Last fall, the creative team at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus put on a little show in Palmetto, Florida. Inside the cavernous headquarters of Feld Entertainment, the third-largest building in the state (surpassed by only NASA and Amazon), the directors, producers, and choreographers used a miniature paper model of the circus complete with tiny cutouts for each performer and each animal to present this summer’s touring production to company executives.
Although there are the familiar acrobats, clowns, and lions, the show, called "Out of This World," is a different beast. Instead of simply showcasing various acts, this circus tells a single story, a planet-hopping adventure in outer space—on ice.
"It’s not Disney On Ice," says Alana Feld, 35, who oversees the circus and would know. She’s an executive vice president and producer at Feld Entertainment, which also produces Disney On Ice. "It’s the circus on ice."
Her father, CEO Kenneth Feld, who’s overseen or contributed to some 60 circus productions over the decades, watched what’s known as "the white model" presentation and thought he’d never seen anything like it. In fact, the show involves a slew of new elements, from elaborate floor projections to high-tech lighting to its first app that together represent the circus’s strategy for competing in the digital age. "These are the most changes I would say of anything we’ve done," he tells me later.
The show’s biggest precedent, however, is the one thing what’s missing for the first time in an illustrious history dating back to Reconstruction: elephants.
Since 1871, when the inveterate promoter Phineas Taylor (better known as P.T.) Barnum launched his Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus in Brooklyn, elephants have been the headliners at what Barnum famously touted as "the greatest show on earth." The aptly named Jumbo, an eleven-and-a-half foot tall elephant that weighed six and a half tons, was an early star. For years, the Ringling Bros. elephants made their grand entrance into New York through the midtown tunnel. The awe inspiring pachyderms graced countless circus posters through the decades.
On Sunday, the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre Township, Pennsylvania, is the last stop for the latest touring circus, and the last show for the Ringling elephants. After battling animal-rights groups for several decades over treatment of its Asian elephants, Feld Entertainment announced last year that it would retire them to its conservation center in Florida. Planning a national tour was increasingly difficult with various local legislation banning or regulating the use of elephants for entertainment.
"I’ve never been to a Ringling Bros. circus without elephants," says CEO Kenneth Feld, 67, who accompanied his father Irvin to the circus as a five-year-old and took over the family business after his death in 1984. "It’s something dramatic for me. But change has been a part of the circus for 145 years." The decision, he says, was made over a number of months as a family—him along with his three daughters, who are being groomed to take over a company, and who grew up with elephants named for them.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is one of the oldest entertainment institutions in the U.S., if not the world. And like other established businesses these days with rich histories—TV networks, sports leagues, and so on—Feld Entertainment is looking for ways to evolve to remain relevant. In fact, in the ambitious spirit of P.T. Barnum, Kenneth Feld has dramatically expanded the company into a live events empire. It produces around 5,000 shows a year, only one-fifth of them circus performances. The rest star Marvel and Disney characters and monster trucks. Over the course of the year, the shows reach an audience of 30 million people in 75 countries and generate around $1 billion in revenue.
Of course, no area of the business is as steeped in tradition as the big top. With her father’s blessing, Alana is embracing the upcoming tour as an opportunity to redefine what the circus is.
"We’re thinking of all the things we can do that we couldn’t do before," she says. "It’s allowed us to change the format completely."
To help reimagine the circus, Feld Entertainment turned to Amy Tinkham, a veteran creative director based in L.A. She’s developed everything from concert tours to Vegas shows and worked for everyone from Paul McCartney to Madonna. Elephants didn’t come up in the initial talks, Tinkham says. But ice did.
"I thought I was being punked," she admits. "It seemed insane."
But Alana Feld and her team were serious about creating a novel experience.
The ice concept had originated a couple of years earlier when one of the company’s talent scouts discovered an exhilarating group of performers in China. The city of Harbin, the capital of the northernmost province, is home to a group of wildly acrobatic ice skaters. They hurl one another in the air, form human pyramids, race with abandon. "We thought about them for Disney on Ice," Alana says, "but the showmanship and action felt like the circus. The style is edgier, more like parkour."
Tinkham’s other criteria was storytelling, a narrative that turned circus performers into characters—and held everyone’s attention in the age of digital distractions. "It’s not just a presentation of circus acts," Kenneth says. "It’s taking the audience on a journey. I think it’s important for the consumer today, because everybody wants to be connected emotionally. Otherwise, they don’t have a stake in it."
The ice inspired "Out of This World," Tinkham’s outer space story of an intergalactic queen, who attempts to steal the circus. Played by Tatiana Tchalabaev, who ordinarily leads the Cossack horse-riding acrobats, the queen disperses circus performers throughout the galaxy. So Johnathan Lee Iverson, the ringmaster, and Paulo dos Santos, his intrepid, acrobatic sidekick, travel to various planets in search of the banished acts. On a desert planet, for instance, they discover Alexander Lacey, Ringling Bros.’ big cat trainer, who performs with his lions and tigers.
"A story can give what they’re doing more purpose," says Alana.
For years, the elephants were a reliable spectacle, a moment that could elicit gasps from the audience. Tinkham is hoping to create some of her own.
"I kept asking, what have we never seen at the circus?" she says. "And I became obsessed with a moment where everything disappears." One minute, you see the circus in all its glory. The next, thanks to Queen Tatiana, it’s gone. Blackout. "It’s a fun moment for the crowd," Tinkham says. "Where did everything go?"
Another first is the cold open. Instead of the usual parade of the circus cast and animals, the show opens with just one act, aerial performers dressed like astronauts. They set the scene—outer space—and the tone of the revamped circus: This is going to be different.
For the first time, the circus will incorporate huge projections on the arena floor, giving the show a more cinematic feel. Unlike the usual dark rubber flooring, the ice acts as a giant screen. The images create an immersive and otherworldly environment for each planet and introduce new special effects. When Queen Tatiana strikes the ice in frustration, huge cracks spider menacingly across the arena floor.
The lighting is also more theatrical, thanks to a high-tech system. Performers are equipped with a sensor, allowing the spotlights to track them with greater precision than before. This creates something new and unusual in a show typically built around spectacles: small moments. "You need them in a big show, these moments where it breathes," Tinkham says.
"Out of This World" hits the road in July. With the latest circus tour ending, rehearsals for the cast and crew are set to begin in May.
But Davis Vassallo, one of the clowns who plays a leading role, has been practicing all the year. "This is totally different than what I used to do before," he says.
The biggest difference? He’s on skates—for the first time. So as the circus toured the country, he and others performers spent their off-hours at public rinks learning. "In the beginning, I think I’m an acrobat—this is going to be easy," he says. "But it’s so difficult."
As much as anyone, Vassallo embodies the duality of the Ringling Bros. circus today—and the Felds’ strategy, really: Embrace tradition while continually evolving.
Vassallo is a third-generation clown whose act bears a kind of genetic imprint: He uses the same sudden, high-pitched funny laugh as his grandfather and performs the bouncy rope routine, a comic riff on a high-wire act, that his father perfected in Italy. And yet Vassallo keeps adding new elements, new skills.
"I listened to my dad," he says, whose father first took him into the ring when he was eight. "He said you have to learn how to do everything—play instruments, acrobatics."
Everything, including now, ice skating. But even if Vassallo falls, no one will know if it was accidental or not. There’s no such thing as a failure for a clown. It’s part of the act.