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This year's circus: kids' reactions are the real show; Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. 110th edition, presented at Madison Square Garden.

The circus is many things, but up-to-date is not one of them. This year "the greatest shown on earth" has discovered "Star Wars" and its ilk. The first half of the show concludes with a lengthy space spectacle called "Close Encounters of the Circus Kind," which features, among other items: silver rockets spewing flame near the top of Madison Square Garden, two "space travelers" hanging there-from by their feet, "merry Martians," "riotous robots," elephants, and about two-score children being hauled around the arena in "radiant rockets."

I generally find these pageants to be the most tedious parts of the circus, but this year's "spectacular" has more zing than usual. Maybe it's those flames. In any event, it's bright and noisy, and the costumes are particularly extravagant. Overall, it's a definite plus.

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For the rest, the 110th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is business as usual. The clowns do their accustomed tricks, the "smallest man in the world" exhibits himself at great length in various costumes , people stand on horses and leap from teeterboards and somersault from trapezes and snap whips at tigers. Whenever I found myself bored with the action, I just watched my nine-year-old children for a while. They were enthralled with almost every minute, as they always are. For children, the circus remains a sure-fire entertainment treat.

Even for a jaded grownup, however, the latest circus program contains a few stand-your-hair-on-end surprises. Most astounding are the "careening cyclists" who "confound credulity" in a "globe of death." Translated into English, this means that two motorcycle riders scoot around the interior of a large metal-mesh ball, often turning sideways and upside down, and missing each other by what looks like a fraction of an inch at reasonably high speeds. It's about the shortest act in the show, and probably the most exciting.

An animal trainer named Ursula Bottcher opens the program with a polar-bear act, which is remarkable mostly for the difference in size between the towering animals and their petite handler. i also enjoyed the King Charles Troupe from New York City, who play basketball on unicycles. I think their act was a bit less frenetic this time than the last time I saw it, but it holds up well.

There were a few disappointments on opening night. Something must have gone wrong during the tightwire act, which terminated before it really got started. And the finale was trite -- just a lot of costumed people waving goobye while the ringmaster sang platitudes at us. But traditions, and even platitudes, are what the circus is all about. The 110th edition is business as usual, all right. But I guess that's just the way it's meant to be.


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