Life After Ringling; When the Circus Closes Down
No one really saw it coming; the closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
When the surprising announcement came in January of 2017 – that Ringling would cease operations of both the Red and Blue unit traveling shows in May of this year – performers and crew members were thrown for a loop.
Close down this incredible circus? This American icon, after 146 years? An end to THE Ringling Bros. show, the Greatest Show on Earth?
It’s been a bitter pill to swallow for so many people; performers, workers and former employees, yes, but also for circus audiences in the United States and around the world.
Still, the world is changing and life must move forward. Jobs come and go. Memories of the Ringling Bros. circus are happy ones – life in the “city without a zip code” was incomparable to just about anything else.
I chatted with several principal performers about “Life After Ringling.”
Alexander Lacey (Big Cat Trainer) & Katie Azzario-Lacey (Acrobat/Animal Trainer)
“The big cats are my life and I cannot imagine anything else – ever,” British animal trainer Alexander Lacey told me once again.
“Ringling was a dream; I will always cherish the opportunity I had with this show.”
Alexander Lacey and his feline menagerie arrived in the United States in November of 2011. He joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for three tours with the Blue Unit (Dragons, Legends and Out Of This World).
After spending the summer of 2017 in Florida, Lacey and his big cats, crew, and lovely wife (Katie Azzario-Lacey) are now in Europe.
“We are settled in and the cats are perfect,” says Katie.
Alexander Lacey is performing with his lions and tigers in Lille, France (La Grande Fete Lilloise du Cirque); the show runs through November 12th, 2017. After a short break, the Lille circus will resume though mid December.
Lacey will be featured at the Heilbronner Weihnachts circus in Heilbronn, Germany from December 20th through January 7th.
From March through November of 2018, the Laceys will be with Charles Knie Circus in Germany. Katie Azzario-Lacey will be the featured vocalist for Zirkus Charles Knie.
Alexander Lacey is happy to be back in Europe, but, he says, he'll miss the U.S.
“I appreciate everyone’s good wishes and the great times I had with my Ringling family."
Ammed Tuniziani and the Flying Tuniziani
The Flying Tuniziani joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the Legends show, starting in 2014. Star trapeze flyer Ammed Garcia Tuniziani is a third-generation circus performer; the youngest of the five Flying Tuniziani brothers. Ammed’s wife (Estefani Evans) also performs with the troupe.
With Ringling Bros., Ammed Tuniziani did what only one other flyer has ever done; thrown quadruple somersaults into the arms of his catcher (Adriano De Quadra) – both in practice and performance. (Tuniziani’s mentor, Miguel Vazquez, completed the quad many times throughout his long career).
It was the year 2000 when nine-year-old Venezuela-born Ammed Garcia Tuniziani began performing with his brothers (at Circos Hermanos Vazquez in Mexico City). Before their years with Ringling (2014-2017), Ammed and the Flying Tuniziani worked with a number of shows around the world and in the United States, including: Cirque du Soleil, Circus Vargas, James Christie Cole, Royal Hanneford and Circus Circus Casino (in Las Vegas).
Shortly after the Ringling circus announced its closing, Ammed Tuniziani told me he was working out the details for appearing with the Big Apple Circus (USA). Now, it's a done deal.
“I loved being with Ringling for the Legends (2014-2016) and Out Of This World (2016-2017) tours,” Ammed Tuniziani told me. “We all did, and I will never forget that moment when I first hit the quad in performance; I flew back to the platform … everyone was cheering and excited. Now we are so happy to be with Big Apple,” he continued.
“Trapeze is my gift from God. Miguel Vazquez was my biggest inspiration, and when I first saw him fly, I knew that I wanted to fly with the circus; it’s what I always wanted to be. Working with my brothers and wife, and having our children watch what we do is my greatest joy.”
Big Apple Circus was founded in 1977 but ran into some financial troubles that forced it into bankruptcy in 2016. Under new ownership in 2017, the circus began planning for its autumn and holiday season in New York’s Lincoln Center. On the FAQ portion of its website, the Big Apple Circus says that the show will tour in 2018, however (as of this writing), no dates or locations are listed. Visit Big Apple Circus.com for more information.
