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Ringling Brothers returns to Pittsburgh absent animal acts

Circus act with giant wheels
Geo Rittenmyer
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey
Four acrobats perform on Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's Double Wheel of Destiny, two side-by-side wheels that rotate independently 30 feet above the ground.

Lauren Irving remembers telling her parents she was signing up with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.

Given that she’d already spent years on the road — actually, on cruise ships — as a professional vocalist, her parents weren’t worried. Instead, her father recalled the excitement he felt as a boy, watching the circus train arrive in Columbia, S.C.

“Now I’m a part of that history and I’m just super excited,” said Irving.

But the show for which Irving serves as lead vocalist and “show guide” (or emcee) — and whose national tour visits PPG Paints Arena this weekend — is very different from the one her father remembers from decades ago. The story is one of a legendary circus shutting down, retooling and heading back on tour, this time with no rail travel and no animal acts, among other changes.

Ringling Brothers, with roots dating to the 1870s, shut down in 2017. The self-styled Greatest Show on Earth faced rising costs, declining ticket sales and growing criticism of its use of animals like elephants (which it retired in 2016) and tigers. No one expected it to come back.

But Feld Entertainment, the Florida-based company that first bought Ringling in the 1960s and has owned it continuously since the early ’80s, wasn’t through. Feld, which also operates touring spectacles like Disney on Ice and the Monster Jam giant-truck shows, reinvented Ringling as a people-only circus, absent quadrupeds and white-face clowns, but now with extreme-sports-style stunts and Cirque du Soleil-style theatrics.

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In press materials, Ringling even avoids calling itself a “circus.” The show features 75 performers from 18 countries, from the U.S. and Argentina to Ethiopia, Mongolia and the Ukraine.

There’s no ringmaster, either. Instead, three show guides — Irving, percussionist Alex Stickels, and circus-arts performer Jan Damm — lead the audience through the two-hour production.

“There are no animals in this re-imaigined version of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, but the beautiful thing is we have this focus on human ability,” said Irving.

Acts include the Triangular Highwire, featuring sixth-generation circus artists the Lopez Family, from Mexico and Chile. In the Criss-Cross Trapeze, nine aerialists perform on what Ringling calls “the ultimate swing set.” BMX riders and an “extreme unicycle” take to the Ultimate Playground, including a trampoline built into the center of a take-off and landing ramp. The show also features comedy performers including Damm, performing as Nick Nack, and Ukraine’s Equivokee trio, which blends humor with Rola Bola balance-board play, juggling, acrobatics and more.

LED and video screens enhance the show. No more squinting at high-wire artists, Irving promised.

Ringling launched its 50-city tour Sept. 29, in Louisiana.

The show is getting enthusiastic advance notice from animal-welfare advocates including the Humane Society of the United States. For years, the group was among those lobbying state and local governments to ban bullhooks, whips and other implements often used to train wild animals.

The group’s president and CEO, Kitty Block, said Pittsburgh was the first city in Pennsylvania to enact such a ban. The end of animal acts is the final step in the right direction, she said.

“I’m really excited about what Ringling has decided to do,” said Block. “Because it’s not what the American people look for going forward. There really has been a shift in what people consider acceptable for wildlife to be in entertainment.”

PPG Paints Arena hosts six performances by Ringling Brothers, Fri., Oct. 20, through Sun., Oct. 22. More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: