The Circus Goes High-Tech

The circus is back in town, now with a high-tech twist designed to engage a new generation of patrons accustomed to fast-paced entertainment, flashing lights and interactive apps.

Gone are the elephants that have been a mainstay of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for 145 years, which were retired last May in the face of mounting pressure from animal rights activists.

In their place are ice skaters on stilts and trampolines, basketball players on unicycles and spacesuit-clad acrobat “astronauts” who opened Out Of This World at Oracle Arena on Thu., Aug. 18, with an aerial “spacewalk” on a spinning wheel.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the circus without a ringmaster – who spends much of this show traveling by rocket ship – trapeze artists and clowns, transformed here into a bumbling intergalactic space army.

For the first time, Ringling incorporates a loose storyline to tie its disparate acts together. It follows Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson and his sidekick, Circus Starseeker Paulo, as they seek to rescue their circus performers from the evil Intergalactic Circus Queen Tatiana and return them to Earth. The storyline unfolds as they travel to planets of sand, ice, fire and water, accompanied by a live rock-and-roll soundtrack.

While the performing pachyderms are missing, trained lions and tigers still play a central role – and continue to draw animal rights protesters, who were out in force outside Oracle Arena on opening night. Ringling says its animal treatment practices are safe and humane, and it highlights that its big cats were born and bred in captivity and serve as “animal ambassadors” to highlight the plight of declining species in the wild. But activists, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, vow to continue to fight circuses as long as they force animals to perform “ridiculous tricks through fear, punishment and pain.”

Other animals in the show are more of the domestic and farmyard variety, from dancing dogs and performing pigs to llamas, donkeys and a kangaroo. The Cossack Riders perform heart-stopping tricks atop their horses, including “the underbelly climb,” in which a rider climbs under a galloping horse. The only female rider performing the trick in the United States fell during the stunt Thursday night but completed it on a second try.

Other highlights include Cirque du Soleil-style aerialists and contortionists – some of whom perform in suspended orbs – high-speed motorcyclists racing around a steel mesh globe and the addition of ice skating to the circus, perhaps inspired by the success of producer Feld Entertainment’s Disney On Ice franchise. Here, ice skating and acrobatics are combined, with skaters on stilts, performing flips through hoops and making an 11-person human pyramid on ice.

The show runs through Mon., Aug. 22, at Oracle Arena. Tickets start at $20; parking is $40. It continues Aug. 25-Sept. 5 at the SAP Center in San Jose. Tickets start at $20; select opening night seats available for $15. All tickets include early access to an Animal Open House and interactive pre-show. Audience members are also encouraged to download a new, free app for access to content before and during the show. For more information, visit

Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.


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