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Do You Really Want to See Eight Motorcycles in the Globe of Steel?

Nathaniel Sandler

Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons!

Upon them! Victory sits on our helms.

-Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard III 

The dragons are Segways. They are adorned in garish plastic and roar around the rings as electrical chariots of the circus. The Segway as deus ex machina flaunts a lowered carbon footprint while inviting giggly derision. Magical times have perhaps waned, and hopes for a real dragon would be absurd, but the children need some sort of payoff. The circus is in town. Specifically, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents “Dragons.”

Outside the entrance of the American Airlines Arena there are four or five animal rights activists impotently protesting, their signs and brief chirping screams demanding the air —with those breathing it, actively ignoring— to boycott the circus due to animal cruelties. As the families excitedly skipped by, one small boy asks his mother what the word “boycott” means. She didn’t really want to explain. The activist’s begging heed was an ill-timed downer; coasting into the show a few minutes early for popcorn and soda pop should be a pleasant activity. One unspoken rule of the circus is to avoid talking to children of aging, previously-tamed beasts going bad and having to be put down. Nobody wants to have that conversation.

There were actually three circuses running simultaneously in Miami this January, though you probably wouldn’t have known: Orchid, Cirque de Soleil, and Ringling Bros. Seventy-five years ago, a city’s population, young and old, men and women, would have collectively lost their knee socks when the train hit the local rail, but for some reason the circus has slipped from the American consciousness. Perhaps it is the animal subjugation guilt, or the absence of a good freak show. It’s hard to imagine Miami wouldn’t at least put up a sordid showing for the sword swallowing bearded lady. Unfortunately, the freak show as attached to the travelling circus seems to have faded into obscurity around the end of World War II, as Rachel Adams suggests in her Sideshow U.S.A., amidst the very real bubbling tension with the Other of the Civil Rights era. Using the photography of Diane Arbus and the writing of Carson McCullers as keystones, Adams suggests that after the war it became the realm of artists to highlight what was freakish and unknown.

During that same time period, The Cristiani Brothers Circus was known to travel through Miami in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A 1962 issue of circus history-focused Bandwagon Magazine describes the act, which played at NW 12th Avenue and 14th Street, along with each display in it. The bill reads strikingly similar to the act of the 2013 circus—hair hanging, auto acts, clowning, and animals in concert. The local press at the time focuses on how “real” the people of the Cristiani circus were, as if proving to its readers that carnies are not shadows. A human-interest piece from The Miami Times in January 1959 describes the circus folk as no different than anyone else. It seems a purposeful distinction. If we’re to tag along, the people need to be real.

The core recipe of clowns, animals, acrobatics, and jumbled miscellany remains very much intact from the circus’s 19th century roots. But something has changed. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin once wrote that, “Carnival, with all its images, indecencies and curses, affirms the people’s immortal, indestructible character.” However, the crowd at the modern day circus feels limp, not immortal or indestructible. This spectacle is propped up and filmed on iPads because of its own self-referential nostalgia. The children, though, remain enamored. And it is for them that we continue to whip the lioness through the hoop.

It smells like they are shooting hot dogs through the smoke machine. The fumes are phantasms of visual inebriation. We drink because we paid to enter, not because we are thirsty. We drink what the Ringleader serves.

The circus has become disorienting. It no longer feels creative or affirming and, much like the zoo, instead of celebrating what is different, it feels sad to see the animals under a human finger. The imp of the perverse actively wants the acrobats to plunge, or those juggling fire to scald themselves. Now, under the “Big Top” is where the Miami Heat play. There are lines upon lines of concessions, plastic cups, stuffed dolls made in China, but not smoke or mirrors like the dragon. Do not forget that P.T. Barnum, America’s greatest showman himself, wrote the book on The Art of Money Getting (1880).

Imagine the smell of an elephant. There is something distinctive and instantly recognizable in that scent, travelling through thick cracked skin and invisible hair, encompassing any room. There are 150,000 muscles in an elephant’s trunk, and it can paint if you teach it to. Even today, when the circus comes to Miami the elephants are walked down Brickell Avenue, usually a hugely crowded street. In 1986 there was a grand procession of dozens of them strutting down the Venetian Causeway.  There is joy in this perceived triumph. But we cannot forget that to us, for some reason, elephants look sad. This is projecting. And to enjoy the circus one must not project.

Here is a list of animal related spectacle that can in no way be misconstrued as sad: a cat walking a tight rope, standard poodles jumping over one another, and a goat riding on the back of an alpaca. Remember again, Barnum also wrote Struggles and Triumphs (1869). As people, we must agree that a goat riding on the back of an alpaca is a triumph. For it is gleefully absurd. And perhaps that is the way that we choose triumph. We can subjugate smaller animals and those we feel already comfortable with their domesticated dominance. The Internet has already made domesticated animals absurd, a modern day circus where we can laugh for a minute and move on. It’s possible the age of the animal circus is over and the popularity of Cirque de Soleil suggests we’ve moved towards one oriented around people.

At one point, the Ringleader asks to the crowd in booming faux apprehension, “Do you really want to see eight motorcycles in the Globe of Steel?” The response is tepid at best, but we all do. The Globe of Steel is exactly what it sounds like, and at one point in the show it gets filled with progressively more motorcyclists. Daredevils they’re called, because as you watch them you cannot stop wondering how they did not die in Globe-of-Steel-tryouts. It’s a tradition of circus people to symbolically give their lives during their tenure as entertaining nomads.

Those dedicated to the circus, the carnies, are now young and attractive. The stigma of being a carnie must have worn off sometime during the rise of Hollywood and the failed acting professional path. Hula Hoop Melissa is someone we would all wish upon our cousin. It is yet another change that seems to invert our stereotypes.

Where will the circus go? Are we done watching animals work? Will Cirque de Soleil continue holding the torch with the lithe acrobatics? Parlor tricks and dragons are no longer capable of holding the attention of adults. Will the circus continue to excite children and inspire nostalgic boredom? Perhaps the animals are too real. Perhaps we need aliens to inspire us further. Or maybe there will be a renaissance as animals become even scarcer.

But even still, as the crowd shuffles out of the American Airlines Arena, no one hangs their head. It’s not every day you see a tiger.