Entertainment & Life

Circus goes to new extremes in show due in Sacramento

The Freewheelers BMX Riders, led by David Mahoney, perform as part of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus Xtreme.
The Freewheelers BMX Riders, led by David Mahoney, perform as part of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus Xtreme. Courtesy of Feld Entertainment, Inc.

Slackline walkers, BMX riders and parkour artists in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Xtreme will test gravity and physics for four days at Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena.

In other words, this is not your grandparents’ circus.

Ringling Bros. added extreme sports to its show in January, a date that also marked its 145th year as a traveling act. Circus Xtreme, which makes dozens of stops across the country, has already drawn thousands of inquisitive fans wondering how the venerable presenter will balance the new with the traditional.

“You’re going to see a lot of staples of the circus that you’re expecting,” said Kenny Short, one of the show’s BMX riders. “But you’ll also see a new, fun twist that isn’t as traditional, but is equally exciting and engaging.”

Mainstays of the circus – acrobats, clowns, strongmen, trapeze artists, dancers and trained animals – are still part of the show, which runs Thursday, Sept. 17 through Sunday, Sept. 20 in Sacramento. The “extreme” portion is a freshly choreographed extreme sport medley, performed by athletes from around the globe.

In one sequence, eight BMX riders use ramps to perform in-air tricks while seven Ukrainian freerunners toss one another skyward, bouncing and flipping off walls. In another, a Brazilian slackliner flips high above the ground before gracefully landing on a thin, elastic cable while seven trampoline artists soar in an aerial display.

“For the audience, (the act) looks like chaos,” said Short. “They’ll get to see so many different tricks and flips at once – it’s an extremely high energy but persistent and precise act.”

As the act nears its end, BMX riders invite two children and two adults from the audience to participate in lessons and bike stunts. The show ends in a burst of fireworks, Short said.

The addition of extreme sports was made by Ringling Bros. as a bid to stay fresh and relevant with audiences.

“This year is unlike anything Ringling has ever done before,” said Circus Xtreme Ringmaster David Shipman. “We are keeping up with the times. In current days of (computer generated imagery), it’s rare for people to get such a live and up-close look at the passion and skill of circus performers.”

The addition of extreme sports has been well-received by attendees thus far, performers said.

“One of the best parts of my job as the ringmaster is getting to look into an audience and see just how much fun everyone is having,” Shipman said. “Beyond the positive reviews, I’ve seen that audiences are super engaged and on the edge of their seats.”

Shipman said he has added an unconventional twist on the ringmaster’s traditional role, using song and dance as a way to engage audiences.

Behind the scenes, the performers live, travel, train and recreate together, much like early days of the traveling circus. This contributes to a close-knit, family atmosphere offstage, Shipman said.

Many members still opt to live and travel by Ringling Brothers’ private train – an antique locomotive with 61 rail cars, stretching more than a mile long.

Performers teach one another their best tricks in their idle time, Shipman said. However, a “healthy level of competition” is present at all times amongst the cast – and the rivalry is only heightened with extreme athletes tossed in the mix this year.

“When you have such incredible athletes and performers in one place, it’s incredible to see them come together,” Shipman said. “We definitely keep each other at the top of our game – and that’s part of what makes this a spectacular show.”

Circus Xtreme

What: A mix of traditional circus acts and extreme sports

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17; 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18; 11 a.m. and 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20

Where: Sleep Train Arena (1 Sports Parkway, Sacramento)

Cost: $14.35-$101.50

Info: (916) 928-6900; sleeptrainarena.com

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus

  • In the late 1800s, the Ringling brothers, and partners P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey, gained popularity in the United States with their large-scale circuses.
  • Following the death of Barnum, Bailey sold Barnum & Bailey Circus’ “The Greatest Show On Earth” to the Ringling Bros. for $400,000 in 1907.
  • The two circuses performed and traveled separately for several years, and finally combined shows in 1919.
  • “The Greatest Show On Earth,” presented by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, now has three shows that travel to cities nationwide throughout the year.
  • In January, the presenter added extreme sports – slacklining, trampolining, parkour and BMX – to its repertoire, introducing Circus Xtreme.