“No animals were harmed during the making of this motion picture.”
That Humane Society disclaimer is familiar to anyone who’s stayed to watch the end credits of any movie featuring animals, or bothered to watch the end titles of a TV show featuring the same, whether it’s a family-friendly classic like Lassie or a post-modern Netflix western like Godless.
Hardly anyone expected to see that of the circus, however. The treatment of animals in circuses — everything from locking tigers in tiny box cages for days and weeks at a time to forcing elephants to perform balancing acts before as giggling crowd — has been a cause célèbre of animal-rights activists for decades now, and rightly so. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, aka “the Greatest Show on Earth,” took down its tentpoles for good several years ago because the travelling carnival act was no longer welcome in many towns and cities across the Americas, largely because of mistreatment of animals and the appalling conditions they were kept in.
For career performance artist, one-time circus clown and academically accredited circus historian Bernhard Paul, the circus — not just his Circus Roncalli, founded in Germany, but the circus as an institution — needed a complete makeover, if it was to survive.
He came up with a novel idea — holograms, not real animals. This is David Attenborough-type stuff, writ large, in 3D. His elephants are remarkable, and beautiful, and they pull off amazing stunts. They’re not real, though; they’re digitized images, CGI at its most stylish, images so realistic they’re almost real. And no animals are harmed in the performance of his circus act. Even domesticated animals like ponies trotting in circles or dogs jumping through hoops of fire — all holograms.
Where have all the animals gone? Aren’t the kiddies disappointed?
“Pah,” Paul replied, when asked that very question by a trade publication earlier this month. (Yes, the circus industry — such as it is — has its own trade publication.)
“Every child knows what an elephant looks like today, but you do not have to show it anymore.”
The David Attenborough effect, again.
Circus Roncalli’s philosophy in a nutshell: They decided against having the animals for the benefit of the animals.
Apart from the societal and ethical considerations, there’s a practical reason, too: Circus Roncalli prefers to play in city centres and town-hall squares — places “where there are not many appropriate accommodations for animals, since suitable pastures for the horses (for example) are often found only outside the cities.”
There’s no room at the Ritz for Mr. Ed, in other words.
Paul, 71, has been around the block a few times. It’s been a while since he last played Zeppo the clown in front of a live audience, but he’s filling seats in the big tent just the same. The artist-previously-known-as-Zeppo has put some serious time — and money — into his digital productions: two years and €300,000, to be exact, to design a proprietary computer program that uses holography, 11 high-performance beam projectors and a transparent screen — a net, actually — that rises in front of the audience. Technology, not animals.
Circus Roncalli’s main tent is 16 metres high — just seven metres shy of Salisbury’s now infamous cathedral,
Roncalli’s travelling carnival act, titled Storyteller: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, is moving to the Rathausplatz in Vienna, after its dry run in Innsbruck.
Not every circus mogul is a fan.
“What I’ve done there,” Paul told his interviewer, “almost all the other circuses lynched me.”
“Pah,” was his response. The only response, to his mind.
“You have to have visions. Certain visionary abilities.”
But, wait, there’s more. Paul didn’t spend all those years in the circus to be the shrinking violet when somebody asked him what he’s about.
“I’m a big radar. I know exactly what people like.”
Animals, for one. But that doesn’t mean they have to be real.
It helps, too, he added — no false modesty here — “that I come from another world.”
Well, not exactly, but not a world everyone is familiar with. Paul hails from the town of Wilhelmsburg (pop. 6,500) in Lower Austria, a town some describe as having been seized by circus fever.
Paul didn’t start out as a clown, though — his original trade was electrician. He had no idea how his electrical background would one day inspire his dream of a circus in which no actual animals are hurt, injured or mistreated in any way.
Paul took on a civil engineering apprenticeship straight out of school, but soon grew tired of it. Wanting a new challenge, he studied graphic design at an arts school in Vienna. Electrician, graphic arts, the circus — the idea for Circus Roncalli was born.
Yes, old-school circus traditionalists want to lynch him, but he’s not going anywhere soon. And neither is Circus Roncalli, if a write-up in this month’s TIME is any indication.
“Once upon a time, a little girl saw the circus parade past the end of her street,” one-time circus performer and “elephant girl” Dea Birkett wrote, years ago, in a Long Read essay for the Guardian newspaper.
“Within hours, the park where she played was transformed into a world of wondrous, exotic people and beasts. She saw men walking on stilts and wobbling on a high wire, clowns squelching, white horses teetering on their hind legs, and an elephant strolling around a sawdust ring. She longed to run her hand over the deep ridges of its trunk, to feel the rhythm of its stride, to be transformed into the shimmering lady who smiled down from its back. Then, the next day, the magical world was gone. There was nothing but swings and slides in the park.
“I was that little girl, and as I grew older fewer and fewer elephants paraded past the end of my road. Soon, there was no magical kingdom springing up overnight in our park. The rhythm of suburban life was no longer interrupted by fantastical eruptions. The circus had left our town forever. . . .
“. . . In less than 20 years, an extraordinary two-century-old art form has been near-obliterated. Animal-rights groups have waged a war against circus(es) . . . Now, the most common image of the circus is not the magic, but the misery. Instead of fabulous feats by human and animal, we imagine elephants chained to pallets, incarcerated big cats and horses trapped in tiny stalls.”
Not anymore. Not if Bernhard Paul, Circus Roncalli and his amazing cavalcade of wondrous, magical — and computer-generated — beasts have anything to do with it.