The end of Ringling Bros. isn't the end of circus acts, but signals the rise of a new era

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Desiree Casanova, of Fontana,brought her 3-year-old niece Victoria Casanova to a recent Circus Vargas performance in Ontario, California. Here Victoria meets “Sticks” the clown, a Circus Vargas fan who is not an employee. (Neil Nisperos/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, SCNG)
Desiree Casanova, of Fontana,brought her 3-year-old niece Victoria Casanova to a recent Circus Vargas performance in Ontario, California. Here Victoria meets “Sticks” the clown, a Circus Vargas fan who is not an employee. (Neil Nisperos/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, SCNG)

Circus prices

$17 and up

Circus Vargas, in the San Fernando Valley

$7.50 and up

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, currently on the East Coast

$17 online, $25 at the door

Boobie Trap, 5253 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles

$30-$300

The Lucent Dossier Experience, entry to booked events

$79 and up

Cirque du Soliel, Las Vegas

Once-mighty Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, after 146 years in the spotlight, will fold up its fiscal tent for good next month. Can someone fill its clown shoes?

Linda Simon, a professor emerita at Skidmore College in New York who literally wrote the book on circuses, says the sector is hardly on life support. Other players in the circus world concur.

Circuses in varied forms are thriving still, whether they travel the road with a family-oriented show, entertain crowds in a stationary brick-and-mortar venue or are simply available for hire. And dozens of schools across the country still teach the “circus arts.”

But that doesn’t mean someone will come along to fill the exact void left by Ringling Bros., Simon said, if that void is described as a mobile enterprise that employs hundreds and rents out arena-sized venues. Because that business is expensive.

“It’s just not going to be a business model that works,” she said.

On its website, the parent company’s CEO, Kenneth Feld, acknowledges as much: “Ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

Of course, when contemplating the future of the circus industry in America, one first must define what a circus is.

Simon, author of “The Greatest Show on Earth: A History of the Circus,” said determining whether a performance is a circus — as opposed to strict displays of athleticism or a vaudeville or burlesque act — is the feeling you have when it’s over. If the experience was magical, then you just watched a circus.

And that magic will endure, Simon and others believe.

The elephant not in the room

Ringling Bros. performed with elephants for the last time in May 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. It was a move the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lauded. The same group pretty much danced on the circus’s grave after the January announcement, taking credit for Ringling’s demise.

“As of May, the saddest show on earth for wild animals will end. Thirty-six years of PETA protests, of documenting animals left to die, beaten animals, and much more, has reduced attendance to the point of no return,” the group touted on its website.

Pressure comes from various corners. The Los Angeles City Council is considering making it illegal to exhibit or rent out not only elephants but other exotic animals — such as lions and certain reptiles, snakes and birds — purely to amuse or entertain.

“Audiences are not going to tolerate tigers in a cage and a man with a whip,” Simon said. “That’s over.”

And that’s OK, Simon said. There are plenty of other types of entertainment people enjoy.

Circus Vargas, which just left the Inland Empire and is now in Burbank, unloaded the elephants in 2010.

“I think the traditional circus has gotten a bad rap (from animal-related controversies), and we’re trying to turn it around and make people really appreciate the acrobatics and the spectacle of it,” trapeze artist Izzy Patrowicz said after a recent performance in Ontario.

Life without elephants is mimicking the industry’s roots, which trace back to Europe in the late 1700s and 1800s, Simon added. They thrived without the pachyderm once. They will again.

An intimate affair

As it was in Europe in days of yore, so it will be again in the 21st century in the United States, Simon said, and the key word used by many is intimacy. Circusgoers today appreciate being close to the action.

They get closer than close at Scot Nery’s Los Angeles-based Boobie Trap. Every Wednesday — this past week’s show was his 103rd — and sometimes on weekends, Nery gives 14 performers the chance to make an impression in whatever circus art they choose “no matter how weird” for four minutes. Afterward, fans can intermix with the performers.

“People like hanging out with the performers; they like getting selfies with the performers,” Nery said, describing the interaction as a Facebook feed come to life.

The spectacle has been well-received by media and Yelpers alike. But making money from it is the challenge, Nery said. He does sell alcohol, although he doesn’t require a two-drink minimum like you’d find in a comedy club.

“People spend money and buy drinks when they like something and they’re in a celebratory mood,” he said. That’s what he’s trying to re-create weekly.

Intimacy is also the calling card of the Lucent Dossier Experience, a Los Angeles-based avant-garde musical circus troupe that has made several appearances at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, founder Dream Rockwell said, though she prefers the term “immersive.”

“We do shows when you come in and you’re a character too,” she said. “People love it. They come dressed in costume themselves. Half the time, you can’t tell who’s a performer and who’s not. The lines are really blurred.”

Nery wasn’t surprised by the Ringling Bros. announcement.

“It’s not just because of the animals,” Nery said. “It’s huge, and it’s not what people want.”

Cirque du Soleil

One of the things people want is a mind-boggling acrobatic act. It’s hard to argue against Cirque du Soleil’s influence on the industry, even if Simon isn’t sure it is a circus.

Sure, it’s got the French word for circus right in it, but she finds it cold and impersonal. For her, there’s less magic.

The perennial Vegas act took a crack at Los Angeles, setting up shop at the Dolby Theatre in 2011. It closed less than two years later.

“It wasn’t a special thing. It was just another Cirque du Soleil show,” Nery said. “If I want a Cirque du Soleil show, I can just go to Vegas.”

A lot of people assume the Lucent Dossier Experience was influenced by Cirque du Soliel, Rockwell said. Truth be told, she saw them as a little girl but based her creation, now 12 years old, on the art scene at Nevada’s Burning Man festival and buoyed by the growing popularity of reality TV.

When she finally caught a Cirque du Soleil show in 2009, “I was totally blown away. I said, ‘We have to take this to another level.’ ”

‘You never know’

Circus Vargas travels the West with about 60 employees and its own big top. Owner Nelson Quiroga acknowledges he’s eyeing the eastern U.S., too.

“We hope in the future we can get a second unit,” Quiroga said. “That will come with increased demand.”

Quiroga, who is from Argentina, was hired by Circus Vargas with his trapeze-act family, the Flying Tabares, in 1989. It’s where he met his wife, Katya Quiroga, who had been a juggler at Circus Vargas, and is originally from Holland.

After meeting, the pair began performing together, spent a decade at Ringling Bros., then a few years at Circus Circus in Las Vegas before forming Tabares Entertainment, which acquired Circus Vargas.

“I think that maybe we are going to get more demand because it’s a big show that is not going to come around anymore, so maybe, but you never know,” Quiroga said in an interview just outside the big top during a recent performance in Ontario. “We’ll see.”

Circus Vargas will be in Burbank through May 8, followed by a run in Woodland Hills from May 11 to May 22. For Circus Vargas performance dates, times and to purchase tickets, visit www.circusvargas.com, call 877-468-3861, or visit the box office at the circus location.

Circus prices

Circus Vargas, in the San Fernando Valley, $17 and up

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, on the East Coast, $7.50 and up

Boobie Trap, 5253 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, $17 online, $25 at the door

The Lucent Dossier Experience, entry to booked events runs between $30-$300

Cirque du Soliel, Las Vegas, $79 and up



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