Fears of a Clown

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In the pavilion before the show, the circus is already working its magic

Clowns are scary. I didn't used to think so; I'm a longtime circus fan, and while the clowns were never my favorite part of the circus growing up, they never freaked me out either. In recent years I have realized that the general consensus is that clowns are pretty much terrifying. Think about it: garish makeup, frightful hair and giant shoes capable of crushing a small child — is it really any surprise? But a new and innovative Ringling Bros. circus just may force all the clown-ophobes out there to reconsider.

Barnum's Kaleidoscape is Ringling Bros.' first show to play under a tent in since 1956. Since then the big-time circus has been almost exclusively a creature of large multipurpose arenas, showing up at odd moments between ice hockey and tractor pulls. But the circus belongs in a tent, under the big top; better still, this one takes place in a single ring, which as far as I am concerned is the way the circus was meant to be seen. Sure, there is something to be said for the pure spectacle of the three-ring circus, but I always found it created a sensory overload that made it hard to focus on the feats of skill and daring that were taking place on the sawdust below.

The moment I entered the pavilion tent of Barnum's Kaleidoscape, I was thrown back to the old days of the carnival midway, surrounded by food and souvenir hawkers and performers on both the ground and on the stage. Granted, the food at this tent pitched in New York City's Bryant Park was a bit fancier and more expensive, but there was unmistakably the same feeling of excitement in the air. Surrounded by artists performing small tricks, juggling, singing and playing, the crowd was not only warmed up but also invited into the intimate circus experience to come.

THE STAR OF THE SHOW is the self-proclaimed "Clown of Clowns," David Larible. Larible won the 1999 International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo Golden Clown Award, and in Barnum's Kaleidoscape, he has found the perfect venue to show off his estimable talents, which would otherwise be wasted in the chaos of a three-ring show.

Kaleidoscape wastes no time in introducing its star. He makes an appearance sans makeup before the show even starts; then, in a clever opening number, the entire cast helps Larible get into costume and in character. It's like seeing one of the great mysteries of the circus revealed before your eyes.

There is no ringmaster in Kaleidoscape. Instead Larible and his foil, the classic European whitefaced clown Pipo, act as introduction and interlude for the show's wide range of acts. Larible is perhaps at his best when interacting with the crowd, constantly pulling audience members into the show to take part in his world. Larible is an excellent improviser, and whether the shanghaied volunteer is willing or disagreeable, the result is almost always hilarious.

I ALWAYS HOPE TO SEE SOMETHING NEW at the circus, something that draws from the great tradition of circus acts and puts a new spin on it. There is plenty of new circus to be seen in Kaleidoscope, with only one or two acts falling flat once the novelty wears off.

Among the exceptional acts are the Kabanov, Russian aerial acrobats who perform flips and drops from a swaying platform. Breaking with the circus convention of aerial acts defying gravity, the Kabanov embrace it, turning somersaults as they fall from a high moving perch, always landing safely on the tent floor.

Perhaps in an effort to present a kinder, gentler animal act, Kaleidoscape puts forth Olga Rogacheva and her trained geese. Yes, geese. There is undoubtedly a moment of wonder as the fowl take to the ring and perform a series of maneuvers. Who would have thought geese could be trained to do anything? And when you realize that they aren't really doing much, you think that there may be a reason no one has done it before. The most remarkable thing about the act was seeing Hungarian fourth-generation circus performer Istvan Toth, who stands 27 inches tall, almost completely hidden by the flock.

I have strongly mixed feelings about whether animals belong in the circus or not. The traditionalist in me says keep 'em in — I can't imagine a circus without animals. The animal lover in me, while thrilled just to catch a glimpse of them, often veers between discomfort and amazement at the unusual acts they are made to perform.

That said, there should always be a place in the circus for horses. The very first circus acts were horse acts, and the circus ring itself was established and perfected in order to allow a rider to stand and perform tricks on a moving horse. When it comes to equestrian acts, Kaleidoscape does not disappoint. Sylvia Zerbini's glowing white Liberty horses enter the ring as magically as if they were a herd of unicorns, and gracefully circle the ring responding to her every word and motion.

ALL IN ALL, KALEIDOSCAPE offers a heaping spoonful of both the traditional and the new, all in an environment that allows the audience to become immersed in the whole circus experience and, most importantly, to have fun. And if it makes the world a safer place to be a clown, well, that's just icing on the cake.

Barnum's Kaleidoscape is playing in New York City's Bryant Park from Nov 21 to Dec 31, and will soon be travelling to San Diego, CA.