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What Is the Future of the Circus in America?


Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performers ride camels during a performance, Jan. 14, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end the "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May after 146 years.


Many Americans think a circus must have elephants, lions, dancing bears and acrobats. But circuses are changing.

In May, after traveling the country for almost 150 years, the large Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will close.

But different kinds of circuses are still successful. They include Cirque du Soleil. It combines music, acrobatics and story-telling.

Adam Woolley operates Circus Now, a non-profit group that supports efforts by circus performers to combine traditional circus skills like acrobatics, juggling and the trapeze with storytelling.

Woolley says circuses have been changing for many years by increasingly telling stories.

“Circus artists have been producing new and incredible circus acts and apparatuses and shows that have an artistic context and theatrical storylines, or well-drawn characters. And this has been happening around the world for the past 10, 15 years or so.”

One of those circuses is the Race Horse Company from Finland. It was part of the Circus Now festival in New York this month.

Acrobat Rauli Kosonen started the circus with a few other performers nine years ago.

“I think it’s really pure art form, in the sense that you can really feel the risks -- there’s a lot of risks, so you can get a lot of adrenaline while you watch it if there is kind of tricks that make your heart bounce. Because it’s real. They can see that if they make a mistake, they might get hurt. So, I guess that’s always been why circus is appealing. It reminds us that, uh, we’re humans.”

Kosonen has been injured many times during his performances.

“Well, I had three operations and its part of the job; sometimes you don’t get lucky.”

Kendall Rileigh is one of the founders of New York’s Only Child Aerial Theatre. She says, with her group, telling a story, or a narrative, is even more important than the skills of performing in a circus. She says the skills the performers learn are designed to drive and support the story.

In a former factory in Brooklyn, Rileigh’s performers are preparing for the latest show -- called “Asylum.”

Co-founder Nicki Miller says there is a story, but none of the performers speaks. The story is told through acrobatics, dance, music and projected images and shadow.

“We would describe it as a theater piece that includes a lot of aerial work, dance, some recorded music, some live music and overhead projection and shadow. So, the story is told, rather than through dialogue, through the conversation of all of those theatrical vocabularies, instead.”

Adam Woolley says the Only Child and Race Horse performers simply want to entertain people.

“With lots of practice and hard work, we can accomplish the impossible. That’s the core idea that everyone in circus believes in and that everyone in circus tries to impart to the audiences, is that ‘I have dedicated my life to this seven minutes of performance and honed my skill to the place where I’m going to accomplish something in front of you now that you did not think could be done.’”

I’m John Smith.

Correspondent Jeff Lunden reported this story from New York. John Smith adapted the story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section, or visit our Facebook page.

Editor's Note: The original story incorrectly identified Kendall Rileigh's gender. Kendall Rileigh is a female.

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Words in This Story

acrobat – n. someone who entertains people (as at a circus) by performing difficult and often dangerous acts (such as swinging from a bar or walking on a rope high in the air)

trapeze – n. a short bar that is hung high above the ground by two ropes and that is held by circus performers who perform athletic tricks on it

incredible – adj. extremely good, great or large

apparatus – n. a tool or piece of equipment used for specific activities

context – n. the situation in which something happens : the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens

adrenaline – n. a substance that is released in the body of a person who is feeling a strong emotion (such as excitement, fear, or anger) and that causes the heart to beat faster and gives the person more energy

appealing – adj. having qualities that people like; pleasing or attractive

shadow – n. a dark shape that appears on a surface when someone or something moves between the surface and a source of light

overhead projector – n. a device that shows information or pictures on a wall or screen by shining a light through a sheet with the information or pictures on it

vocabulary – n. words that are related to a particular subject; all of the words known and used by a person

core – n. the most important or basic part of something

impart – v. to make (something) known to someone

hone – v. to make (something, such as a skill) better or more effective

accomplish – v. to succeed in doing (something)

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