by John Moore Sr Arts Journalist, Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Originally published at mydenvercenter.org
Neil Dorward and Simon Painter are proud circus geeks. The Brits love the quintessentially American Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus so much, they fashioned their new enterainment spectacle Circus 1903 largely in nostalgic tribute to the tradition P.T. Barnum started in 1875 as a traveling museum in Wisconsin.
That’s why recent news of Ringling’s impending demise went down like a double-edged sword down a contortionist’s throat. Ringling will play its final show on May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y. Promoters cited declining ticket sales, high operating costs and a decision to take live elephants off the road after protests from animal-rights activists.
Barnum called his circus, which traveled with as many as 1,200 live animals, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Painter calls Circus 1903 “The Most Amazing Show on Earth,” and it travels with … zero live animals. The family friendly new spectacle, which plays under the Buell Theatre Big Top from Feb. 21-26, celebrates The Golden Age of Circus with all the strong men and acrobats and aerialists you might expect, alongside magnificent elephant … puppets.
“It’s very sad to us that Ringling is closing, because that’s 150 years of legacy,” Painter said. “It’s part of American history. Even putting the elephant controversy to one side, it’s a lot of people’s jobs. So I think it is a real shame.” But, Dorward added, “we are keeping the Ringling tradition alive for new generations to experience.” And there is no controversy about these elephants. After all … they’re puppets.
“My original idea was to bring elephants back to the circus,” said Painter, the Creative Producer, “but obviously we couldn’t use real ones.” Instead, his Circus 1903 elephants were designed by the award-winning puppeteers from the acclaimed Broadway play War Horse, which visited Denver in 2012. That’s the story of a British World War I soldier whose beloved horse, Joey, is sold into military service. Joey was brought to breathing, galloping onstage life by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. He was operated by four human puppeteers inside and around him.
Circus 1903 features two elephants – a mother and her baby. One stilt-walker works the mother’s head, one works the hind legs, and one, Painter says with unabashed sentimentality, “works the heart.”
“These guys from War Horse make the most unbelievable puppets, and they really feel like they are 100 percent real when they are on stage,” said Dorward, the Director and Choreographer. “I sat next to this lady in the audience, and she thought it was a real elephant. People are very moved by them, and they are a very special part of the show.”
And no animals are harmed … because there are no live animals.
“But make no mistake,” Painter said, “The rest of the circus acts in our show are really death-defying. Yes, we are very safety-conscious, and we have an amazing technical team. But we are risking lives every time we perform. These amazing acts very scary to watch, and we always have to be on our guard.”
- Denver Center for the Performing Arts – Buell Theatre
- Ticket Prices for the show start at $25 at denvercenter.org or 303.893.4100
Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – denvercenter.org – is the ONLY authorized online ticket provider for this productions in Denver.
- The producers of the world’s biggest magic show, The Illusionists have teamed up with the award winning puppeteers from War Horse to present a thrilling turn of the century circus spectacular. Sensational puppetry puts Elephants back in the ring as never seen before along with a huge cast of the most unique, amazing and dangerous circus acts from all four corners of the world, from strong men to contortionists, acrobats to musicians, knife throwers, high wire and much more! Discover the golden age of circus as Circus 1903 – The Golden Age of Circus sets to captivate audiences of all ages.