Every year my younger daughter and I go to The Circus. The big one, I mean, the one of my childhood and hers and her sister’s, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. I’ve gone to other circuses, and they are fun or intriguing, but this, as far as I am concerned, is The Circus.
Now that that daughter of mine has passed away, I thought to bring the little neighbor girl and her mother, since I was loathe to miss The Circus, but decided I would not want to go alone. It turned out that these neighbors had never been to The Circus.
The subway was crowded, and as we approached the stop for the arena, there were more and more families with little kids. A festive air. My neighbors were surprised to see so many people. If you drive everywhere you sometimes don’t know what’s really going on, you know?
Inside, The Circus provides a whole hour of meet-and-mingle, where everybody is invited to come onto the floor of the arena, right where the human and animal performers will be later. The first year they did this, and my daughter and I stepped onto that performers’ space, it seemed a powerful affair, a crossing over from being a watcher to being the watched. Since I am fearless before an audience, I was exhilarated, electrified. Nobody asked me to perform, but I got to breathe the airs of the performers.
In the meet-and-mingle time last week, a little tightrope had been set up, possibly eighteen inches off the floor, and costumed pretty girls and boys from The Circus were helping kids walk it. On other parts of the arena, there were circus costumes you could try, and a bouncy castle. Clowns worked the crowd, having their pictures taken with families. Some gorgeous show horses trotted around a small ring.
In that same ring, an elephant replaced the horses. My little neighbor girl watched closely as the elephant was encouraged to paint a picture (you could put in a bid in a lottery to win his artwork). His trainer, standing with him, spoke into his ear in an intimate way, explaining to him what to do. In the wings, another elephant, bathed in violet light and attended, incongruously, by two men in suits, observed his companion. An artist in training, perhaps.
A clown, a young man, came up to me (me a lone, elderly white-haired woman). “Welcome to The Circus!” he enthused. “How ya doin?” Tears started to my eyes, and I told him, I told him about my lost daughter and how I had brought others here in her place. That dear person, I could see his caring eyes behind the makeup, instantly said, “Here, let me hug you…” “Thank you for coming to The Circus,” he told me.
The kindness of strangers, all the sweeter when unexpected.
The meet-and-mingle hour was over, and the throng took its seats, ours in the very front row. The lights dimmed, the Ringmaster asked us to stand for the National Anthem. And that stirring affair, the equestrienne carrying the streaming flag, her beautiful steed cantering around the ring, me singing my heart out—well, that one always brings tears to my eyes, unreconstructed patriot that I am.
We circus-goers are an ancient lot, going back to Roman times (“circus” derives from the word for ring, in Latin and back to Greek). The Romans built these big amphitheaters seating thousands of people, whose jaws doubtless dropped at the sight of thundering horses and their fearless riders, reenactments of huge battles, and your trained animal or so. Gladiators fought each other and, sometimes, the animals.
My guess though is that our most ancient forebears performed for each other. “Hey, Grod, check it out. See how I can balance this rock on my finger?” I mean, imagine the first human who did a somersault! I bet he attracted a crowd.
And then of course there have almost certainly always been street performers. You can gather a crowd doing almost anything. Back in the USSR, in 1963, my Mother, Grandmother and I gathered a substantial crowd on the streets of Moscow as we stopped to peruse our map. Not very exciting, but novel, and a distraction from the Muscovites’ daily grind. Just think if we had been jugglers, or tumblers, as in medieval days!
A fellow called Philip Astley mounted the first modern circus, in England in 1768. There were equestrian acts and the big battle reenactments. Philip there established the size of the ring—forty-two feet across--since he determined that was the smallest ring around which a horse could canter and still keep his standing rider on his back. At The Circus, that’s still the size of the ring.
By the end of the 19th century the acts were ever more varied. Online you can see a poster advertising the Barnum and Bailey show of 1900: See! The Wonderful Performing Geese and Roosters, and the Musical Donkey!”
As a child in Denver, probably about 1948, I remember my Mother brought me downtown, near the railroad yards, to watch the roustabouts putting up the Big Top tent. The next day we wandered among the smaller tents, visiting the side show (yes, of humans—the world’s biggest lady, she who Gives Heat in the Winter and Shade in the Summer; the sword swallower—and others of that sort—my, how far we have come) and the menagerie tent, and then the great circus itself, with UNUS the Man Who Stands On One Finger. To this day I remember the smell of sawdust and elephant droppings.
But back to The Circus this afternoon. The pretty boys and girls come out in their splendiferous costumes, and the clowns tumble and hassle around in ridiculousness. The great elephants tromp at speed in their first circuit around the arena, and my little neighbor child is rendered speechless.
We gape overhead at the highwire performers from Morocco, Spain and Russia. In the ring the transparent Trampoline Tower acrobats from Ukraine leap and whirl and fall in continuous motion. Two married couples display astonishing elegance and strength, the ladies supporting the men in perfect balance. (Later that week my husband and I went to see Pilobolus, the dance company, and therein too we saw women supporting and lifting men—it’s not only muscles but an exquisite sensitivity to balance that makes this feat possible.)
Down at our end of the arena the scary Steel Vortex was readied, the sort of huge double hamster-wheel affair in which the performers run to make the wheels turn, and in turn the entire structure whirls around. This one has always made me nervous, and tonight, for the very first time in my Circus-going years, there is an accident. One of the performers fell out of his wheel, only a few yards from our seats. Immediately roustabouts run to him, others quickly gather, and in quick succession the illumination of the Vortex is killed, then the arena lights are killed—the band playing on—and within a minute the clowns are on. “Send in the Clowns.”
After a few minutes, the injured Vortex runner, supported on both arms, slowly walks off, to our heartfelt applause—meantime of course a troupe of acrobats tumbles down the middle of the arena, and I think that only those of us at our end even realize what has happened. Yes, The Show Must Go On.
One year, my daughter and I were amazed and delighted by a troupe of—wait for it—TRAINED HOUSECATS. Now those of you who are on cat staff will instantly understand what an astonishment this was. The cats performed elegantly, and amidst the general applause, my Alyson and I yelled from our front row seats, “Good Kitties!” Ever after, there were family jokes involving “good kitties”.
This afternoon at The Circus It’s not housecats but big cats—16 gorgeous tigers respond to the commands, in Tigrish I believe, of Tabayara Maluenda of Chile, a 6th generation circus performer. When the tigers and Taba finish their act, amid the general applause and whistles, in Alyson’s memory I yell: “GOOD KITTIES!”
And then it’s time for the final parading of the elephants, and their performance that always ends The Circus. It’s called the long mount, and in it the largest elephant stands in the middle, and to each side the others rise to their hind legs and place their front legs upon the back of the elephant in front of them, all trunks curled upwards. Then they parade around the arena one last time, and our seats, a few feet from them, shake, and I can smell them.
I cry. I miss my girl. But The Show Must Go On.