A Kid Friendly Midwest Getaway: See The Freaks At Circus World In Baraboo

circus worldFive years ago, when my wife and I had our first child, our lives as travelers changed. We still hit the road just as often as before, but now we find ourselves seeking out zoos and playgrounds and children’s museums and a host of other kid friendly attractions that we never would have visited during our childless years. Most of the time, I acquiesce to the child-centric activities more or less kicking and screaming, and although I enjoy watching my kids have fun, 3- and 5-year-old boys aren’t exactly well known for showing gratitude and appreciation, so I sometimes wonder if the kid stuff is worth it.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, we treated our boys to the one kid-focused activity we’ve never tried before: a circus. These days, many of the larger traveling circuses perform in large arenas, which hold little appeal for me. I wanted to bring my kids to an old-school circus performed under a big top, and I found what I was looking for at Circus World, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, about three hours northwest of Chicago, and just 10 minutes from the tourist trap insanity of the Wisconsin Dells.

Baraboo is ground zero for circus enthusiasts. It was here on May 19, 1884, that the five Ringling Brothers – Al, Otto, Alfred, Charles and John – staged their first circus act. There were 21 performers, a small tent, a hyena and three horses in the act. Tickets cost 15 to 35 cents and they soon took their act on the road, pulling into small towns all across the country with their hand-carved circus wagons, advertising strong men, bearded women, ferocious animals and the like.

Circus World is both museum and circus, and before the circus started, we took some time to check out the museum, which tells the story of how the Ringlings turned their little circus into a global juggernaut. The Ringlings were the offspring of August Rungeling, who emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee in 1848. He changed his name to Ringling, married and had 11 children, three of whom died in infancy. The five brothers got into the circus act, with Al, the oldest, serving as the ringleader. He married a snake handler from Iowa and could balance a huge plow on his chin unsupported.

In 1918, the brothers bought out Barnum & Bailey, their chief rival, and the business evolved into a national railway show. They got rich and used some of their money to build lavish homes and other buildings, including the gorgeous Al Ringling Cinema, which still stands today in downtown Baraboo. (The museum doesn’t mention the fact that just one Ringling heir still lives in the Baraboo area today, and he’s in prison for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy.)

A stroll through the museum’s collection of old circus posters and the even more interesting hall of circus wagons gives one an idea of how un-politically correct circuses were back in the day. Any sort of deformity could be turned into an attraction – a short-armed man was called “Seal Boy,” and various posters advertised bearded ladies, East Indian dwarves, “Giraffe-necked” women from Burma, sword swallowers, an Egyptian Giant and a “Man Without a Stomach,” among many others.

In the pre-television era, going to a circus was a common form of entertainment, especially for people who lived in smaller towns. Popular circus acts became household names across the nation. For example, some 40 million Americans saw a gorilla from the Belgian Congo named Gargantua the Great.

After watching a magic show, we scored front row seats under the big top, and settled in to watch the show. The first act was a woman in her 50s or 60s who was dressed up like a pop star in oversized white sunglasses, a gray wig and a revealing, open-backed shimmery, sequined costume. She brought out “the world’s only performing Persian cat” and a slew of “Afghan dogs” that performed a variety of jumps, tricks and dances. It all seemed preposterous to me, but my sons, who were devouring an industrial size portion of cotton candy, were transfixed.

The dogs were eventually replaced by a comically effeminate Columbia contortionist wearing eye makeup and a three-sizes-too-tight gymnast costume. I had to avert my eyes as he contorted his body one way and other, looking as though he was about to break a limb at any moment and resisted the urge to leave altogether when he actually fit his entire body inside a small, clear box.

The next performer was a comically buffoonish character who did a slapstick routine revolving around his supposed inability to jump on a trampoline. I thought it was ridiculous, but when I looked over at my sons, they were roaring and squealing in delight. I don’t think I have ever seen them so happy.

Next, we were introduced to Spirit, the “world’s smallest performing show pony,” as the PA system blasted the ludicrous “My Little Pony” theme song and an older woman in a garish Hungarian folk costume led Spirit around in circles.