Benny Ibarra – Wheel of Steel
With a circus background that includes clowning, trampoline, and the flying trapeze, Benny Ibarra loves to dance on the Pendulum of Steel; a 35-foot long metal structure that weights about 16,000 pounds.
After stints with the Royal London Circus in China and performances in Taiwan, Mexico, Asia, Africa and Europe, Benny Ibarra brought his aerial talents to the Greatest Show On Earth. From 2014 until the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed in May of 2017, Ibarra showcased his dangerous and “Xtreme” athleticism to audiences two or three times a day – without a safety net below. The wheel stands 30 feet in the air; Ibarra’s performance included skipping, tumbling, spinning and jumping rope.
What’s happening now for Benny Ibarra?
“I thought I would be in Spain with El Gran Circo Mundial – I signed that contract after the Ringling show made the announcement of closing – but the owner of Gran Circo Mundial went back on his word and did not honor the terms. He didn’t send the visa or airline tickets; the whole thing caused me some problems. So now I am looking at options for performing with a big circus company in Europe. Nothing is for sure yet until they send me the contract. For now, I am having a bit of a vacation … spending time with my family. I expect to be back working by January, or so.”
Ibarra has also been cleaning up after the September 19th earthquake in Mexico City; he’s had to move to another house in a different area.
“My family is safe and I am very grateful,” Benny noted. “I’ll be back on the wheel before you know it!”
Hans & Mariya Klose – Animal Trainers
Like most of us who love animals, Hans and Mariya Klose are “trained” by their pets. The true stars of the act are poodles, terriers and pigs.
“Most of the dogs come from shelters and pounds,” says Hans Klose. “They have their own trailer when we travel from show to show.”
In addition to the dogs (Fox Terriers, poodles, a Great Dane, Australian Shepherd and mixed breeds), the Klose menagerie features a couple of 700-pound pigs. The pigs learn tricks well, says their trainer, but he leaves the hoop-jumping feats up to the dogs; they can dive from 16 feet up, do black flips and walk on hind legs.
“Training a dog is fairly simple – they respond to treats and praise,” says Klose. “Pigs are different. If that pig doesn’t want to do something, you cannot convince him otherwise; not even with treats. They must be ‘persuaded’ to move ... animals that big won’t work with a leash. Roscoe was a piglet when I got him – he would have been a candidate for the sausage mill if he hadn’t become a circus performer.”
Hans Klose is a second-generation circus performer; he began at age 10 as a foot juggler. “My dad once told me that when you learn a circus act, you’ll always have that experience to fall back on. With the dogs, it’s more than just an act, it’s a relationship. They’re our pets and I will never let them go. They’ll be with me for the rest of their lives.”
So, what’s happening?
“We were at the Utah State Fair (second week of September, along with former Ringling star daredevil Bello Nock) and we are now doing independent contract work with the dogs,” Hans Klose told me. “We’ll have some independent dates in the spring and fall, and we’ll also be at Circus World (in Baraboo, Wisconsin) next summer.”
Hurricane Irma did some damage at the Klose home in Florida. Hans and Mariya have been getting things cleaned up and secured.
“We were lucky,” he maintains. “Not everyone can say that.”
Johnathan Lee Iverson – Ringmaster Extraordinaire
Big Top Voice Johnathan Lee Iverson joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1998 at the age of 22. He met his wife (Priscilla) on the show; they lived on the circus train with their two children.
“Life after Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has been as I expected,” Johnathan Lee Iverson recollected. “After the show closed, my body was tremendously tired and I really just needed to rest and relax – to simply enjoy life as is, without the worry of what’s next. Now, I’m moving toward the next chapter professionally as the Artist Director for an exciting new performing arts organization; Opera del Sol (Orlando, Florida)."
