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Circus vs. Cirque du Soleil

With both Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey hitting Baltimore this month, which should you attend? Here's a guide to each.

By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

2:31 PM EDT, March 31, 2011

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The circuses are coming to town!

That's right, we're talking plural. Over the next week, both the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Cirque du Soleil will be landing in Baltimore for extended stays. Barnum & Bailey, in fact, is already here — opening night was Wednesday (maybe you were lucky enough to watch the elephants lumber from the B&O Railroad Museum to 1st Mariner Arena the other day). Cirque du Soleil will be pitching its tent on the Westport waterfront and offering its first show April 7.

Of course, in a perfect world, you'd be able to catch both shows. Heck, in a perfect world, you'd be able to watch a circus every day. (Some argue that's what General Assembly watchers do in Annapolis this time of year, but we digress.) But say you can only catch one circus — can only bundle the kids up and set out for the big top (or its modern facsimile) a single time this year. Which circus should you choose?

We're not going to make the choice for you, but we can offer this handy checklist, a quick rundown of what each circus has to offer children of all ages in 2011. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be amazed.

Histories

Circus: The self-proclaimed "Greatest Show on Earth" has origins that go back well into the 19th century. In 1871, legendary showman P.T. Barnum, whose "museum" was already the talk of Broadway, started his first circus, under the name "P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome." Rival showman James Anthony Bailey started his show around the same time (the two shows merged in 1881), while the Ringling Bros. circus began in 1884. The three shows began operating as one in 1919. The Feld family has been running the show since 1967, when Irving Feld bought it for $8 million. This year marks the 140th edition.

Cirque: Cirque du Soleil dates to 1984. Quebec-born Guy Laliberte, an accordionist, stilt-walker and fire-eater, wanted to take the street performers he knew and worked with and, through artistic discipline, mold them into a troupe that could gain international recognition. In 2010, Cirque had 19 different shows in performance throughout the world, including tributes to vaudeville, Elvis and the Beatles.

This year's editions

Circus: "Barnum 200," celebrating 200 years since Barnum's birth, is designed as a salute to the man who started it all — a modern circus, as he would have designed it.

"What we've done is scoured the Earth," promises Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey spokeswoman Melinda Hartline, "gone all around the world to find the best acts, world-class acts, people that P.T. Barnum would have gathered together to make this edition of 'The Greatest Show on Earth.'"

To that end, circus organizers promise they've pulled out all the stops, bringing in performers from exotic locales the world over, packing in the pachyderms (six of them) and tigers (10) and generally doing whatever it takes to live up to that "Greatest Show" billing.

Cirque: "Totem" looks to take visitors on a tour of the evolution of man, from amphibian to astronaut. The stage is designed to look like a giant turtle — a symbol of human origin for many ancient civilizations and cultures.

"For sure there are incredible acrobatics, but there are also very special visual effects in this show," says Cirque spokeswoman Amelie Hamel. "In terms of technology, it is a show that is at a higher level than other shows. Visually, it is very interesting. …You can be in the water, you can be in space, you can be in a volcano. It brings you to different environments."

The cast and crew for "Totem" numbers 119 (52 performers), representing 21 countries — including Belarus, Moldova, Finland and Mongolia.

Acts

Circus: Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, who's been with Barnum & Bailey more than 10 years, presides over an area that includes such acts as Andre McLain (America's Favorite Cowboy), motocross daredevils the Torres Family and their globe of steel, trampoline masters the Barnum Bouncers (from Puyang, China) and Mongolian body benders Badamgarav, Enkhjin and Naratuya, who squeeze themselves into a box the size of a milk crate. That can't be comfortable.

Cirque: "Totem" features four recurring characters: a Scientist, a Tracker (a friend of the animals who aids the Scientist in his explorations), an "Amerindian Dancer" and a Crystal Man, who brings the spark of life to Earth. "They will guide you through the show," Hamel says. "Totem" includes 12 acts, featuring all manner of aerial wizardry, dancing, roller skating, unicycling and juggling. No real animals, but the world's beasts are constantly invoked during the show.

The big moments

Circus: "Gosh, there are so many," says Hartline. "I guess I'd say Duo Fusion, the Brazilian husband-and-wife team, as they do their mind-bending contortion act to tango music. It's very sensuous, and the kids get it, too, because of the brute strength involved."

Cirque: "There are incredible acrobatics, and there are acts that are more dangerous, more impressive than others," Hamel says. "Let's say the Russian bars, which is one of the very last acts in the show. It is amazing, how high these guys are flying, and they're jumping on little skinny bars, about 4 inches wide. … You'll be on your toes, sitting at the very tip of your chair."

What makes one better than the other

Circus: Tradition. "Cirque du Soleil is a theatrical performance, and not always as friendly to families," Hartline says. "Ringling Bros. has been in business for 140 years, and always has brought families together, where they can run away from reality for a few hours."

Cirque: Originality. "It will surprise you every time," Hamel promises. "We're still a circus, but in an innovative way you won't expect."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you go

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's "Barnum 200" runs through April 10 at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays. Additional shows are slated for 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. today and April 7. Tickets, available at the arena box office or through Ticketmaster (410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com), run $14-$75. Information: 410-347-2020 or 1stmarinerarena.com.

Cirque du Soleil's "Totem" runs April 7-24 on the Westport waterfront, 2001 Kloman St., under the Grand Chapiteau (Big Top). Performances are set for 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays, with additional shows at 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets run $49.50-$225 and are available through cirquedusoleil.com.

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