The final act of the afternoon was easily the most preposterous. A woman wearing a feathered Indian headdress and a far-too revealing sequined costume brought out a host of little monkeys on leashes and proceeded to coax them into jumping from platform to platform, 20 feet up in the air. Her male counterpart was a Greek looking man with a unibrow who looked like Pete Sampras might if he lives to be 110. When the monkeys dawdled, he whacked them on the asses to get them to jump, and after they’d done their standard jump a few times he said, “Now we’re going to see if they can jump 12 feet. We hope they can make it!” I was rooting for the monkeys to go on strike, but it didn’t happen.

The monkeys made it and while the whole farce seemed exploitative and just plain dumb to me, I couldn’t deny how much my sons had enjoyed the spectacle. On the way out, we filed past a guy holding a huge snake, asking $10 for a photo, and my 5-year-old son, Leo, was uncharacteristically grateful.

“Dad,” he said. “Thank you so much for taking me to the circus!”

10 Offbeat Fringe Festivals From Around North America

edmonton fringe festival An array of fringe festivals are happening around North America, bringing together the most out-of-the-ordinary artists from around the world. From dancers, to acrobats, to buskers to unusual performance artists, these fringers will show that they are not only talented, but were born to perform. Want to see a show in the near future? Check out these 10 great fringe festivals to check out before the end of 2012.

Edmonton International Fringe Festival
Edmonton, Alberta

Advertised as “Canada’s largest and longest-running Fringe Festival,” the Edmonton International Fringe Festival features many bizarre events that will take place in Edmonton’s historic arts district, Old Strathcona. Themed “The Village of the Fringed,” spectators will see 1,600 performances of 220 uncensored productions. In fact, the festival refuses to restrain performances, which are chosen using an unbiased lottery system. Some acts to look forward to include:

  • “The Kif-Kif Sisters,” featuring twins who twist and intermingle themselves, make bananas appear, enter giant balloons and juggle umbrellas.
  • “Dr. Fondoozle’s Fantastic Show Of Awesome,” which features bizarre feats like whip mastery, contortion, contact juggling and poi spinning.
  • “The Lol Brothers Show,” which takes you on a tour of rock ‘n’ roll through risky circus acts and humor.

If you’re bringing children, KIDOPOLIS is safe and free for junior Fringers 12 and under, as well as their caregivers.

This year’s Edmonton International Fringe Festival will take place from August 16 to 26, 2012. Click here for more details. IndyFringe
Indianapolis, Indiana

Taking place in the Massachusetts Avenue Cultural District, IndyFringe provides opportunities for audiences to partake in the Indianapolis arts community. This wacky and wild festival allows emerging artists to display an eclectic mix of performances. From dancers, to story tellers, to visual art groups, this fringe festival is sure to entertain all festival goers. Some performances to look forward to include:

  • “Do Re Mi Fa So Latino,” which features President Rodriguez, the first openly non-American citizen President, and Mexican Harriet Tubman, smuggling hard working Hispanics out of Arizona to the less oppressive north.
  • “Iris and Rose – Wild and Thorny,” a show which features a pub singing duo belting out dirty tunes.
  • “Donating Sperm to My Sister’s Wife,” a performance about a man’s lesbian sister and her wife, and how he helps them get pregnant.

This year’s IndyFringe will take place from August 17 to 26. Click here for more details.

Boulder International Fringe Festival Boulder International Fringe Festival
Boulder, Colorado

The Boulder Fringe is actually a tax-exempt organization with goals to revitalize the community, help artists inspire each other and support local businesses by hiring administrators, technical crew and artists. This year’s Boulder International Fringe Festival will feature jaw dropping performances from over 300 artists. Some of the shows include:

  • “What To Do About Delusion,” where Andy Pratt will attempt to tame four personalities using juggle therapy, an experimental psychoanalysis technique for narcissists.
  • “Tobo’s Magic & Marvel Show,” which weaves magic, stories and history into an astonishing and inspiring experience.
  • “Flying Shoes,” where dancers use choreography to explore their relationships to each other, gravity and architecture.

