'Circus 1903': Death-defying humans … and puppet elephants

Neil Dorward and Simon Painter are proud circus geeks. The Brits love the quintessentially American Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus so much, they fashioned their new entertainment spectacle Circus 1903 largely in nostalgic tribute to the tradition P.T. Barnum started in 1875 as a traveling museum in Wisconsin.

That’s why recent news of Ringling’s impending demise went down like a double-edged sword down a contortionist’s throat. Ringling will play its final show on May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y. Promoters cited declining ticket sales, high operating costs and a decision to take live elephants off the road after protests from animal-rights activists.

Barnum called his circus, which traveled with as many as 1,200 live animals, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Painter calls Circus 1903 “The Most Amazing Show on Earth,” and it travels with … zero live animals.  The family friendly new spectacle, which plays under the Buell Theatre Big Top from Feb. 21-26, celebrates The Golden Age of Circus with all the strong men and acrobats and aerialists you might expect, alongside magnificent elephant … puppets.

Circus 1903 Quote“It’s very sad to us that Ringling is closing, because that’s 150 years of legacy,” Painter said. “It’s part of American history. Even putting the elephant controversy to one side, it’s a lot of people’s jobs. So I think it is a real shame.” But, Dorward added, “we are keeping the Ringling tradition alive for new generations to experience.” And there is no controversy about these elephants. After all … they’re puppets.

“My original idea was to bring elephants back to the circus,” said Painter, the Creative Producer, “but obviously we couldn’t use real ones.” Instead, his Circus 1903 elephants were designed by the award-winning puppeteers from the acclaimed Broadway play War Horse, which visited Denver in 2012. That’s the story of a British World War I soldier whose beloved horse, Joey, is sold into military service. Joey was brought to breathing, galloping onstage life by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. He was operated by four human puppeteers inside and around him.

Circus 1903 features two elephants – a mother and her baby. One stilt-walker works the mother’s head, one works the hind legs, and one, Painter says with unabashed sentimentality, “works the heart.”

“These guys from War Horse make the most unbelievable puppets, and they really feel like they are 100 percent real when they are on stage,” said Dorward, the Director and Choreographer. “I sat next to this lady in the audience, and she thought it was a real elephant. People are very moved by them, and they are a very special part of the show.”

And no animals are harmed … because there are no live animals.

“But make no mistake,” Painter said, “The rest of the circus acts in our show are really death-defying. Yes, we are very safety-conscious, and we have an amazing technical team. But we are risking lives every time we perform. These amazing acts very scary to watch, and we always have to be on our guard.”

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Dorward took a year to cast Circus 1903, scouring the globe for what he calls “raw, amazing circus talent.” There are 17 nationalities represented among the cast. “We have this amazing contortionist from Ethiopia. She’s just beautiful, and she bends herself in ways you have never seen before,” Dorward said. “We also have a family high-wire act from Mexico, and it’s pretty spectacular. And scary.”

Circus 1903 QuoteWhile Dorward and Painter both have artistic roots in Cirque du Soleil, they could not emphasize more strongly that Circus 1903 is not Cirque du Soleil, which takes more of a theatrical, character-driven approach to its shows – and without the use of performing animals. If you think of Cirque as contemporary circus, Painter said, Circus 1903 is a proudly old-school, turn-of-the-century throwback. The first act shows the company rehearsing backstage and raising the tent, followed by the actual circus performance. “Our production is much more about life back in the day of circus, and the people who worked there,” said Dorward. As opposed to Cirque, which is more narrative-based.

“It would have been really easy for us to call our show Cirque 1903, but we didn’t want to do a story about, you know – searching for the soul of the clown,” Painter said. “I think audiences these days are a little bit bored with that. I think they want to see the spectacle. That’s why they come to the circus. So we really wanted to put the acts front and center, with an old-fashioned ringmaster. Our show focuses on showmanship and grandeur. This is really, legitimately, the greatest acts in the world performing very high and very fast.”

Circus 1903 Tightropers. Photo by Mark Turner.

Painter and Dorward are also part of the creative team behind The Illusionists, Live From Broadway, which, coincidentally, visits Denver from May 21-23, That show, Painter says, is seven of the greatest magicians in the world, each doing 10-minute sets.

At a time when there is so much division in America and rancor in public discourse, the Brits think the time is perfect for the kind of theatrical escape they provide. 

“Our shows are entertainment pieces,” Painter said. “We’re not trying to tell you a deep story or change your political views. We’re just trying to entertain you. And our shows are  hysterically funny. So whatever your political beliefs, or whether you are happy or sad or worried or upset or confused about the world right now, laughing together in a roomful of people is fantastic medicine – and we provide that with both of our shows.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Circus 1903 – The Golden Age of Circus: Ticket information
The story: Circus 1903 – The Golden Age of CircusSensational puppetry puts elephants back in the ring as never seen before with a cast of unique, amazing and dangerous circus acts, from strong men to contortionists, acrobats to musicians, knife throwers, high wire and more.
• Feb. 21-26
• Buell Theatre
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829

For more information on The Illusionists (coming May 21-23), please visit here

A Circus 1903 Elephant 800 3Circus 1903. Photo by Mark Turner.

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