June 7, 2018 — opening night of the Royal Canadian Circus in Abbotsford. It’s cool for June, and the crowd is anxious to launch through the gates. Children giggle and run around parents’ legs; adults murmur to each other, craning their necks to see inside the red and yellow striped tents. At 6:30 p.m. sharp, the gates are unlatched, and the crowd presses forward.
In 1793, the first circus appeared in North America, thanks to a man named John Bill Ricketts. “The Circus of Pepin and Breschard,” as it was called, toured for 20-odd years and was the first to use large tents — big tops, as we know them — in place of wooden structures or buildings. However, the world’s largest circus, Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” never set foot in North America, touring Europe from 1897 until 1902.
What we call “contemporary circuses” didn’t show up until the 1970s. Contemporary circuses take traditional circus acts, such as strong men and tightrope walkers, and weave a narrative throughout. One such example is Cirque du Soleil, which was created in Quebec in 1984.
Of course, the Royal Canadian Circus tells a story. According to Joseph Dominic Bauer, ninth generation circus performer, “The story is all about how all these nations come together, young and old, and entertain for two hours and 15 minutes, live, with no trick photography. The show isn’t themed with a storyline — it’s about what you’re seeing.”
What we see is mesmerizing, even before the show starts. The gates now open, the crowd moves through the first, smaller tent, filled with the scent of soft pretzels; the walls lined with balloons and flashing toys. Just beyond is the big top. The walls of the big top are lined with folding chairs and benches, men walk around with trays of popcorn and snowcones, and in the middle of it all is the ring, surrounded by colourful lights and apparatuses that stretch to the ceiling, waiting to be used.
The Royal Canadian Circus fits into the category of contemporary circuses. Started over 20 years ago, it’s still going strong today. It embodies a perfectly Canadian performance.
“When you think of Canada you think multicultural, and that’s what we are. We have nine nations. There’s acts from all the corners of the world,” said Bauer.
What he says is true. With acts hailing from China, Romania, Portugal, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, the United States, and Canada, the Royal Canadian Circus includes performers from nearly every continent. Bauer himself is of Swiss ancestry, but has made his home in Florida.
Bauer is the Royal Canadian Circus’ Ringmaster and Daredevil. He’s been performing since he was five years old, his first performance being in Osaka, Japan.
“My dad, being a pretty strong guy, would hold his arm out and I did a handstand there on his arm, and he would balance me and that’s all I did. For three months they’d announce the whole family and I’d come out and do the handstand, and I was in the show.”
Bauer has been performing for 47 years, headlining Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Brothers, and Barnum and Bailey Circus to name a few — and his children follow in his footsteps.
“My son, he’s in school right now but he’s dying to be in the circus. My daughter is in this circus five times, she’s in almost every act in the show. She’s an aerialist, she’s an equestrian, she does dressage, she’s in the wheel act with me, she’s in the high wire act at the end of the show, so she’s in all of it.”
Bauer’s daughter is indeed a staple of the circus. She can been seen twirling on a hoop suspended twenty feet in the air, assisting with both the equestrian act and the Wheel of Destiny, and urging on the tightrope walkers from the edge of the stage — this time, about fifty feet up.
When you think circuses, you think colourful striped tents, bags of peanuts and popcorn, even more colourful performers. You think tightropes, elephants balancing on balls a fraction of their size, roaring tigers, sequined women hanging from hoops. The Royal Canadian Circus doesn’t disappoint in fulfilling this classic image.
Throughout the show, we see the metallic-clad Chinese acrobats launching themselves through hoops, women in sparkly tights hanging upside down from velvet ropes, a man who juggles seven ping pong balls in his mouth, a duo from Romania whose clothing shifts from orange, to green, to white, to red, all in the blink of an eye. At one point, a man rides a bicycle over a tightrope, 50 feet from the ground. His partner walks across to meet him — while she croons to the audience in her smooth, operatic voice.
The entire performance, from start to finish — the aerialists, the backflips and somersaults, the glitter — is breathtaking. What doesn’t always come to mind are the dark parts of the circus, what goes on behind the scenes.
According to CBC News, much of what the circus animals face is cruel. Not only are they traveling and performing for 48 weeks of the year, but they’re susceptible to arthritis, dehydration, and genetic defects from captive inbreeding.
Though the Royal Canadian Circus doesn’t have any animals in its show — aside from one act that uses horses — Bauer clears the air on the previous treatment of their circus animals.
“We’ve never mistreated them, we never harmed them. Anyone with any education about animals knows you can’t get something from an animal by beating them. They’re gonna either be nasty at the end, or they’re not gonna do it. They’re going to shut down. With animals, you get more with honey than with lemons.”
What Bauer says rings true in the treatment of the horses. There is only one act where horses are used, with two horses being alternated throughout. The rider somersaults on one, backflips onto another. It lasts for all of five minutes, and the horses respond to the rider’s gentle directions.
Some people may feel robbed that the animals have been removed from the circus. After all, the classic circus image includes elephants ridden around the ring and a fearless trainer with a whip and a chair keeping the tigers at bay. But the circus won’t stop because one feature has been removed.
“It is what it is. We still want to continue the circus, the legacy, and this show. Whether you like seeing wild animals or not, I don’t think you’ll miss it because the show is so entertaining,” says Bauer.