Along with viewing artistic expression, attendees can enjoy the Fringe Encore Brunch, free Fringe Beer Garden, educational panels and presentations, west African song and dance classes, performance workshops, an interactive flea market and more.

This year’s Boulder International Fringe Festival will take place from August 15 to September 26. Click here for more details.

Chicago Fringe Festival
Chicago, Illinois

Taking place in the Pilsen neighborhood, the Chicago Fringe Festival features 50 unique performance groups like actors, dancers, impersonators, puppeteers and scientist-comedians. Some acts to look forward to include:

  • “55 Minutes of Sex, Drugs and Audience Participation,” a sketch-comedy performance where the audience is asked to suggest awkward topics and actors create emotionally honest stories of the pleasures of forbidden love, wretched excess, reckless living and making a good confession.
  • “Bruiser: Tales From a Traumatized Tomboy,” a true story of how a misplaced tomboy blossoms into an even more awkward adult.
  • “Konetic Concoction,” a bizarre yet thought provoking dance show where you’ll see acts like a ballerina dancing on pointe in a straight jacket and a dancer performing in a 24-foot long skirt.

This year’s Chicago Fringe Festival will take place from August 30 to September 9. Click here for more details.

fringe nyc New York International Fringe Festival
New York, NY

Pushing the limits with new ideas and new perspectives, the New York International Fringe Festival features innovative performances by over 200 companies from around the world all over downtown Manhattan. The festival boasts being the “largest multi-arts festival in North America,” with 1,200 unique performances from musicals to dances to rock ‘n’ roll Shakespeare. Some of this year’s performances to look forward to include:

  • “#MormonChief,” where Connor, an unassuming Mormon, becomes the center of media attention when he tweets inflammatory statements inspired by a Mormon presidential candidate.
  • “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” a sketch comedy piece taking place in 1956 where communists threaten the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of the Gertrude Stein during their annual Quiche breakfast.
  • “Magic Trick,” a burlesque-style love story.

This year’s New York International Fringe Festival will take place from August 10 to August 26. Click here for more details.

Atlantic Fringe Festival
Halifax, Nova Scotia

The Atlantic Fringe Festival has an “anything-goes” attitude. Displaying a wide variety of original plays, shows, and presentations, the Atlantic Fringe is the definition of an artist-driven festival. This entirely volunteer run event is filled with musicals, dramas, comedies, dances and belly dancers. Moreover, these fringers will prove to audiences they were born performers in over 250 performances and 40 different shows. The website will be up sometime this week with the performance schedule.

This year’s Atlantic Fringe Festival will take place from August 30 to September 9. Click here for more details.

vancouver fringe festival Vancouver Fringe Festival
Vancouver, British Columbia

As British Columbia’s largest theater festival, the Vancouver Fringe Festival brings in more than 30,000 attendees for over 750 performances by 97 groups. Audiences will see an eclectic mix of uncensored theatrical performances by artists who break traditional boundaries. Additionally, the artists receive 100% of regular box office revenues generated during the festival. Some shows to get excited for include:

  • “Say Wha?! Readings Of Deliciously Rotten Writing,” where some of the worst writing in print will be made fun of by performers.
  • “One Human Race,” a live music show based on traditional Igbo roots rhythms, evoking the spirit of highlife and Afrobeat with a splash of funk, jazz, blues, and reggae.
  • “Does This Turn You On?,” a lighthearted look at sexual fetishes in the modern imagination.

Along with watching unusual performance art, you’ll get the opportunity to partake in improv, puppetry and other performance workshops. Don’t have a date? Make use of the festival’s escort service, where a knowledgeable representative will not only help you choose a show, but will also go along with you.

This year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival will take place from September 6 to 16. Click here for more details.

Seattle Fringe Festival
Seattle, Washington

After almost a decade, the Seattle Fringe Festival is returning to Capitol Hill. The event will feature a variety of genres, and will showcase everything from raw, untested acts to perfectly executed performances. Moreover, all performers are chosen by a non-adjudicated lottery. Some acts to look forward to include:

  • “First Born,” where life and death comes down to a game of rock, paper, scissors.
  • “Chop,” which focuses on a man who is isolated from the world around him, until he meets a mysterious tattooed woman who brings him to an underground amputation fetish group.
  • “The Ukrainian Dentist’s Daughter,” a show about a woman who relives her life while being stood up at the alter.

