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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus

(22 Apr 2006: Wachovia Spectrum Theatre — Philadelphia)

PopMatters Associate Events Editor




Death to the Dream Catcher


Whimsicality is one thing, but Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus has started branding dreams. And not just my dreams or your dreams, but the dreams of our nation’s children. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, (watch out, that phrase is likely to be copyrighted, too), in addition to exploiting endangered Asian elephants and outsourcing our national acrobatic work (terrible!), the circus is now engaging in dream product placement. Watch out, folks, the Greatest Show on Earth® has just gone metaphysical.


What do I mean? I mean DREAM BIG! And remember to make all your dreams Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus dreams.


But first, programs! Get your programs! Get your ad-stuffed, fifteen-dollar, useless-and-will-go-in-the-garbage-when-we-get home programs right here!



Ahem. Sorry. I’m putting the platform in front of the elephant, so to speak. Let me begin again, in typical PR fashion:


This year marks a leap forward for Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey® Circus! What was traditionally a three-ring circus is now one no-ring extravaganza under the big top! And. . .and. . .(wait for it). . .this 136th edition of The Greatest Show on Earth® circus has taken on an American Idol finalist!


That’s right, folks. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus (henceforth known as “the circus”) is proud to present the one, the only, the dazzling, the amazing, the alternately princessly and ghetto fabulous, the one, the only…Jennifer Fuentes!!!!!!!!!!!! (From the second season, with Ruben and Clay). Commence dancing, clowning, elephant exploitation, unimpressive “Herkulean” stunts, and the largest food fight in—you guessed it—the world!


And there’s a storyline this time: a kid named Dan goes to sleep and the circus is his dreamworld. I guess to some people this is a groundbreaking change. To most of us, it’s a yawn. If you’re going to go all “look-what-we’ve-done-differently!”, then shouldn’t you do something differently? The appropriation of dreamtime as an excuse for contrived narrative is old hat. It’s been done. No use pointing out the obvious, though. Let’s move on.


The driving force of this year’s model is Dan’s quest to find an act. Does he have heretofore unknown talent as a wild animal tamer? Does he have a knack for scooping elephant dung? Is he goofy enough to engage in comically mindless clown activity? The show’s narrative hinges on these suspenseful questions, sometimes supplemented by shamelessly anthropomorphized elephant skits on the huge-screen TV.



Meanwhile, Dan’s father is the ringmaster, with a booming voice and corny jokes; Dan’s sister becomes a Herkulette (dumbest, most gender-locked, I-am-a-princess! look-at-me-do-nothing! role imaginable); Dan’s mom becomes a talented trapeze artist. And Dan? Dan is a man without a plan. He spends most of his time shrugging and mouthing pre-recorded words while Jennifer Fuentes serves as his oversequined dream guide, helping narrate the story through song and dance.


Yes, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the circus has gone lazy. The pacing is quick-cut like MTV, and the sound system is so loud that the audience’s reactions, if there are any, can barely be heard above “Who Let the Dogs Out?”.


Of course, I may be a crank, but I do try to determine whether or not the kids are into any of it. I just can’t tell. It is possible that a strongman catching a faux cannonball with his “stomach of steel” really does earn its oohs and aaahs. As for me, this act does not seem as “death-defying” as advertised.


Nor is the domestic cat leaping through a hoop very exciting. Everyone loves pets, we know. After seeing a cat climb up a hundred-foot pole and jump into a pillow, we discover anew that: wow—animals will do anything for a treat.


During intermission a public service announcement plays on the big-top’s big-screen. According to the video, elephants are endangered and Ringling Bros. has spent lots of money to fund a center focused on the conservation of Asian elephants. What?!? So they can exploit them? Sure, a young elephant kicking up its back legs as it trots around gives an image of delightful whimsy, but didn’t we just see a film criticizing the exploitation of a giant ape attain international blockbuster status? I’m with PETA, and Kong, on this one.



Of course, when the real, human adults strut their stuff, real magic returns to the building. The trapeze and acrobatic acts—some of which feature artists manipulating their bodies around ribbons dangling from the arena ceiling—are amazing and truly breathtaking. The so-called Globe of Death is pretty cool, too, with as many as seven motorcyclists doing overlapping circles in a single metal sphere. Close quarters at high speed, plus cool trigonometric patterns? That’s death-defying, skillful, and immensely fun to watch.


So what do we learn from all of this? Instead of pushing forward, Ringling needs to pull back. People go to the circus for old-school magic, not American Idol. Parents want to relive their childhood and children want to be dazzled by amazing stunts, not cheesy storytelling techniques and music so loud that it overwhelms the visuals.


It’s part of adulthood to reexamine the things we thought were so great as children. I’ll allow that perhaps, for this journey back to childhood wonder, my expectations were too high. But still, the childhood whimsy got trampled by the metaspectacle that is the—oh wait, we’re over “meta”, aren’t we? Bottom line: When you attempt to brand children’s dreams, you’re asking for trouble, people. And if you do it badly, may the elephants stomp you to the ground.

Megan Milks is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has had critical work published on Venuszine.com, Lost Magazine, Grapevineculture.com, and Sparknotes; her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Pocket Myths, Forge, and Wreckage of Reason, an anthology of experimental women writers. Like once a year, if that, she publishes a magazine called Mildred Pierce, which more people should know about.


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