"We want to take opera out of the old-fashioned opera house and bring it directly to the public with ‘pop-up operas’ and educational programs for children and teens. We’re also working with performing and circus arts groups to create an immersive experience for the theater-going audience. Opera del Sol will re-imagine timeless classics, unearth some rarely-performed theatrical gems, create original works, and present thematic concert serials. The options are boundless when you’re at the helm,” he added.
So, what’s up first?
“Our premiere production is one that I wrote … Opera Wars opens this November 17th and 18th at the Kennedy Space Center, and then on November 24th and 25th at the Orchid Garden,” Iverson told me. “It’s a story of galactic adventure, good versus evil, spaceships, love, and of course, plenty of high notes set to some of operas’ greatest hits.”
Johnathan Lee Iverson met the love of his life (beautiful Priscilla Costa) during his second tour with Ringling, at the end of the year 2000. The Brazilian-born Priscilla was a dance troupe captain and translator when she joined the 131st edition of the show; she became the production manager in 2014 at the start of the Legends tour. Johnathan and Priscilla were married in 2001 after a morning show in Chicago.
After Ringling, Priscilla took a short engagement as Stage Manager at Sea World (in Orlando). Currently, she is teaching ballet and lyrical jazz with former Ringling aerialist/dancer Joyce Lemos (at Joyce Lemos Productions).
"I love dance, and it's a perfect fit," says Priscilla.
I asked Johnathan about their children; circus kids, through and through.
"Our son and daughter have adjusted wonderfully," he told me. "They are still in contact with their circus friends; some of the kids live in the same area we are in. My kids love the space that a real house affords them, as oppose to the circus train. Their schools are wonderful.”
Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson performed in seven tours with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus:
- The Living Carousel (129th )
- Bo & Bello (131st)
- Bailey’s Comet (133rd)
- Barnum 200 (140th)
- Dragons (142nd )
- Legends (144th )
- Out Of This World (146th)
“One more thing, in case anyone is wondering,” Iverson pointed out. “I have not given up on performing, or exactly hung up the top hat. I plan to be the ringmaster at The Lone Star Circus this December (2017). I have also been doing some public speaking and event-hosting, and I am working on my book. I will be seeking a publisher soon, so, no, you have not heard the last from me!”
Visit Opera del Sol at operadelsol.org.
Kanat Riders Equestrian Troupe
The Kanat Riders are as bold as any superheroes could ever be – jumping upon, hanging upside-down and crawling underneath galloping horses as they charge around the ring.
Kanat and Tatiana Tchalabaev are originally from Kazakhstan; they lead an international troupe of riders (from Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico and Uzbekistan) in their quest to create one of the most daring acts in the world. The five-person pyramid, “dead man drag,” and underbelly climb are just a few of the precision feats in this enterprise. The troupe performs in a specially-designed 46 foot (diameter) ring on top of horses moving at galloping speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.
In the years before coming to Ringling, Tatiana Tchalabaeva was a gymnast/acrobat with the National Team of Rhythmic Gymnasts; Kanat Tchalabaev trained at the Moscow Circus School. The Ringling circus became their home in 1991.
“We love our beautiful horses and we all look after them,” Tatiana says. “Proper care for these animals is so important … to exercise, feed, brush and just interact and bond with them, it is love. Every day we work and practice with our gorgeous babies – they know and love us, too."
With the Ringling show now closed, the Kanat Riders are performing solely with UniverSoul Circus.
“We loved being with Ringling,” says Kanat Tchalabaev, "and we love UniverSoul. Actually, we had two troupes; our riders performed with both shows for a number of years (one troupe with Ringling and another with UniverSoul). Some of our riders that were with Tatiana and me at Ringling are now with us at UniverSoul."
"Yes, we truly love and will miss Ringling," Tatiana added. "It was our home for so many years; it was more than just a show, it was our life. We have so many friends and wonderful memories."
UniverSoul Circus is always adding to its schedule; check out their website or Facebook page for ticket information.
Kristen Michelle Wilson — Lady Ringmaster
“We never say goodbye in the circus life,” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Kristen Michelle Wilson told the final audience of Circus Xtreme on May 7, 2017.
