Wednesday, May 23, 2018
News Roundup

Circus sisters behind 'Dragons,' debuting tonight in Tampa

TAMPA

They've scoured the globe for talent, plucking 20 Shaolin monks from China. They've sold popcorn, made snow cones and performed as clowns.

The sisters say sawdust runs through their veins.

Alana and Nicole Feld, 31 and 33, are producers of the Dragons edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. As usual, the sisters are in Tampa for the opening of the show, which traditionally debuts here.

It's a family business. The circus is part of the Feld Entertainment empire, which owns several other entertainment venues in addition to the "Greatest Show on Earth,'' now 142 years old.

The sisters will be watching closely tonight when the curtain opens on the two-year tour.

"We'll be watching the Tampa audience," said Nicole Feld. "If they don't laugh at the clowns, we change the clown act."

• • •

The Feld sisters, including 28-year-old Juliette, grew up in Maryland. When the circus came to town each year in April, their parents would bring in the clowns for Alana's birthday.

For her seventh birthday, the girls and their friends took elephant rides in the cul-de-sac.

"We've grown up with these elephants," Nicole said. "They're part of our family."

After college, the sisters tried out other careers — Nicole, photography, Alana, marketing — each seeking a separate identity.

It was then they felt the call back to the circus. It's not just a job, but a way of life, Alana said.

Their sister Juliette is director of strategic planning for Feld Entertainment. Their parents, Kenneth and Bonnie Feld, live on Harbour Island in Tampa.

Their father used to ask them, as children, what they liked best. He got them jobs running the photo booth and wearing clown costumes. With their experience working outside the business, they both say they've earned spots as producers. "You're not just here because you're the boss' daughter," Nicole said.

• • •

This year's show includes elephants with names familiar to the Felds: Nicole, Juliette and Bonnie. The animals were born on the Feld's Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County.

Sisters Nicole and Alana live in downtown Tampa about 12 weeks of the year and say they often visit the elephants.

"It's always an extraordinary experience," Nicole said.

The sisters remember when Juliette the elephant was born in 1992, the first birth at the conservation. Since then, 22 more have come. About a third go on to perform in the circus. This year, that includes 17 performers. The remaining 44 stay to become part of the breeding program.

Each one has its own personality, Nicole said.

The elephant Nicole is known on the road for being a mentor to other elephants and a reliable performer, though she can be spacey, the human Nicole said. The elephant Alana stays at the conservation center, where she is known to mother other calves, the other Alana said.

As the elephants rehearsed at the Florida Fairgrounds for the upcoming show, staffers met with groups of young people, including high school students interested in farming.

Elephant trainer Joey Frisco III told them what his job takes: "A strong back and work ethic. And you have to love animals. It becomes your life."

•••

The circus has, at times, been faulted for its care of animals.

In November, Feld Entertainment agreed to pay $270,000 to settle civil charges brought by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it violated federal animal welfare law. The penalty was the largest ever assessed against an exhibitor under the Animal Welfare Act.

Federal inspectors alleged that one elephant was made to perform when sick and another was not treated when lame. A gate had closed on a tiger's tail. Cages had sharp edges and fences were insecure, the USDA said.

Feld officials agreed to set up a training program for employees who work with animals, but admitted no wrongdoing.

"We agreed to pay that fine as a business decision," said Janice Aria, director of animal stewardship at the conservation, "rather than let it go on to a prolonged litigation."

Many of the citations were corrected on site, she said. Others, including the complaint that an ailing elephant performed, were contested. Elephants are herd animals and separating one during a performance causes extreme stress, Aria said. The elephant was assessed by the circus veterinarian and allowed to accompany the others without performing its usual routine.

She hopes never to see an end to the circus elephant.

"It may happen," she said. "It would be a huge loss to America. When I see the looks on faces when elephants perform, it's phenomenal. It's fireworks."

•••

The 142 performers will travel the country on the circus' mile-long train. Scouts visit circus schools and back yards to find fresh talent. They brought Alexander Lacey from Great Britain, along with his lion and tiger act. Other acts were created for the show, such as Ukrainian contortionists in plexiglass spheres.

Their challenge, the sisters say, is to repackage more than a century of circus tradition for today's kids. The Dragon show, named for the Chinese Year of the Dragon, was more than a year in the making.

When the public arrives, tailors will have finished gluing bling to costumes. Stage hands will have converted Segways into dragons. And the elephants will be cleaned with a leaf blower.

Many of the performers, the sisters say, are considered members of the Feld family. Legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Willliams, who was with the circus from 1969 to 1990, was like an uncle, Nicole said.

She gave birth to a daughter three months ago, on his birthday.

"It seemed a nice tribute," said Nicole, who brought the baby to most of the rehearsals at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Wide-eyed, little Piper squirmed to see the lights and hear the music.

"I think we have a real circus kid on our hands," Nicole said.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.

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