Ringling Bros.' big top sets up shop



SHE ENTERS just before intermission. This is what the audience has been waiting for. Into the darkened arena floats a huge glass globe, and from within it rises Sara Houcke, the headliner for the 130th edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth. It is a star's entrance.

Lowered into a cage with eight full-grown Bengal tigers, the 23-year-old doesn't flinch. She doesn't puff up, wield a chair or shout at the animals. Instead, she gently demonstrates her control through hand signals and intimate whispers. And they obey, looking like overgrown house pets as they strut for Sara, sit, roll over or lie down. But there's no mistaking these cats for your average tabby. At about seven feet long, they weigh between 400 and 500 pounds.

"I'm never allowed to forget that these are still wild animals," says Sara, who's known by her first name only. "And you can't tame an animal that has wild instincts. If one gets [angry] at me, it can do whatever it wants to me. Sometimes I have to keep my distance."

Sara's presentation is one of several brand-new acts to join the circus' blue unit, which performs 19 shows at the Baltimore Arena beginning next Wednesday. The usual entertainment is there, of course: playful clowns, skilled acrobats, parading animals. But this year, the stakes have been raised, and danger is the main attraction.

"The human race is voyeuristic in that sense," says Phil McKinley, the show's performance director. "We are attracted to danger. It's a reason we go to see sports-car events or see a terrible accident and want to look away, but can't. We're drawn to it."

And Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey doesn't disappoint.

The Ayala Sisters, following in their mother's footsteps, spin high above the circus floor. They dangle from their pony tails, which are attached to cables. While spinning and dangling, they also juggle flaming clubs.

"We must trust our cable men," says Michelle, half of the duo. "If they yank too hard, our necks and backs could be injured." In 1982, the sisters' mother fell 30 feet to the floor and into a coma while performing the same routine. She couldn't work for three years.

Anton Beliakov, a 24-year-old with classic-ballet training, launches himself 40 feet through the air gripping only two leather straps anchored to the ceiling. He wills his body into a graceful and athletic bird. When he used to perform in Europe, the final, headlong plunge he takes earned him the name Icarus, after the mythological figure who, drunk with new powers of flight, took too many risks and plummeted to his death.

"I stop a split second before catastrophe," Beliakov says.

And then there are the Quiros. The high-wire quartet takes wire-walking to a treacherous new level by performing their act on 5/8 -inch-wide steel cables placed two-tiered style, one above the other.

"The dangers of four artists on double-decker wires are huge," says Angel Quiros. "The instant your attention lapses, that's when you can fall. And there is no net. ... Our life is on the wire." Literally.

But Sara, christened the Tiger Whisperer, makes the biggest impact.

"She makes it look so effortless," McKinley says. "But she hand-feeds the tigers, which is extremely dangerous. The trust that it takes for her to walk up to a cat and put her hand that close is incredible. They move within milliseconds and can lash out."

Traditionally, tiger trainers, who are usually male, reward the animals for their performances with meat on the end of a long stick, but Sara prefers closer contact in the cage. Her predecessor, Richard Chippenfield, was attacked by a tiger during a publicity event in 1998. He's still recovering.

"A lot of men say I'm playing with fire," she says. "But it's just different. I still have control."

Sara's drawn worried criticism for her gentle touch, but she stresses that her approach, which she calls feminine and quiet, is as strong as any man's.

"When a woman performs, it just looks a lot nicer," says Sara, who still cracks a whip to get the tigers' attention. "A man will be screaming and shouting, but with me, it's more calm. It's about the relationship between me and the cats."

Sara developed her relationship with the tigers slowly. She spent three months just getting to know them - cleaning out their cages (a job for which she's still responsible), feeding them and sitting with them. She learned their moods and their personalities, which she says vary from stubborn to precocious, and she let them get used to her at the same time.

Sara also needed the time to get used to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"It was a whole different feel," she says of joining the circus in 1999. "I'm used to working in a European circus with a small tent that seats maybe 200 people. Here you're in a huge arena with three rings and sometimes up to 2,000 people watching you."

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