This year’s Seattle Fringe Festival will take place from September 19 to 23. Click here for more details.

san francisco fringe festival San Francisco Fringe Festival
San Francisco, California

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is an open-minded event where performers will showcase an array of talents. With 40 different shows and over 200 acts, attendees will have the opportunity to watch a slew of creative, daring and fun productions. The event is in its 21st year, and is offering some interesting acts like:

  • “Aerial Allusions,” a fusion of multiple performance styles such as acrobatic dance, clown and theater that come together to bring chaos, humor and control to the stage.
  • “Antipodes,” a mix of tightly synced video projection, acting and live music that tells the story of an American man and a Chinese woman who find stable selves by being deconstructed.
  • “Jesus, Do You Like Me? Please Mark Yes or No,” a complicated love story featuring murder, religion and “answers to all existential crisis.”

This year’s San Francisco Fringe Festival will take place from September 5 to 16. Click here for more details.

New Orleans Fringe Festival
New Orleans, Louisiana

As a city known for embracing artists, it’s no wonder this show is a display of wild, weird, fearless and original theater. The New Orleans Fringe Festival features artists such as buskers, puppeteers, dramatists, improv folks, skit-makers and hula-hoopers, who will take the stage at the crazy circus tent known as the Fringe Free-For-All. Because the official schedule isn’t out yet, you still have time to apply to be a performer if you think you have some original performance art to show the world.

This year’s New Orleans Fringe Festival will take place from November 14 to 18. Click here for more details.

Video Of The Day: Cuban Trapeze Artists, To The Sounds Of The Temper Trap

With the Olympics in full swing, it’s easy to focus on the athletes’ accomplishments – the scores, the times, the medal counts – instead of celebrating the journey that brought them to London in the first place. Though not specific to the Olympic Games, this music video from Australian rock band The Temper Trap chronicles a journey that is probably familiar to many Olympians, particularly those in parts of the world where athletic training is less of a big business than it is in the United States.

The video, recorded in Havana for the band’s latest single, “Trembling Hands,” follows a young Cuban trapeze artist as she prepares for an upcoming performance, capturing all of the struggles, the frustrations and the raw emotion that comes with pursuing a passion. The video relies on the talents of real aerobatic athletes and exposes a part of Cuban culture that isn’t often visible to the public, with the faded streets of Havana as a backdrop.

[via EcoSalon]

La Convención: A Festival Of ‘New Circus’ In Buenos Aires

In the urban landscape of Buenos Aires, Argentina, fauna is fantastically diverse. I love watching the human wildlife. My favorite species is the callejero, or street circus performer. In parks around the city, they set up their slack lines. They hang their long, silk telas from trees to practice aerial dance. Juggling pins fly. The callejeros spend hours in the parks, simply teaching and learning circus arts.

Each year, callejeros from Buenos Aires and all over Latin America convene outside the city. The event is called La Convención Argentina de Circo, Payasos y Espectaculos Callejeros (Argentinian Convention of Circus, Clowns and Street Performer Shows), or La Convención for short. It’s a grand affair that gains a bigger crowd each year. The November 2011 Convención attracted around 900 participants.

The event was founded in 1996, when the circo nuevo (new circus) phenomenon began to grow in Argentina, mirroring movements and conventions that were going on in Europe’s bohemias.

“La Convención was created to satisfy the need for space. We wanted a space for meeting, learning, exchange and union – by artists and for artists,” comments El Payaso Chacovachi, one of the founding clowns. That first year, 250 people and one small circus tent started something special.

Now, fifteen years later, this has become one of the greatest street-level shows on earth (or at least in the southern hemisphere). La Convención has always been a five-day marathon of workshops, contests, parades and performances. On day one, the big tents go up – two real circus tents.

