Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus setting a new standard
Think of the fanciest glittery costumes you see on ABC's “Dancing with the Stars,” picture a room full of them, and that will give you just one image from the multi-act Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that is coming to Pittsburgh for its annual early November run.
“The outfits are incredibly beautiful. You can see them from the top of the audience … because of how many sparkles there are,” says Karlyn Sims, 22, an Australian dancer who has worked with Ringling Bros. in America for three years.
Sims joins 15 other international dancers who appear throughout the “Circus XTreme” show — playing six times Nov. 3 to 6 at PPG Paints Arena — to bring that “extra bit of energy to uplift the show,” she says. The dancers, who perform during and between acts, come from countries including Brazil, Turkey and Ukraine, and many of their rhinestone-covered costumes reflect their country's style, Sims says.
Although circuses are full of acts involving extreme daring — like trapeze and other acrobatic stunts — this year's “Circus XTreme” show intensifies things even more, says ringmaster David Shipman.
“We are always setting new standards … and pushing ourselves past what we think we are capable of every year,” says Shipman, who is 29 and in his fourth year as ringmaster.
Sims says that with this show, “They're just trying to bring out the wow factor. Circus XTreme teaches people that you can be anything you want if you follow your dreams.”
Her favorite act is the aerial display, showing floating mermaids with tails in a “visually stunning” show.
“The girls in the audience go crazy when they see mermaids up in the air,” Sims says. “The girls in the audience think they're real mermaids. It's great. … It's really exciting to watch.”
The circus no longer goes by the traditional three-ring format. Instead, circus performers will do an act in part of one big area, while workers set up the next act in another area. This allows the audience to focus and concentrate without the dividing lines of rings and the overly busy concurrent acts, Shipman says.
“Now what we've discovered is that people love having one thing to focus on,” he says. “While something is going on in one ring, we are setting up something spectacular in another ring.
“We want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to appreciate how spectacular each act is,” Shipman says.
“Circus XTreme” features many favorite circus staples, like acrobatics, the human cannonball, contortionists, clowns and motorcycles. Ringling Bros. retired the elephant act, but people who want to see animals can still enjoy camels, tigers and some other critter acts, Shipman says.
Letting go of the elephants is bittersweet, but plenty of other acts will keep the audience entertained, he says.
“We're always changing ourselves and reinventing ourselves,” he says. “The elephants might be gone, but we have fantastic acts that are just going to transport the audience. That's what the shows are all about.”
A favorite slogan for the circus dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth” by many is that it pleases “children of all ages.”
“Whether you're 5 years old or 95 years old, when you come to the show, you're transported back to being a child,” Shipman says.
Working at his job transports Shipman back to his own childhood, when he attended a circus as a toddler with his family, and dreamed of doing the proverbial running away to join the circus.
“I remember the clowns and the elephant and even the ringmaster, and I fell in love with it,” Shipman recalls. “So now I get to live out that childhood dream every day. … I can't imagine anything better.”
Sims agrees: The circus lifestyle isn't for most people, but it definitely is for her.
“It feels like a little bit of a dream sometimes,” she says. “We actually live like this. We travel by train. Every week, we're in a different city … we're learning different languages, meeting so many different people. I love it.”
Kellie B. Gormly is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.