The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated, Gandhi once said.
That’s instructive today because a small, little-known travelling family circus based outside Cologne, Germany has done away with poking tigers with cattle-prods, shackling elephants together in leg irons and using whips to subdue lions, and instead has opted to go with holograms, in a dazzling display of light and emotion that is starting to gain traction in the global, worldwide community at large.
Circus Roncalli has been entertaining small crowds since 1976, but those crowds are apt to grow much larger now that the circus’ technological innovation — making the unimaginable real — is making waves on YouTube and a growing number of North American television news magazines.
Elephants still trumpet and shake their tusks and wild horses still parade before acrobats in fiery circles, but it’s all illusion — Cirque du Soleil in the age of CGI and holographic imagery. (The hard numbers are just that, cold numbers, but here they are anyway: 3D hologram projectors — ZU850 Optoma laser projectors, 11 of them in all, calibrated to a contrast resolution of 2 million-to-one — create a visual parade of images that fills an arena 30 metres wide (105 feet) and five metres (16 feet) deep, with a view of 360°. No unsighted seating here.)
The arena may not be of Barnum & Bailey dimensions, but that isn’t the point: The point is that Roncalli founder-director Bernhard Paul has created an entertainment in which cruelty to animals, real or imagined, is no longer a factor.
What’s more, crowds are not just entertained but dazzled. Very young children don’t know the difference between reality and illusion, and their parents can’t help but marvel at the technology — even if they;re predisposed against the idea of circuses with performing animals. If nothing else, Roncalli has dispelled the argument that “It can’t be done,” along with the old canard that audiences won’t pay to see something that isn’t real.
“Times change, also opinions change,” Paul told the public advocacy group Educate Inspire Change (EIC) in an interview this past summer. “In the beginning of 2016, I had the wish to show animals in the circus in a poetic and modern way.”
Roncalli’s initial focus was on the tireds-and-true in circus entertainment: clowns, acrobats, “and poets acts [sic].”
The more Paul thought about it, the more sense
advanced technology seemed to make.
“We just visit cities where we have special places, like Vienna where we play at the town hall square [City Hall Square, home of Vienna’s annual Music Film Festival],” he explained. “There is no space anymore for animals and not really green fields. In the past, we played at Moscow, Amsterdam and Sevilla. So new cities in Europe are of course possible in the future. It is important, though, that we get a special and central place. Many cities want to invite us. This year we are touring in Germany, for example Hamburg and Munich.”
Paul is a dreamer, but also a realist. He’s found a way to make fantasy real, while keeping the audience in mind.
“As a circus you have to be open-minded for everything, especially the feelings of the audience,” he told EIC. “‘Cause the audience is our boss. When you feel that the audience does not approve of something, then you have to change it.”
Over the years, he had noticed growing public sentiment against the idea of animals performing in captivity, be it a zoo, circus or aquarium.
“After the announcement not to use any animals at our shows, we received more than 20,000 emails and letters from all over the world, 95% positive feedback.”
Other circuses — especially those that rely on performing animals — were not so happy.
“Since last year I did call my circus not anymore just a circus. I call it now Circus-Theatre Roncalli. Because we were and are now also more close with theatres.”
Circus-Roncalli is still working to push the envelope, so to speak — for example, finding a way to make it appear as if the holographic animals are jumping into the audience.
“We continue to work on the holography,” Paul said. “So far, we are pioneers. The modern technology is quite intense. Again, there may be technical problems. But so far everything works very well.”
Circus-Roncalli has other ideas, as well.
“We have also changed a lot outside the ring. We are the first circus that is going to be free of plastic. For example, our popcorn is only sold in paper bags instead of plastic bags. In addition, we now also offer vegan and vegetarian food.”