most dangerous thing happening, and yet it always comes through.
Kirby did a marvelous job, but she didn't top Brian Miser two years ago. He did the same act, except he did it from a giant crossbow while on fire. That's hard to beat. The high wire act was also largely unchanged from previous outings, and probably needs an overhaul if things are to be kept fresh.
I noticed that the crowds were also quite sparse. Empty seats were everywhere, and even the lines for the bathrooms at intermission were largely non-existent. This may be the Greatest Show on Earth, but between the hollow music and several acts that have lost a lot of their novelty it feels like it's not quite keeping up with the times. It was built to maze, surely, but it might not be a bad idea to ask what exactly amazes people these days before you break ground.
Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus: Built to Amaze performs at NRG Stadium through July 27.