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High-Risk Life Thriving Under the Big Top

March 1, 1995

LYON, France (AP) _ Shimmering in silk, Isabelle Ringenbach grips the rope swing, riveting an audience brought up on the illusory thrills of TV and video games. There is no net, no safety harness. This is real danger, wrapped in old-fashioned big top magic.

The drums roll and off she flies, performing graceful acrobatics on a thin, swinging bar 30 feet above the ground, re-enacting the ritual confrontation with death that has been at the heart of circus entertainment for thousands of years.

One false move could mean severe injury or even death. The 22-year-old performer won’t have it any other way.

``This is how I get my thrills,″ she said. ``With a net or harness, it wouldn’t be the same.″

Ms. Ringenbach was among dozens of performers from 10 European nations who gathered in Lyon for a month-long festival promoting the circus. It came at an upbeat time for the profession _ attendance in Europe and North America is up, and many countries have more circus troupes than ever.

In France, where the government subsidizes circuses as a popular art form, 20 major troupes and dozens of smaller, seasonal productions are operating. There are 138 troupes in Italy, up from 100 a decade ago. The seven biggest circuses in Germany drew 6 million spectators last year, while Ringling Bros., the top U.S. circus, had a record 12 million customers.

Innovation laced with high-tech thrills and chills is playing a big role in the boom.

Ringling Bros. has an all-new show boasting moveable lights and contemporary music written especially for circus.

In France’s new-wave ``Archaos Cirque de Caractere,″ funky rock tunes and a buzzing chainsaw have replaced the old-fashioned brass band. Artists tumble and juggle on speeding hot rods and motorcycles, not horses and elephants.

In fact, animal acts, a mainstay of the traditional circus since Roman times, could become an endangered species, partly because of increasingly outspoken animal rights activists in Europe.

The extravaganza in Lyon, which ended Tuesday, featured daily performances by circus schools, displays of circus paraphernalia and concerts of circus music.

School children brought to a rehearsal had their faces painted, sported red clown noses _ and watched seven Bengal tigers prowl their cages waiting for food.

``They’re quite nice, but, of course, they’d like to eat you up,″ British circus trainer David Chipperfield told the first-graders. ``They may be trained, but their instinct remains intact until their death.″

Chipperfield, 28, whose family has been performing with wild animals for generations, knows firsthand that danger lurks. Last fall, he lost the tip of a finger to Ginger, a young tiger who eyed him fiddling with a jammed cage door.

``It was my fault, because I wasn’t looking,″ he said. ``She just pounced out of nowhere. She must have eaten it because we never found it.″

Alexis Gruss, 51, head of a famed French circus that bears his name, cannot imagine circuses without animals. His family has been associated with high-class horsemanship for generations.

He says some circus animals live better _ and longer _ than in the wild.

``Of course, there are brutes in any profession, but they’re not the general rule,″ he said.

Ringling Bros. has no plans to cut back its exotic animal acts.

``The research we’ve done shows that animals are the main reason people like to bring their kids to the circus,″ said Rodney Huey, a Ringling vice president.

Still, the trend is clearly away from animals.

Germany’s famed Roncalli Circus uses just a few horses and dogs. Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, which plays internationally to sellout crowds, has eliminated animals altogether from its high-tech, theatrical productions.

Historian Pascal Jacob says the circus survives because it strikes a universal chord.

``It exalts life, and celebrates the human body’s amazing capacities,″ he said. ``At the same time, death is everywhere, in the lion’s cage or on the high wire. There’s no room for mistakes. ... For the public, that’s part of the attraction.″

Ms. Ringenbach says that’s the lure for her, too. Last year she left the circus to live with her fiance, but returned after three months.

``I wasn’t the same person. I was miserable,″ she said. ``I realize now that I’m engaged to the rope. If I do get married someday, it’ll be with a circus artist who knows what that means.″

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