Can we indulge in innocent enjoyment of the Greatest Show on Earth, or is it time to leave the past behind?

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Can we indulge in innocent enjoyment of the Greatest Show on Earth, or is it time to leave the past behind?
Seth Kubersky

I generally try to stick to the lighter side, but occasionally I wade into more controversial areas, from the construction of the Dr. Phillips Center to the latest round of theme-park cutbacks. But no topic reliably triggers heated responses like my annual reports from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This year was no exception: I was at Amway Center for last week's Orlando premiere of Circus Xtreme, the circus' 145th edition, when I received my first tweet admonishing me that it's "not cool to support the torture of animals."

As a lover of both animals and circus arts, I confess to being conflicted over my annual pilgrimage to the "Greatest Show on Earth." I started attending circuses as a small child during the golden era of Gunther Gebel-Williams. Those gloriously cheesy productions, staged by Irving Feld and his son Kenneth, helped kindle my appreciation for spectacle, athleticism and the delicate art of safely scaring the shit out of your audience. As a suburban kid, the circus – along with occasional trips to the zoo – offered my only exposure to live exotic animals, which helped develop my empathy for endangered species.

With that background, I began reviewing each year's new edition of the Ringling Bros. circus, starting with 2010's FUNundrum and sometimes traveling to Feld Entertainment's winter quarters outside Tampa to see previews. It's been fascinating following Ringling's development under producers Nicole and Alana Feld (daughters of Kenneth) as they've modernized and energized the experience for today's audiences. But at the same time, I've become increasingly uneasy over the past half-decade about my enjoyment of the show's non-human stars.

The most wonderful thing about covering the circus is the surreal moments that you stumble across backstage; while being led backstage within the bowels of the Amway Center, we saw a clown in full costume buying a snack from a vending machine. That juxtaposition of the absurd and prosaic was a prelude to our preshow interviews, which directly confronted the dichotomy I'm still struggling with.

On the one hand, I had the opportunity to speak with ringmaster David Shipman, a Pensacola native and former Orlando resident who attended UCF and performed in area theater before running away to join the circus (with the encouragement of his mom). Shipman – whose duties during the show include singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and several cheerfully forgettable pop anthems, wearing elaborately sequined tailcoats, and grinning winningly – appeared honestly ebullient in his appreciation for the role, and the performers around him. (You can watch the interview on our blog.)

Following that, I interviewed Ryan Henning, the animal care specialist primarily responsible for the tour's six Asian elephants, whom he calls "divas." Henning spoke passionately about the 26 babies born since the early 1990s through Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation breeding program, and the $65,000 per year spent providing each elephant "the highest standards of care 24/7." But when I gently pressed him on how that compares to the money Ringling is making off these animals, and how he knows these creatures raised in captivity are truly happy, I didn't get beyond PR-approved platitudes about trainers being their charges' "best friends."

Following the "all access preshow," an up-close onstage encounter with the performers that has become my favorite part of the package, Circus Xtreme proved to be the best-paced, tightest circus I've ever seen Feld produce. The opening parade didn't wear out its welcome for once, and as each act ended another was instantly ready to start, with a minimum of show-slowing clown schtick or dance filler. Comic acrobats Alex and Irina Emelin, acting as competitive explorers, provide a thin strand of plotline that thankfully never gets in the way. Gemma "The Jet" Kirby's human cannonball act had an effervescent Broadway vibe, Mongolian strongmen and female camelback riders provided international flair, and the finale's slack-line stunts and BMX tricks were sharply staged.

When the elephants appear as the finale of Act One, you can instantly tell that controversy has impacted the presentation. We're now told that standing on their heads mimics natural hole-digging behavior, and the bullhook's use is explained. I appreciate the educational angle, but when I look into the eyes of a 58-year-old elephant, I can't honestly tell if she enjoys turning in circles for the clapping crowd. But then, I'm never really sure if my cat purrs and kisses my face because he loves me or if he just wants food. As with post-Blackfish SeaWorld, part of me wishes I could return to innocent enjoyment of the product, while the rest wants them to salvage what's still positive about the show by leaving behind the past. Perhaps it's time Ringling's elephants (and Shamu) became corporate icons instead of current employees.

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