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The Circus Leaves Town
The Circus Leaves Town
Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages,
say goodbye ot the “Greatest Show on Earth
The air inside of a 25 foot cannon is hot and smells like metal. Its dark and loud, and the moments before a launch – even for an experienced human cannonball like 32-year-old Nitro Nicole Sanders – are filled with real fear.
Theres no feeling comfortable with it, she says.
The cannonball act is deceptively simple: a cannon large enough to fit a human inside its bore shoots an acrobat high into the air, and she lands in a net or an airbag. The mechanics of the cannon are a closely guarded secret, but it works with a combination of hydraulics and air pressure – theres no gunpowder. The only explosion comes from some fireworks lit for show.
The flight of the human cannonball at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is over in just under three seconds, but the preparation takes days.
It’s up to the human cannonball to control her flight, to use her muscles in order to fly properly, to tumble safely, and land without injuring herself. Any mistake – if the cannon isnt warmed up enough or Sanders footing is off – can cause a bad flight and an even worse landing.
A 14-year-old girl named Zazel was the first to be shot out of a cannon, in 1877 London. In the 140 years since, the acts safety has been vastly improved but never perfected. One circus historian estimated that 30 human cannonballs have died in performance accidents. The most recent death occurred in 2011.
Like Zazel, Sanders is an acrobat and an aerialist by training. She is terrifically fit – each muscle must be pulled taut for the moment of launch. She cant gain or lose too much weight, or else risk throwing off the cannon makers calculations with potentially disastrous results.
On 7 May, in a downtown arena in Providence, Rhode Island, Sanders rides into the centre of the floor atop the bright red and gold cannon. In her civilian life she is tattooed and favours an all-black wardrobe, but in the show shes dressed head to toe in a glittery silver jumpsuit. She grins and high-kicks and flourishes with her arms towards the sold-out crowd.
As soon as she slides down into the mouth of the cannon, the smile drops.
Sanders pulls into herself tightly and calls out to her shooter, Boris, that shes ready.
The ringmaster counts down from five, and with the cracking sound of fireworks, Sanders is launched high in the air, cresting at 40-feet and travelling roughly 66 miles per hour at a G-force of about seven, which is enough to knock out a fighter pilot in flight.
She throws out her arms like wings, releasing two fistfuls of glitter.
She turns in mid-air, touches her fingertips to her toes, then falls on her back into the airbag. This is when the adrenaline hits, as the crowd roars its approval.
Just like shed envisioned, everything goes perfectly. It is her 596th shot.
It may also be her last.
After 146 years, these are the final performances of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, an American institution that was slowly brought to its knees by a combination of evolving cultural tastes, bad luck and political enemies that left it no longer financially viable for its parent company, Feld Entertainment.
So, in addition to ignoring the 104-foot expanse of floor between the cannon mouth and the airbag, Sanders has had to force herself to stop thinking about the fact that shes facing unemployment, the loss of her home, the disbanding of her tight-knit circus family, and the end of her dream job.
A week earlier, the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey train clatters into Providence at dusk, making its final journey with passengers from the circus penultimate performances in Hartford, Connecticut.
As soon as the silver cars stamped GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH come to a halt, Ivan Vargas, a sixth-generation circus performer from a long line of trapeze artists, clambers down into the muddy gravel.
I learned to walk on the train, my parents were living on the train when I was born, he says, looking up and down the desolate train tracks.
Here we are now, I just took my final train run.
They call it the city without a zip code. Sixty-one cars and a little over a mile long, the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey train is still the primary residence for most of the 107 performers and crew on the Red Unit, one of two remaining touring shows. There are 32 coaches divided into apartments of varying sizes, with as many as 16 people per car sleeping on narrow bunks. The youngest children sleep in the same car with their parents. Some of the families even keep cats and dogs.
There is a single, six-table Pie Car with a fully functional kitchen staffed 24-hours-a-day when the train is in motion. Performers can shimmy down the razor-thin hallways that connect the cars, order a slab of meatloaf or a slice of pie, and watch the only continuously functioning TV.
There is a shop car and a generator car, and 19 flatbeds filled with vehicles, costumes, equipment and tiger toys.
The train is followed by a caravan of RVs and trucks ferrying the animals – seven camels, three ponies, 18 tigers, 12 poodles, plus horses, snakes, and goats.
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