courtesy of ordway center for the performing arts
My first time at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts was a bit untraditional. It wasn’t spent seeing a play, concert, or a musical, but a circus—and an unusual circus at that. America’s biggest and longest-running circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, held its final performances in May 2017. After cutting out elephant acts due to animal cruelty and ticket sales dropping, the circus was no longer sustainable. Circus 1903 has found a way to let audiences still enjoy the circus and elephants, despite the biggest company not being around anymore.
The Ordway stage seemed at first too small and restricting to fit an entire circus, but it was surprisingly accommodating. I assumed the performance would seem like a theatrical rendition of a circus rather than a real circus, and I was proved wrong. It wasn’t acting; there weren’t songs or an overwhelming amount of choreographed dances. The show was simply act after act of circus performers, narrated by the ringmaster, who started the show by coming down from the stage to throw popcorn at audience members and mock a man with a beard, announcing that this man was their former bearded lady.
The first act featured a few male performers who jumped on both ends of a seesaw, one man launching the other into the air, allowing him to do back flips. Performers came from around the world, the ringmaster announcing the country of origin of each—including France, Ukraine, and Mexico—and adding that more than half of the cast had never been to the United States before.
One woman, called Lucky Moon, did aerial work, hanging from the ceiling by a hula-hoop. She spun through the air, rearranging her limbs in what seemed like hundreds of different ways. Her performance seemed flawless, but other performers were not so lucky. Two men worked as partners, doing stunts and flips off each other’s bodies. A couple flips just didn’t work out, with the man in the air missing his landing on the other man’s legs and tumbling to the ground. At one point, he looked seriously hurt, as if they were going to end their part of the show early. But with audience encouragement—cheering and clapping—the show went on.
Brief moments of failure made the experience feel more authentic to circus tradition. It was special to see the audience not react in shock or sadness when mistakes were made, as when the juggler from Paris wowed the crowd with three, four, and five pins, adding more and more—I believe he got up to seven—before one would fall and he would have to stop. Some individuals in the audience yelled, “Do it again!”
Calling its rendition “innovative and more humane,” Circus 1903 also employed award-winning puppeteers in the rolls of Queenie and Peanut—an adult elephant and her baby. They were the same size as real elephants, and the puppeteers perfectly mastered the elephant’s steps. Gray burlap sacks emulated their wrinkly skin. They seemed real.
And although Circus 1903 took place in a theatre, the circus experience felt real, too. It was the most entertaining thing I’ve seen in a long time, and the first circus I’ve seen since I was single-digit years old. Circus 1903 shook up the Ordway’s lineup, full of traditional theatre and concerts, and it proved a refreshing, worthwhile change of pace.