Wild stunts fire up elephant-free Ringling extravaganza

The 146th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus doesn’t have any elephants, and, guess what? They weren’t missed on Thursday’s opening night at Oracle Arena in Oakland.

Even though the pachyderms had a long, often controversial, history with the organization, it’s fitting they’re retired at a conservation center in Florida. The indignities to which they were subjected — including wearing ridiculous skirts and headbands — were quite beneath the majestic creatures.

Promoters of the new show, called “Out Of This World,” will have audiences believe it’s remarkable for its space-age setting, plentiful flashy lights and electronics (a number toward the beginning felt kind of like producer Zedd’s set at Outside Lands a few weeks ago), and actual story about a good ringmaster battling an evil queen. (What was discernible about the somewhat hard-to-follow plot, however, was its similarly to video games and, formerly, Saturday morning cartoons.)

Still, the best things about the spectacle are what have always been best: the thrilling stunts, powerful performers, and amazing animal acts.

Thursday’s heart-stopping moment came when the extraordinary female Cossack Rider didn’t successfully complete an “underbelly” climb, and, to an untrained eye, looked like she was about to trampled by a galloping horse. She got back on, and did it — whew!

On the cuter side was the dog and hog display, in which canines jumped hurdles and through hoops, and a pig went down a slide, to wild applause.

No matter what one might think about captive animals in show biz, and the concerns are real, the big cats — 10 tigers and two gorgeous male lions under the command of Alexander Lacey — were mesmerizing.

Trapeze artists and aerialists provided excitement in the air, while others’ feats were done with an apparatus.

New to the U.S., The Simet Family, dressed as astronauts, did an “intergalactic spacewalk” on a rotating wheel to open the show, and the Torres Family defied believability riding motorcycles at 65 mph inside a 16-foot diameter mesh globe.

Also new this year: Chinese acrobats executing feats on ice. These incredible “thrill skaters” formed human pyramids, dove through hoops, and glided on stilts. Sometimes they carried torches; they literally were on fire.

“Out Of This World” refreshingly has little filler; there are no dancers of moderate ability, as in previous productions, and even the clowns had their moments: Most notable was lead prankster Davis, who at the outset became rival to ringmaster Jonathan, and did some nifty physical work high in the air on a tightrope and 48-foot “breakaway sway pole.”

All in all, it was another fine example of family entertainment from the venerable circus troupe. Even without the elephants, it’s the greatest show on earth.

Out Of This World
Presented by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Where: Oracle Arena, 7000 Coliseum Way, Oakland
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 19 and Aug. 22; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Aug. 20; 1 and 5 p.m. Aug. 21
Tickets: $20 to $125
Contact: (800) 745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com
Note: The show runs Aug. 25-Sept. 5 at SAP Center in San Jose.

Leslie Katz

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