Flocks of circus artists arrive with their own tents, costumes and juggling pins. A small village springs up in the grassy sports field complex that the organizers have reserved. Dining options: a food tent with lovingly prepared vegetarian fare, or public grills for DIY barbeque. There’s time to decide – dinner doesn’t start until 10 p.m. at the earliest.

Ambling through the tent village, I feel lucky. My Porteño friends with callejero tendencies had tipped me off about the gathering. Word of mouth is the only kind of publicity for this deliberately non-commercial event. I stand out a bit as a foreigner with no circus attire, but nobody minds. I gravitate toward the hula-hoopers and the swapping of skills begins.

According to the printed program, a schedule of organized events is set for each day. “Jueves, 1600hrs: Charla, debate y mesa redonda (Thursday, 4 p.m.: discussion, debate and round table).” This is in jest. The first three days pass in a dreamscape of loose workshops by day and drum circles by night. Artists savor this time as a chance to learn, teach and grow their talents.

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Every imaginable skill from the school of new circus is represented – the juggling of anything from pins to discs and cigar boxes, contact juggling, unicycling, staff spinning, diabolos, poi, hoops, aerial dancing, trapeze and improvised, new forms of object manipulation, balance and strength. Art meets play. Spontaneity reigns.

The last two days – a Saturday and Sunday – are the culmination of La Convención. Saturday is the grand parade. Everybody unpacks their best and finest circus attire. They achieve a “new circus” look by mixing classic elements like wigs and noses with contemporary design. Red, black and white stripes are everywhere. Tutus ruffle. Leotards and leggings are worn tight. I watch two clowns paint each other’s faces, matching each other.

The nuevo circo clowns pile into buses, cheering and playing whatever instruments they can find – tiny charango guitars, kazoos, melodicas and accordions – in an exodus toward the city of Monte Grande. They take to the streets.

Hours of parades degenerate into a massive street party. A foam machine covers everyone with a layer of white. Paper plates of shaving cream appear out of nowhere, suddenly widespread. Pie in the face! Soaked and soapy, I join the chaos.

Back at the circus grounds that night, all the face paint and foam has been washed off. Another party erupts in the Big Tent. A brassy ska band keeps everyone dancing into the small hours of the morning.

A final big day is ahead. The best of the professional performances have been saved for Sunday. The grand finale: shows by the most prestigious circus schools and companies in Argentina, like Compañia Colectivo Xibalba and Escuela Le Lido.

On the bus ride back to Buenos Aires, I read the event booklet cover to cover. I find this:

Founder’s Manifesto [translated]

Clowns, circus people, and street performer artists are a special stock within the world of professional artists, and I call professional anyone who lives by their profession.

Because of their particular characteristics, as half artist and half foraging go-getter, and since they clearly mix their lives with their art, they are associated with freedom within the collective imagination.

Their freedom is physical (they generally work traveling), economic (the money they earn is directly associated with their ability and effort), and psychic (they don’t have to be the best, they’re happy just being). This freedom allows them to take the reigns of their own lives. So, they happily wander the world without borders, full of limitations, creativity and courage, actualizing themselves as artists and as people.

La Convención is designed to celebrate these lives, and also to learn, to familiarize, to inform ourselves, to enjoy. Most importantly, we come to celebrate once a year for six days, creating our own utopian world full of free and sovereign ideals.”

~ El Payaso Chacovachi

Official festival website: http://convencionargentina.com/
Photos from last year’s Convención on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ConcursoFotograficoConvencion
La Convención 2012: November 23 – 28

Photo of the Day (7.15.10)

At first glance, this image could be a skyline of a mysterious desert oasis, but it’s actually a Cirque du Soleil circus tent in New York City taken by Flickr user Gus_NYC. As a child, I used to clamor to be taken to the circus, finding the acrobats, dancing animals, and even clowns fascinating and a little magical. At some point, the circus became boring and then a little weird, though I still bitterly regret not going to the Moscow Cats circus when it was in New York.

Seen an interesting circus act in your travels? Upload a photo to our Gadling Flickr pool and we might it to feature as our Photo of the Day.