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Ringling's New Zing

The latest edition of The Greatest Show on Earth mixes traditional acts with magic and derring-do.

By New York City
Alex Ramon and Levitytia
(© Feld Entertainment)
Alex Ramon and Levitytia
(© Feld Entertainment)
The Greatest Show on Earth, a.k.a. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has been evolving into even greater territory over the past few years. It continues that trajectory with its 139th edition, entitled Zing, Zang, Zoom, which will play four arenas in the New York metropolitan area over the next few weeks as part of its national tour. (It will be at Newark's Prudential Center March 5-8; Meadowlands' Izod Center, March 11-15; Nassau Coliseum, March 18-22; and Madison Square Garden, March 26-April 13.)

Producers Kenneth and Nicole Feld -- a father and daughter team -- began tinkering with the circus' tried and true formula four years ago. Rings disappeared and storylines appeared. Elephants, albeit in smaller numbers, stayed; but the tigers went. Audiences grumbled, and the rings and Bengal cats returned. However, this is still not your father's circus. "Change is what makes life interesting," says Nicole Feld. "We try to always stay ahead of the curve when it comes to family entertainment. And this year, while we have some tried-and-true circus traditions that people expect, we've turned things rather upside down and pulled out all the stops. Within the first five minutes, you see a four-ton elephant disappear and, later, children are selected from the audience to levitate their parents."

Part of the credit for the show's new feel goes to Shanda Sawyer, who has taken the reins as director and choreographer. "We've been working on this show for a year -- creating, collaborating and cajoling to make it new, exciting, and more memorable," she says. "It's a very ambitious show with many layers: the acts, the storyline, the transitional moments, the magic. The goal was to create an experience for, as they say, children of all ages that will give them a sense of magic and possibility in their own lives."

One major change this year is that instead of a traditional ringmaster, there is a "zingmaster," Alex Ramon, an award-winning illusionist, who performs some unusual tricks with the help of his alluring assistant, Levitytia. "There are no camera tricks, because we're live! You're right there when it happens," he says. Ramon also has a slapstick nemesis in Mr. Gravity -- Scotland's Aland Digwee -- who with his team of heavies right out of the Three Stooges attempts to wreck havoc all over the place.

The show boasts nearly 100 performers from 11 countries, including Alejandro Vargas' Asian elephants, currently the largest performing herd of pachyderms; China's Qi Qi Har Troupe with their swinging logs, aerial silks, hoop diving, jar-juggling, and contortionism; Russia's Romashov/Skokov double-swing trapeze act; Mexico's Lopez brothers and their high jinks on the tight-wire; and Mexico's Fernandez brothers, who walk and tumble on the spinning steel "Wheels of Death" at speeds upward of 15 miles an hour.

And then there are the tigers. It's a highlight of the show when Taba, a maternal fourth and paternal second generation Chilean animal trainer, brings on his striped and white "tabbies": not the ones that go meow, but the ferocious ones from India that snarl and growl. When he kisses his tigers, you might wince -- and rightly so. "It takes up to a year to gain a Bengal tiger's trust," he says. "You keep testing, getting closer and closer. Then one day, she lets you kiss her. It's all about forming a unique bond with the animals."


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