Do kids still dream about joining the circus? That notion seems as quaint as carnies and funhouses. But somebody’s got to join the circus, damn it; they still exist, and even in the days of iPads and DSI devices, people still sit and watch, jaws agape, as
race around spinning Wheels of Death and fire breathers make like Gene Simmons.
All this is on view at the Great American Circus, a traveling troupe that recently set up tent at SMX Convention Center (until Jan. 4, after which it heads to Cebu).
As you might guess, this is an American group of performers who bring back some of the old-fashioned spectacle of the one-ring circus. One ring? What happened to three? According to ringmaster Tuffy Nicholas — he of the wavy amber hair and booming voice — the one-ring circus is meant to keep audiences focused on a single spectacle instead of dividing their attention (it has nothing to do with budget constraints; no, no, nothing like that). As Nicholas likes to say, again and again, during the show: “It’s a wow!”
The Great American Circus is unusual in other ways. For one, there are no animals involved. None. Again, this has nothing to do with budget constraints; it’s because forcing animals to perform these days is just, like, so not friendly to the earth. So no more lion tamers, prancing elephants or Zigfield and Roy tigers.
About the closest the Great American Circus comes to an animal act is the Michael Jackson impersonator, Michael Kiss. (I say that because of his panther-like grace, of course.) The MJ estate must have serious ties to this circus, because Jackson songs are strewn throughout the two-hour performance. While it took some time for my mind to reconcile “Michael Jackson” with “kid’s circus,” it all eventually made sense.
Weirdly, a kind of Circus Cold War still exists between East and West: across town, Araneta Coliseum is staging its own daredevil show during Christmas season — the “Grand Chinese National Acrobatic Circus,” also sans animals. So which circus is better? Like the stacks of catapulted performers, it’s ultimately a toss-up.
Now, I’ve seen plenty of circuses in my time — Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, the whole bunch of ‘em. So I was bit skeptical about the “awe” effect of watching a real old-fashioned circus in this day and age.
Here’s the key: bring a child — your own kid, a nephew, a niece, etc. Watch the child’s face as they experience, for the first time, someone breathing fire right in front of them, or performing somersaults in mid-air. Watch the kid’s eyes light up as they watch stuff you’ve grown jaded about as a functioning, modern-day adult. Worth the price of admission right there.
My daughter Isobel was pretty jazzed about seeing acrobats launched off a catapult onto one another’s shoulders, or backflipping onto a supported armchair 20 feet above the ground. She was also amazed by the husband-and-wife “Crossbow Masters” Ross and Elisa Hartzell, who triggered a series of seven crisscrossing arrows at once, eventually splitting the apples placed on one another’s heads. (Since the center ring is at audience level, more than a few audience members ducked behind their seats during the crossfire display.) Sure, you could watch all this stuff on YouTube. But it’s much more real — and definitely scarier — seeing it all take place 15 feet away from you. It’s a Guinness World Records feat you must see to believe.
“These people are nuts!” my eight-year-old daughter remarked after the chair-sitting acrobat refused his safety harness. She was even more amazed by the Wheel of Death, a rotating structure 30 feet high propelled by the acrobat team of brothers Nathaniel and Enrique. These guys scamper around their wheel cages like human hamsters, causing the whole thing to rotate in mid-air like a gut-wrenching Disneyland ride. Of course they have to top themselves — climbing outside the cages as the Wheel of Death spins, skipping rope, wearing blindfolds, etc. My daughter was rapt. She may even have a crush on Enrique; we’re not sure.
It turns out that circus performers do not grow on trees. It’s kind of a legacy thing: most of the Great American Circus performers are third-, fourth-, even seventh-generation circus people. It’s in their blood. Being America, it’s also a melting pot: some of the performers come from South American stock, others seem to have Slavic roots; the ringmaster’s father was also a ringmaster, his mother was a bear trainer; there’s even a Filipina aerialist from Hawaii.
In short, I was prepared to be snarky about the whole “circus” thing. It has all the elements of kitsch one could easily sneer at. But doing so, you’d miss the fun. If you’re looking for honest thrills, you could do worse than a day at the circus. These people devote their lives to showing us things that, in these seen-it-all days, still manage to hold our attention. “It really is a ‘great’ circus,” my daughter commented, halfway through her cotton candy and cheese popcorn. I took her word for it. You can’t fool kids about stuff like that.
For more info on Great American Circus visit takemetothecircus.com or its Facebook Manila page.