“All we say is we’ll see you down the road.”
And so it is.
Kristen Michelle Wilson became Ringling’s first and only female ringmaster (ringmistress?) earlier this year.
“It was my dream,” says Wilson, “and truly magical.”
With a history of singing for stage shows, rock bands, commercial producing and marketing/production assistant – as well as host for a television program at her local station (in Tallahassee, Florida) – Kristen Michelle Wilson found out about Ringling’s search for a ringmaster from a man who once held that job, in the 1980s.
“I threw my hat in the ring,” she said. “Why not!”
Kristen Michelle Wilson got the job. Then, a few weeks later, the show announced its impending closing (with the final presentation of Circus Xtreme to take place on May 7th). Since then, Kristen has been performing in nightclubs and restaurant shows, around Orlando and other areas of Florida.
“Back in June, I decided to disconnect my phone and back away from electronics,” she said. “I wanted to relax and have a little ‘real time.’ Then, in July, I did some shows in Las Vegas and Orlando, and later in Tampa for the Monster Jam Triple Threat series. Back to Orlando, and then some time with my old band (Sonic Gypsies). In the midst of all of that, were some guest spot shows (including the Corsets & Cuties Burlesque Cabaret in Orlando).
"I’ve been doing a lot of traveling around the state, including back to Tallahassee. Hurricane Irma kept me hopping a bit, too,” she added. “I can’t say I have anything completely stable at this particular time – nothing like a circus gig – but then, that’s how entertainment is. I am on Facebook, so you can find me there; I’ll have lots to say!”
Laszlo and Olga Simet – “Spacewalkers”
Whether he is sky walking, inside the “wheel of death” or driving a motorbike on the high wire, Laszlo Simet keeps an audience’s attention. Before joining Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the Out Of This World tour (2016-2017), Laszlo walked the wire in countries around the world, including those throughout Europe, Taiwan, Canada, South Africa and then-some.
Olga Simet originally learned aerial rope performance at the famous Moscow Circus School. She and Laszlo work together on sky walks, the wheel, motorbike, and more recently, a revolving wedged-shaped apparatus in the spaced-themed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents Out Of This World. Perched upon her husband’s shoulders, Olga did a headstand as Laszlo rode his bicycle. Partner Diana Bakk added to this specialized performance.
I asked Laszlo about his circus heritage.
“My parents were high wire artists and I always wanted to be one, so I started practicing when I was about 10 years old,” he says. “My first job as a high wire artist was in 1978 – it was with the Hungarian State Circus show in Czechoslovakia. One of my idols was Manfred Doval; he worked with the Budapest Capital Circus. I watched him as much as possible.
“In 1989, I purchased a motorbike for the wire and then, a few years later (1995), I constructed a “wheel of death” so that I could expand my repertoire. I did my first sky walk in 1997 in Budapest between two buildings in the city’s center.”
It was in 2011 when Laszlo Simet began developing the act that eventually became the “space walk.” (An old Soviet circus movie gave him the idea for this act, originally invented in the Soviet Union around 1940).
“Planning and building the props took about a year,” Simet went on. “As a high wire artist for more than 30 years, I was surprised at the difficulty. But when we called legendary Russian director Ruslan Ganeev to choreograph the astronaut routine, it all came together.”
In 2012, Laszlo Simet walked on a 16-millimeter wire at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics; 45 meters straight up.
“That was the most amazing thing,” he continued. “I walked the wire on top of the stadium.”
Laszlo Simet, his wife Olga and aerialist Diana Bakk first presented their astronaut act in January of 2013. They won several coveted circus prizes over the next few years, before signing on with Ringling Bros.
“It was a great experience, travelling the United States and working in that big show,” Laszlo affirmed. "In 2017 when the announcement came that the show was closing, it was a disaster for us. We all had long-term contracts and plans and expected to be settled for years.”
So, what’s happening now?
