Death-Defying Humans and Puppet Elephants

Sam Wisneski, Ordway 5/2/17

CIRCUS 1903—The Golden Age of Circus

Neil Dorward and Simon Painter are proud circus geeks. They love the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus so much, they fashioned their new entertainment spectacle Circus 1903 largely in nostalgic tribute to the tradition P.T. Barnum started in 1875 as a traveling museum in Wisconsin.

Barnum called his circus, which traveled with as many as 1,200 live animals, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Painter calls Circus 1903 “The Most Amazing Show on Earth,” and it travels with … zero live animals. The family-friendly spectacle celebrates The Golden Age of Circus with all the strong men, acrobats, and aerialists you might expect, alongside magnificent elephant … puppets.

“My original idea was to bring elephants back to the circus,” said Painter, the Creative Producer, “but obviously we couldn’t use real ones.” Instead, his Circus 1903 elephants were designed by the award-winning puppeteers from the acclaimed Broadway play War Horse. The elephants, a mother and her baby, are brought to life by stilt-walkers. One works the mother’s head, one works the hind legs, and one, Painter says with unabashed sentimentality, “works the heart.”

“[…The elephants] really feel like they are 100 percent real when they are on stage,” said Dorward, the Director and Choreographer. “I sat next to this lady in the audience, and she thought it was a real elephant. People are very moved by them, and they are a very special part of the show.”

And no animals are harmed … because there are no live animals.

“I think [audiences] want to see the spectacle. That’s why they come to the circus. So we really wanted to put the acts front and center, with an old-fashioned ringmaster. Our show focuses on showmanship and grandeur. This is really, legitimately, the greatest acts in the world performing very high and very fast.”


See CIRCUS 1903 on the Ordway Music Theater stage June 27 – July 2. CIRCUS 1903 is a part of the Ordway Musical Theater series, sponsored by Bremer Bank. This article is an excerpt of a larger piece written by John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist – Denver Center for the Performing Arts. This article was reused by permission of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

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