The Weird, Stunning, Unfortunate Tale of The Ringling Bros.’ Elephant Polka

Lisa D. Small

Sarasota is a single of individuals exclusive towns whose identify is instantly identifiable with an art sort. Just as Los Angeles is household to the films and New York is residence to Broadway, Sarasota is dwelling to the circus. Through the Large Top’s heyday, our city was total of persons creating artwork.

Some ended up entire world-renowned stars, like the Wallendas, animal coach Frank Buck, and clowns like Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly.  Others—thousands, in fact—were right here to present them a glittering assistance system—costumes, sets, music and lighting. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus winter headquarters bustled with activity, fairly like a Hollywood studio. There was so a lot to see, rehearsals and wild animals, that it was the biggest tourist attraction in the condition.

The defining factor of the artwork designed in Sarasota back in these times was its unabashedly lowbrow character. The circus outlined the term lowbrow. It was broad, extremely vibrant, noisy, experienced an earthy odor and was aimed at the masses. Anybody, even a 3-yr-aged, could comprehend it just by hunting it.

It was the polar opposite of that other form of artwork, the intellectual. That’s the earth of mental art, where by ethical dilemmas are examined and progressive procedures are embraced. Higher artwork often drew inspiration from the circus (Picasso experienced a circus period), but for the circus to flirt with highbrow artwork appeared like a catastrophe waiting around to transpire.

But it did occur, just after, with magnificent final results.


Our story starts at the New York World’s Good in 1939. John Ringling North, who inherited command of the circus from his uncle, John Ringling, just two several years previously, experienced put together an equestrian clearly show for the good, with exhibition and acrobatic driving and a Wild West display, introduced five situations a day. It was a glimpse backward to the kind of thing the circus had been performing for a long time, and it was a significant flop.

John Ringling North

The massive strike of the honest was the exact opposite—a glimpse into the potential. At the Standard Motors pavilion, the Futurama exhibit constantly had a 3-hour line. In an enormous streamlined creating, you would sit in a plush armchair and be whisked by way of an 18-minute experience in excess of and all-around the “world of tomorrow,” a wide miniature generation of what the environment would glance like in 1960. Perfectly composed cities and picturesque countryside were connected by a swish technique of throughways. The cars and trucks on the throughways really moved. The town of the long term contained miracles only dreamt of: landing pads for helicopters, a sports activities stadium with a retractable roof, and even a revolving cafe set atop a skyscraper. More than 50 % a million little properties experienced been developed. Persons had been astonished.

So was North. He observed out all he could about its designer, a male named Norman Bel Geddes. (Norman extra the Bel to make himself seem additional unique. And, certainly, his daughter was actress Barbara Bel Geddes.) One particular of the excellent structure geniuses of the previous century, Bel Geddes fairly significantly invented the field of industrial design. He could make improvements to anything at all, typically by stripping it down to its essence and then streamlining it.

He built everything—ships, planes, automobiles, radios, household furniture, stage sets. He was equally an artist and a social thinker. He instructed us we could produce a globe that was clear, effective and harmonious. As a person critic said, “He was a missionary preaching the gospel of modernism.”

North organized to meet up with with Bel Geddes and found out some thing else. The designer was just as a lot of a showman as he was.

Norman Bel Geddes

They designed a deal. Bel Geddes would be presented a free of charge hand to redesign—indeed, rethink—the circus. Up until finally now it had been a collection of unrelated functions, with a sideshow and menagerie attached. Bel Geddes turned it into a cohesive knowledge, united by colour, style and design, lighting and costumes. Each and every year experienced a unique theme—for case in point, Mother Goose in 1941—and every thing flowed from that unifying principle. The full 1941 present was now a tale becoming explained to to Previous King Cole.

The Massive Top rated was now blue the menagerie tent pink. Posters were redesigned in an avant-garde fashion by the leading poster artists of the working day. Sideshow banners were repainted in a modernistic fashion, alongside with a jungle-themed menagerie. There were being new concession stands. Aerial ballets showcasing scores of showgirls ended up included. Bel Geddes constructed a new home—air conditioned—for Gargantua, the star gorilla. He even altered the extremely sawdust. Now it was coloured pink in rings 1 and 3, with gleaming white in the heart ring and blue in the encompassing hippodrome observe.