“We returned to Europe at the end of May; it was a while before we could get back to normal,” Laszlo Simet told me. "This past summer was very busy; I have two new partners now and I’ve been training them. My wife (Olga) will be staying home with our children, and our original partner (Diana Bakk) decided to carry on with a solo career. The new girls are Olivia Kapitany and Linda Carannante — they are very talented and excited about this new adventure.
“The offers did come, so we do have a number of shows scheduled for the next year or so (September, 2018). We are just about to open in France with the Imperial show. The Christmas show will be in Holland, and then in January, we’ll be in Monte Carlo.”
For Laszlo and Olga Simet, “space” is not a “Final Frontier.” It is just another step toward the future.
Mustafa Danguir and the Danguir High Wire Troupe
“Danger” isn’t just another word for the Danguir high wire troupe of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Red Unit, but it certainly describes this daring act.
Mustafa Danguir (or Mustafa Danger, as he prefers) is from Tangier, Morocco. Before developing his own high wire act, Mustafa’s personal performance history includes tours with European circuses and the Greatest Show on Earth; including the seven-man pyramid feat with the Guerrero troupe at Ringling (from 1996 to 1999).
Now with his own act, Mustafa and the Danguir troupe showcase their talents by jumping, dancing, leaping and climbing the pyramid on a wire that is 35 feet above the ground; no net and no safety cables. In 2010, Mustafa and the Danguir high wire troupe became Ringling stars — thrilling audiences until that last performance on May 7, 2017.
“My troupe is like family,” Mustafa told me. “In the beginning, my brothers were with me but now I have partners and we are very close. Most of the time I work with five people, but sometimes it could be eight or ten; it depends on the show and the company.”
What’s happening now?
“I miss Ringling but life goes on,” Mustafa Danger says. “I did some galas in Spain and some TV appearances. I was on Arabs Got Talent, not long ago, too. We have a number of performances coming up in Europe, including the International Circus Festival of Grenoble -- I am rehearsing for that now. In December, We’ll be with Flic Flac circus in Germany.”
Before coming to Ringling Bros., Mustafa Danger crossed the Santiago Bernabéu soccer stadium in Madrid, Spain. At more than 540 feet in the air, he walked a mile on a wire between a hotel and church in Benidorm, Spain. It was at 1,150 feet that Mustafa crossed between two mountains in New York.
Mustafa Danger says his dream is to cross the Seven Wonders of the World on the high wire.
“There is always tomorrow,” he says with a wink and a smile.
“Nitro Nicole” – Nicole Sanders, the Human Cannonball
The world has an open path for Nicole Sanders, billed as “Nitro Nicole” with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Xtreme. How does a lady who studied psychology, Spanish and ballet end up as a performing human cannonball?
I asked Nicole to tell her story.
“I went to college at Loyola University,” she says. “During the time I was studying for the GRE to apply to grad school, I saw this woman set up her aerial equipment in my gym ... that did it for me and the rest was history,” she laughed. ” So, I attended a professional circus center in San Francisco and trained there – even while recuperating from knee surgery. I’ve been performing professionally ever since then, with Lyra straps, doubles, the cloudswing and last but hopefully not really last … the cannon. There was a circus in Peru (Cole Brothers) and other various other gigs. My last job was with Ringling.”
‘How did you transition from basic aerials to the cannon?’ I asked.
“I was ending my season at Cole, and my friend heard that the cannon coach at Ringling was looking for another gal to train. I made some contacts and then had a message from the coach, asking if I was interested. It was Ringling. Was I interested??? Yes!!!
I saw the show and then went for a ‘long audition’ that really was more about learning the cannon. This turned into the most stressful three weeks I’ve ever had, because I knew that it must be done absolutely right. It was hard but I was very determined. This was all happening in a freezing Indiana gym,” Nicole recollected. “I’d have to soak in a tub every night.”
And then what happened?
