I’ve attended the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus three years out of the last four they’ve been in Houston, so I get a pretty good idea of how the show changes from year to year. The theme this season is Legends, and through the various acts we travel the globe seeking the mysteries of the Far East as well as mythical or extinct animals like unicorns and the woolly mammoth.
I always take my daughter with me to the circus because it keeps me from being too critical of something that is supposed to be inherently magical. There’s a disconnect between adult perception and childhood wonder. The unicorn, pegasus and woolly mammoth may have featured prominently in promotions but they appear only briefly onstage. Impressive as I’m sure it is to have the ability to corral an elephant into a full fur suit it’s not impressive enough that you can't see right through it the illusion. On the other hand my daughter, clutching her stuffed mammoth the whole while, could not contain her joy at seeing a supposedly extinct giant roam the Earth again. She bought it hook, line and sinker and I’m sure nostalgia will paint the memory brighter and more realistic than it actually was. That’s why it’s important to bring kids with you; suspension of belief flows more purely through them.
There were some fantastic acts this year in Legends. The Torres Family of motorcycle daredevils practiced their craft inside a steel globe. At one point eight different riders going 65 mph zoomed in and out of formation mere inches apart from one another in a display that looked more magic than skill. I’ve seen riders perform in a globe several times before, but never so many and never at such ridiculous speeds. It was like having part of Mad Max come to life in front of you. The fact that there wasn’t someone on top of the globe shredding out a solo from a flame-throwing guitar is the only knock I could make.
I was also ecstatic to see performances from the China National Acrobatic Troupe. I haven’t caught them since they last appeared at AstroWorld, and that’s way too long for something so amazing. They featured prominently in four acts. The first was an amazing round of bicycle acrobatics that ended with the entire troupe held aloft in a pyramid on two bicycles. Then they scaled poles for death defying flips and dives like an Assassin’s Creed character. Oddly, the most amazing performance may have been their least dangerous. Posing as jade statue dancers, they maneuvered Diablos on strings, hurling them high into the air while nailing complicated gymnastics before catching them on just before they hit them ground.
The troupe also put on an impressive hoop diving display in which they would perform flips through small hoops high in the air. The level of strength and precision that was show bordered on superhuman, though they did appear to flub their big finale. One man attempted a world hoop diving record of trying to flip through a hoop ten feet in the air, the height of a basketball goal. He made the height, but took the hoop down with him. Still, it was something spectacular to see.
The real breakout star of the show is the diminutive Paulo Dos Santos, ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson’s partner and the lead character in the overall Legends storyline. Dos Santos is a true multi-discipline talent. He out dances nearly every person in the company for one thing, and his part in a comedic skit involving a runaway hot air balloon is probably the first circus clown act I have ever actually laughed out loud from.
He also joined the Chinese acrobats for their pole climbing demonstration, and not as comic relief either. He was a legitimate part of the performance doing many of the same stunts as the full-sized acrobats, albeit slightly modified for his size. Combined with his regular gymnastics throughout the night in group numbers and the physical charisma he exuded it was impossible to take your eyes of the man. If Marvel ever makes an Alpha Flight movie, they’d be insane not to cast Dos Santos as Puck and make him the lead.
Legends has its disappointments. There is no human cannonball this year for instance. Also, the musical numbers continue to get ever more banal and forgettable. Fully Charged was the last time Ringling Bros. managed a memorable main tune, and Legends sounds more like something Andrew Lloyd Webber would crumble up, throw in the trash and then fish out again for a sequel to Starlight Express. I should point out that the actual score itself remains invigorating and wonderful.
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And yes… there are always the animal acts. In fact, there were more animal acts this year than any I’ve ever attended. Ringling Bros. plans to phase out their elephants by 2018, but the lions and tigers are still a huge part of the show. In addition there were performances involving leopards, dogs, horses, llamas, goats and even pigs which I had never seen before.
I remain very conflicted on the animal acts. I’m not sad to see elephant performances end because frankly I’ve never seen an elephant performance that was exciting. I’m not saying that it isn’t tremendously difficult to get an elephant to dance, but it does always seem like the sort of thing Caligula would order someone to do under pain of death.
The dogs are more fun with poodles making impressive leaps over the backs of llamas and a fox terrier doing backflips. It’s hard to describe, but the dogs look like they’re having the time of their lives and the wild animals seem like a very ill person trudging through work to pick up a paycheck. I’m glad some of that is going away, even if I was thankful for the magical moment my daughter was convinced she’d seen something that she’s only ever seen in fossil form before.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presents Legends at NRG Stadium through July 26.