But the animals aren’t the only ones who are exposed to dangerous conditions within the circus. Each and every performer takes a risk when they enter into the ring, whether that be riding bareback on a horse, riding a bike 50 feet off the ground, or, in the case of Bauer, defying gravity and chancing death on the Wheel of Destiny — an imposing apparatus that most people would balk at going near.
“I’ve had the wheel for 32 years. The wheel and I have been to Europe three times, to South East Asia twice, with Cirque du Soleil in Russia twice, and shows here in Canada like the Montreal International Jazz Festival in Montreal.”
Besides the wheel, Bauer has been performing daredevil stunts for over 35 years, including riding a motorcycle on a highwire and balancing on 90 foot poles that sway back and forth. But tonight, it’s just the wheel.
The lights dim and several crew members move into the ring, securing wires before the wheel is brought out. When the lights come back on, the Wheel of Destiny has appeared. It’s a large metal contraption, about 50 feet in length: on one end, a hollow ring with a diameter that can just fit a person standing up. At the other end, a smaller ring, about half the size of the other, for balance. The circles are connected by a web of metal resembling the large power lines that can be seen lining Discovery Trail, and are anchored to the ground by two metal legs that allow for the wheel to spin, head over tail. Bauer has transformed from Ringmaster to Daredevil. His black Ringmaster costume, which glitters from head to toe, had been exchanged; he’s now clad in what appears to be a black silk suit, with billowing white sleeves peeking from beneath his vest. He’s become on the outside what he harnesses from his innermost daring. All for the audience; for their merriment.
Within seconds, he’s inside the wheel and his assistant begins to spin it. He goes toward the roof and as he reaches the top he’s suspended in the air, like an astronaut in space, before being propelled back toward the ground. After a few rounds he swings himself outside of the wheel and stands up, running along the outer rim as it spins, again floating into the air — gravity is subservient to the Daredevil’s tricks.
At one point he stumbles, and the crowd gasps. The wheel is brought to a stop and he rubs his ankle. But he doesn’t stop for long. He takes two pieces of black silk and ties them around his eyes, and the wheel starts up again. There are a few close calls, feet placed just slightly off as he runs. The tension is unmistakable. But he makes it to the bottom, removes the blindfolds, and bows to the crowd, an enormous grin on his face.
The first slip-up appeared very real — there was a split second where everything could have gone horribly wrong. But the others are questionable. Were they truly close calls, or were they well-timed mistakes to capture the audience’s attention even more? Regardless, all eyes were on Bauer as he swung untethered through the air.
As is apparent from tonight’s show, he’s taken some tumbles, but he’s come out rather unscathed — except for a close call in Atlantic City.
“I fell off the wheel in 2000 in Atlantic City on a stage at the Tropicana Casino. It was a stage show and the wheel came down and there were some cables that were too close to my rigging…my right foot hit it and threw me out to the side, and I rode it down but I got screws in this knee and a crushed elbow.”
But even that didn’t deter Bauer. “I’ve had a couple close ones, but nothing that made me say ‘Oh I’m scared, I can’t go up there anymore.’ I knew what it was, and it was time to fix it … I’m still in one piece. A few bangs and bumps, a few bolts here and there. But I’m still doing it.”
And despite the dangerous nature of Bauer’s performances, he’s not afraid. “I’m more concerned about my presentation…but then all of a sudden your ‘own’ takes over, and it’s you, it’s how you move or how you dance.”
Especially at the show tonight, the audience can see the very real threat of physical harm. But what we don’t think of is behind the scenes, how the circus functions when the lights are off and the tent comes down.
“It’s such a big expense. People might get the impression that ‘Oh, they’ve got full houses, they’re doing great’ but if you only knew how many expenses go into bringing this show here. With the fuel alone — with the drivers, with the office staff, with the marketing, with the artists, plane tickets, setting up…the food, the beverages, the novelties, everything that goes into it, if we don’t have decent houses, it’s almost impossible for us to function, to bring the show here.”
Yet that isn’t enough to deter Bauer or the rest of the crew from keeping the circus going. “It’s a passion, we all love it, we’ve all been working together for many years…we’re so thankful the audiences have been so happy with what we’ve presented. It’s great, a great feeling.”
For Bauer, the reaction he gets from the crowd is enough to help him push through the tough parts of performing. “What we’ve been having here is these full houses, jam packed, and you could do a three show day and say ‘Oh my legs are killing me, my head is hurting, we’ve done so many shows,’ and all of a sudden the audience give you this reward.”
And of course, taking the circus across Canada is an experience in itself. “The traveling is beautiful, seeing all these beautiful parts of Canada that are so picturesque. It’s like looking at a postcard.”
And Bauer is proud to be a part of it all, whether that be standing atop a wheel, suspended in air, or watching the faces in the crowd light up. “It’s the oldest form of family entertainment. It’s never been censored. It’s still nice when I’m out there and I see grandparents and grandkids sitting there, and nobody’s got their phone on, they’re just going ‘Wow, it’s all live.’ Things can happen, you never know in a live performance.”
“We’re very proud of this show. And I think the audience will feel the same way. They might think ‘Royal Canadian, well that’s a big name, something to live up to’ and we do. There’s a lot of love, a lot of talent.”
Again, Bauer is right. There is a lot of talent. As we walk out of the big top, the crowd buzzes. The rain has started, but no one seems to notice. Everyone is smiling and laughing. Everyone is happy to have come.
The Royal Canadian Circus is touring through Canada until Aug. 6, 2018. You can find out more about it on their website, www.royalcanadiancircus.ca