“They (Ringling) threw me into the show at the start of the season,” says Nicole. “I absolutely loved it! The train, people, show, talent, accommodations, legacy, performing … I was working for the Greatest Show On Earth. How cool was that! But when it ended, it ended. So now I am at an impasse in my life. I would love to do more circus jobs if I could. But the pay, accommodations, and season length would have to be right – and in circus you generally can't be that choosy. Still, I have to make a living so while I’m open to doing circus jobs, I have to do some ‘normal’ jobs to earn money, which is what I am doing."
Any ideas for the future?
“Yes,” replied Nicole Sanders. “Soon I will decide which direction I want to go in – whether it is in instruction or fitness or grad school or some other option. The circus is always an option too, as there are many out there, still.
"One thing I always remember; this came from my first circus coach, the legendary Elena Panova. She asked me this on my first day of training with her, she said, ‘why do you want to do this?’ So I responded fairly quickly, ‘fun.’ Elena cut me off and told it to me straight … ‘No. Circus is not fun, it is hard. And you must love it.’ And she is right, I do love it.
In whatever comes next, I will always be ‘Nitro Nicole.’”
Paulo Dos Santos – Acrobat, Aerialist, Contortionist, Clown Comic
Brazilian-born Paulo Cesar Oliveira dos Santos can do just about anything. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus producers discovered dos Santos, a man of small stature but dynamic athleticism and talent, a few years before he was able to join the Greatest Show On Earth.
“I came to Ringling in 2009,” Paulo said proudly. “The four shows I performed with this circus were Funundrum, Dragons, Legends and Out Of This World.”
Paulo dos Santos began his career as an artist of Brazilian Capoeira – a combination of dance, acrobatics, music, and martial arts. With Ringling, dos Santos worked alongside ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson in the Blue Unit. Together they fought off dragons, found mythical legends and hunted for stolen circus acts and then-some; always coming out victorious.
Paulo is now working with Zippos circus in England; he is an aerialist, comic clown and acrobat – similar to what he did with Ringling.
“Similar but different,” Paulo told me. “We have a wonderful show and I am so happy to be a part of it. I also want to thank the Feld family and Ringling for everything; it was an amazing experience, and I’ll never forget my circus family in the United States, and the people who came to see us every year.”
For more information about Zippos circus, visit zippos.co.uk. The company also has a presence on Facebook.
Taba Maluenda – Big Cat Trainer
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Taba Maluenda hugged his big cats during the Red Unit’s last performance of Circus Xtreme in Rhode Island on May 7, 2017. The animal trainer raised most of these tigers himself; having been with Ringling for 13 years. He thanked each tiger by name as they left the ring.
“A very hard day,” he told me. “Those tigers were my children. To be able to hug these cats is very emotional; some won’t let you do that. When they do, it is because they want to show affection and love.”
Born in Chile, Tabayara Maluenda is a sixth-generation circus performer – he worked many jobs (including clowning, acrobatics and a stint on the flying trapeze) in his younger years. Taba’s love for the big cats came at age 13 after seeing a video of Ringling’s famed animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to work with animals,” Maluenda says.
A couple of years later, Taba Maluenda began working with animals during circus shows in South America and Central America. It was in 2004 when he joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
After the final performance of Circus Xtreme, ‘Taba’s Tigers’ (owned by Feld Entertainment) were sent to a big cat sanctuary.
“13 years of love,” he sighed. “Now I am in Chile with my family but I will be in the United States (in autumn) for awhile. My daughter (Tabata) will be working for a circus (Espectacular de Mexico); after that, we’ll see what happens. I have offers in the U.S. and in Europe. What I want most is to buy my own animals to create a specialty act.”
I’ve asked Taba Maluenda to let me know when he has news on his next venture. For now, he will be a proud papa to his children, Tabata and Gunther, as they pursue their circus dreams.
The End. But Not Really.
Ringling is closed but “circus” will last forever, in some shape or form. The artists from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are moving in the direction that life will take for them; whether it is a circus in the United States, Europe or anywhere else in the world – or something completely different.
With so many options and opportunities out there, we all want to say …
“See you down the road.”
And, thank you.
Yes, in some way, shape or form ...
All Your Days Will Be Circus Days.