'The Greatest Show on Earth' flies into town Circus: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's latest edition features an interactive adventure for ticket holders and Airiana the Human Arrow.


March 06, 1997|By Sara Marsh | Sara Marsh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Where do you find cavorting clowns, ponderous pachyderms, leaping lions, terrifying tigers, amazing acrobats and jolly jugglers all under one roof? Anyone who has ever experienced "The Greatest Show On Earth" knows the answer -- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The 126th edition of the ever-changing show for all ages rolls into Baltimore next week for a 12-day run, starting March 12. Circus officials promise a spectacular series of 19 performances that will astound audiences with the amazing feats of a variety of animals and artist/athletes, including Airiana the Human Arrow, who flies with the aid of the world's largest crossbow.

"The heart of the show hasn't changed," said Jeffrey Steele, its performance director. "It all comes down to a clown, a dancer, a performer making contact with 14,000 people per show."

Along with the dizzying array of 140 performers and 100-plus animals, the $7 million production features an interactive Three-Ring Adventure before each performance. Kids don't have to dream of running away with the circus. They can join right in.

The hands-on adventure seminar allows any ticket holder to arrive at the arena an hour before a scheduled performance to get a chance to swing on a trapeze, stroll along a low wire, dress as a clown and learn other tricks of the trade from the performers themselves.

"They [ticket holders] see the show and what these [performers] can actually do with the equipment ... and it takes on a whole new meaning," Steele said, explaining why Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey added the hands-on seminar.

In addition to the Three-Ring Adventure, the latest edition of the circus features the Quiros of Spain, who leap, lunge and hold sword fights on the high wire; the Flying Vargas and the Flying Tabares, who do a triple somersault as part of their trapeze act; animal trainer Graham Thomas Chipperfield and his elephants and tigers; the Kyrgyz Riders from Central Asia and their horses; and Marguerite Michelle, who hangs by her hair.

Finally, there's Airiana the Human Arrow. As the production's "spectacular feat," Airiana's act is the climax of the 2 1/4-hour circus performance.

Claiming to be the only person in the world who can fly, Airiana is shot across the three rings and into a net at 60 mph from a 22-foot-high crossbow that weighs about 5,000 pounds, show officials said. Taking pictures or video is prohibited during Airiana's act, which occurs in the darkened arena at the end of the show.

Circus officials such as Steele, as well as Airiana herself, are tight-lipped when it comes to details of the final act and about the star herself. Steele will say the act was designed to re-create a similar feat that was part of the circus 100 years ago. Details of that original act are gone, save for what's printed on a few remaining posters from the time, he said.

"[Airiana] has a curious background," Steele said during a telephone interview from Charlotte, N.C., where the circus is wrapping up a series of performances. "She doesn't really want to get into her personal background. She wants to emphasize the show."

Airiana, who accepts questions in writing, will reveal only that she is a Sagittarius and that she trained in secret for months before joining Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

"I'm like the human mind, which travels where it wants," she wrote. "I'm from and of the imagination."

Airiana, who said she joined the circus after Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey president and producer Kenneth Feld sought her out, makes about 537 flights each year. The flights require her to hold her body perfectly motionless, lest she zoom off course, and to employ intense concentration, Airiana said.

"I must totally concentrate on the flight and have complete confidence in what I am doing to succeed," she wrote, noting, "I also dedicate each flight to someone or something that is good in the world and needs to be recognized."

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has two circus units -- red and blue -- that travel the country simultaneously. Performers with the blue unit, which is the group coming to Baltimore, are on the second year of a two-year tour, traveling from city to city on a 27-coach train.

After hundreds of shows, the performers keep their acts fresh by constantly working to improve them, Steele said.

"It's not just live entertainment in my mind," he said. "It's a live entity. The successful shows never stop changing."

The concept for the current show came from director-choreographer Danny Herman, who followed his 5-year-old nephew around for a day to find out what amused children of all ages. From that research came a production designed to be full of action, colorful costumes and music that will appeal to grandparents on down to their grandchildren, Steele said.

"The show opens with the words, 'Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages ... ' We take that quite to heart," he said. "We live under a banner every day that says 'The Greatest Show On Earth.' We take that seriously."


What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Where: Baltimore Arena

When: March 12-23; performance times vary

Tickets: $9.50-$16.50; children under 12 save $2; group rates available

Call: (410) 481-SEAT

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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