Circus purists have been appalled. But the general public beloved it. The 1941 year, created as war engulfed Europe, was the most thriving at any time. North even talked Bel Geddes into redesigning the bar at the John Ringling Hotel in Sarasota. It grew to become a masterpiece of jazzy midcentury structure, with witty murals by Anton Refregier.

When production for the 1942 season started, North identified as a meeting at his mother’s dwelling on Fowl Essential. He had an idea. The circus elephants had been a person of the most significant attracts, and all 50 of them done in parades and production quantities. What if they done their own ballet, to primary songs?

As they kicked all over concepts, Miles White, the new costume designer employed by Bel Geddes, arrived up with the great individual to pull it off: George Balanchine.

Elephant trainer Walter McClain with elephants.

Balanchine has long gone down in history as the most crucial choreographer of the 20th century. He was synonymous with the aesthetic rigor of substantial art. Born in Russia in 1904, he acquired his early training at the Imperial Ballet College, but like lots of Russian dancers, he defected to the West. In Paris in the 1920s, he made his standing with a sequence of successes, operating with these composers as Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel. A lot of of his parts for the Ballets Russes experienced sets and costumes by artists like Matisse and Picasso.

George Balanchine

His immediately recognizable design was known as “neoclassical.” It was pure dance, stripped down to the necessities. To him it was all about the choreography. Telling a story, the narrative of the dance, did not interest him. He was also renowned for his prima ballerinas and married 4 of them. Their physical appearance was essential to him, particularly their body weight, and numerous of his dancers had scary bulimia and anorexia tales to convey to.
But Balanchine was adventurous and experienced an open up intellect. One of his preferred dancers was Ginger Rogers, and he was just one of the initial to integrate motifs of Black dance into his get the job done. So when he got a simply call from John North inquiring if he was fascinated in choreographing a ballet for 50 elephants, he quickly mentioned sure.

His new corps de ballet in fact had a various quantity of elephants, and some of the ballerinas were being bulls, as male elephants are identified as. They ended up extremely well skilled and could shift in time to songs, if it was very simple more than enough. There was a prima ballerina, the well-known Modoc. Really, the circus at that time experienced 3 Modocs: Significant Modoc, Minor Modoc and Wallace Modoc. But Huge Modoc was the star, a celebrated performer in her personal ideal, showcased on the posters, and undoubtedly not anorexic.

Balanchine’s fast problem was the songs. The circus, of study course, had a good deal of music. Circus tunes are maybe the most recognizable in the entire world. And the Ringling band, led by the famous Merle Evans, was a unique assortment of instruments, together with a Hammond organ.
But Balanchine recognized the after-in-a-lifetime opportunity in front of him. He desired a composer with a large amount of nerve, and his mind went quickly to his aged husband or wife, Igor Stravinsky. They experienced labored together many times before, and their collaborations were being between the most storied and profitable in the planet of music. There was no one who embodied “high art” far more than Stravinsky.

In 1941 Stravinsky was dwelling in Los Angeles, a refugee from the war in Europe. It was a fast paced, nerve-wracking time for him. His brother and his niece had just died. He was seeking to full the Danses Concertantes and worrying about his upcoming. Then he got the phone contact from his aged mate Balanchine.

“I wonder if you would like to do a minimal ballet with me,” Balanchine commenced.

“For whom?”

“Some elephants.”

“How outdated?”

“Very youthful.”

“All right. If they are extremely younger elephants, I will do it.”

Igor Stravinsky

And so the genius who woke up the planet to modernism with his rating for the ballet The Rite of Spring established to function. He manufactured no bones about why he approved the commission. The fee was large, and he could sprint it off in no time.

