From Vaudeville to old medicine shows to Cirque du Soleil, America’s love affair with the circus has endured. And, for many, the one beneath the Big Top remains the most enchanting of all.
“There is a certain spirit of the circus that continues to attract people to the show even after 144 years,” says Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson. “People love a spectacle, and the idea of a miracle. Watching someone like my assistant Paulo fly through the air or perform these strenuous acrobatics impeccably, as a little person, it’s like a miracle.”
“His skills show how we can transcend our own limitations,” he continues. “The circus is like a world of miracles.”
Iverson has a commanding presence, standing at about 6'3" — 6'6" if he’s wearing his red, white and blue-sequined top hat. At his side, more often than not, is his 4-foot-tall Brazilian assistant and sidekick, Paulo dos Santos. The two are like peas in a pod. Almost unconsciously, in conversation, one will proudly tout the other’s skills, while the recipient of the praise smiles modestly in recognition. For the past three years the two have traveled, lived, practiced and performed together in 1,200 shows.
They’ll perform a few more here in Boston in “Dragons,” a two-and-half-hour show celebrating the Year of the Dragon, in which acrobats soar through the air; lions, tigers and elephants gallantly perform alongside their trainers; and countless men fearlessly enter what has appropriately been dubbed the Globe of Death.
Nearly 130 circus performers display their acrobatic skills and push what seem like superhuman extremes in an attempt to emulate the elusive dragon, whose attributes of courage, wisdom and strength are demonstrated in the incredible circus acts themselves.
“We have a great relationship that thrives on the fact that we both continue to teach each other new things,” says Santos, of his co-star. “We both have always dreamed of performing for audiences as large as we are now, and can’t be more grateful to have the opportunity to put on a show that makes so many people happy.”
It’s hard for Iverson and Santos to imagine a life without the circus. “The circus is truly a lifestyle. It’s all that we do, and who we are,” says Iverson. “We are a unique little community where everything revolves around the circus. We work together, we live together, and we travel together. We really are the things that we do in the show, there’s no acting.”
After 15 years with Ringling Bros., Iverson isn’t surprised that so many people continue to flock to the circus each year.
“There is something about authenticity that audiences respect,” he says. “Every year we continue to create an innovative circus spectacular.”