The accomplished piece was just beneath 4 minutes prolonged and was dubbed the Circus Polka. Only pieces of it are in polka rhythm the meter alterations regularly and it works by using musical phrases from Schubert’s Marche Militaire. The overall impact is mild, delighted, circus-like, and potentially a little difficult.

Back again in Sarasota, at the wintertime headquarters out on Beneva Highway, Balanchine was performing with his dancers, both equally human and elephantine. The beasts were being getting issues pursuing the rhythm changes. Far more than after their nerves overtook them and they would bolt. Balanchine and coach Walter McClain would have to chase just after them.

Costumes have been built by Miles White and Bel Geddes, pink tutus for all of them, such as the bulls, in addition elaborate headdresses and earrings. The circus band did its most effective with the Stravinsky orchestrations, but there was a sensation of unease as showtime drew closer. It was all so bizarre. Was it as well highbrow? Would it perform?

They needn’t have worried. Opening evening, April 9, 1942, at Madison Square Backyard, was a triumph. Vera Zorina, Balanchine’s spouse at the time, took the role as guide dancer for the gala charity premiere. Modoc carried the ballerina out in her trunk and delicately put her in the center of the centre ring. Then the relaxation of the elephants entered, just about every with a ballerina, and encircled the arena. Here’s what The New York Occasions wrote the up coming morning:

“They arrived into the ring in artificial blue-lighted dusk, initially the tiny pink dancers, then the good beasts. The little dancers pirouetted into the three rings and the elephant herds gravely swayed and nodded rhythmically… The arc of the sway widened and the stomping picked up with the new music. In the heart ring, Modoc the Elephant danced with incredible grace and in time with the tune, closing in great cadence with the crashing finale.”

The Circus Polka was a triumph. As just one historian place it, “The only stampede was to the box business office.” 1000’s attended the 42 performances. Thousands and thousands more noticed it as it toured the region. Nevertheless just after the 1942 season it was never ever performed once more. North’s Ringling cousins commenced to fight for much more regulate of the programming and the information. The circus turned less adventurous. The superb try to blend substantial and lower culture arrived to an stop.

But the Circus Polka took on a life of its possess. Stravinsky (in an odd twist of destiny, his son Soulima, also a composer, retired to Siesta Crucial and died in a nursing dwelling on Tuttle Avenue in 1994) reorchestrated the piece for a symphony orchestra, and right now it is in the repertoire of companies all in excess of the globe. Jerome Robbins, Balanchine’s fantastic rival for the title of most influential choreographer, established his own edition. He replaced the elephants with little ladies in pink tutus and had a ringmaster immediate them.  Mikhail Baryshnikov played the role quite a few occasions and reviewers known as it “cute in the very best feasible way.”

6-year-old women as an alternative of elephants. Probably it is greater that way. It has turn into the manner nowadays to re-analyze the earlier and make moral judgments about it. From this level of watch, the Circus Polka variations from a awesome minor tale about a circus effectiveness and turns into a tale of abuse and exploitation.

Ringling's elephants performing the Circus Polka

Elephants are sensitive animals, social in nature, who communicate, raise households, mourn their lifeless, empathize and mentor their young. The ones that labored for Ringling were pressured into a existence pretty different from what mother nature meant. Now they ended up separated from their mothers soon just after beginning and experienced, with bull hooks, whippings and electric shock, to execute tips. They lived in cages, ended up usually chained and pressured to stand all day on concrete. It have to have been a extremely unhappy existence.

In the 1970s, the rising animal legal rights motion took purpose at Ringling Bros. and waged a many years-extended campaign that not only ended the elephants’ participation in the circus but inevitably the circus as perfectly. In a type of “#metoo” coda to the tale, the elephants last but not least bought the circus canceled. For great. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey formally closed down on Could 21, 2017, after 133 many years in organization.

Just one miracles what the elephants considered about all this. When they retired, which they did when they received much too old to function, they had been sent to an animal preserve to live out their times. People today who worked there described that at times they would see users of the herd standing there, finally absolutely free from their cages and bull hooks, with their heads swaying and their feet going, performing the Circus Polka.

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