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FAMILY CIRCUS : This Ringling Bros. Caravan Has 45 Junior Performers in Tow

August 05, 1993|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

Like ringmasters, kids are big on superlatives ("He's only, like, the cutest boy in the whole world!"). And, of course, they're no strangers to the spotlight.

So it should come as no surprise that this year's Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which runs at the Anaheim Arena through Aug. 15, is touted as having "the largest collection of children's acts ever assembled anywhere in three circus rings."

Terrell Grant is among the 45 young performers featured in the show. A soft-spoken 13-year-old from Chicago's North Side, he is one of the younger members of the circus' Chicago Kidz, an act that combines high-octane jump-roping and something called street tumbling, a pastime popular in the 'hoods of Chicago. Along with his 14-year-old brother, Allen, Terrell was recruited by a circus talent scout because of his work with the Jesse White Tumbling Troupe, a company best known for its halftime entertainment at Chicago Bulls and Bears games. The Kidz, which currently features five other Chicago-area street tumblers and one Bulgarian girl, trained under Russian gymnasts for seven months at the circus' winter quarters in Florida before beginning a two-year tour in January.

Speaking by phone between shows at the L.A. Sports Arena, Terrell said that he was "excited" and "a little scared" when he was first tapped for the circus, but apart from the physical challenges of the act ("People can get caught up in the jump-rope if you don't know what you're doing"), it's pretty much business as usual.

"Performing is performing," he noted calmly. "I just want to make my family proud of me." There are some perks to the job, however. While on the road, he says he's had the chance to hang out at a lot of different malls around the country.

Terrell, a street tumbler since age 6, will cover about 30,000 miles and play in more than 90 cities during his circus stint. While traveling, his home and school are on the Ringling Bros. train, where he shares quarters with the other Kidz and a chaperon, and keeps up on schoolwork in the Little Red Circus Schoolhouse, a rail car equipped with lockers, computers and a four-member teaching staff.

Paul Canada is the Kidz trainer and legal guardian. Canada, 23, said that aside from helping the youngsters stretch their physical and performance abilities and "trying to get them to go to bed at a decent hour," he wants to broaden their outlooks as well.

"I try to help them see the world as a whole, not just the circus," said Canada, a gymnast who holds a degree in youth ministries. "The respect, commitment, hard work (they're experiencing) here will carry them for the rest of their lives. I look for those teachable moments and try to capture them."

While the Chicago Kidz perform, the Russian troupe (the Children of Cherepovets), presents similar jump-roping stunts in a neighboring ring. Other young performers include Youlia of Siberia, an 11-year-old acrobat who works with an adult partner, and several teen-agers who are members of the Acrobatic Troupe of People's Republic of China. Most of the other children are members of performing families, including the Stevens family (brother Sebastian and Alexander are 4 and 6 respectively), which presents baboons and miniature horse acts.

Second-, third-, even sixth-generation circus performers are not uncommon, but American followers of Ringling Bros. will be especially familiar with the lineage of Mark Oliver and Tina Gebel. The brother-and-sister team, who present elephants, zebras and liberty horses in this year's show, are the children of Gunther Gebel-Williams, the flaxen-haired animal trainer who dominated Ringling Bros. center ring for more than 20 years. (Gebel retired in 1990 but can still be spotted in a tux or coveralls helping out with the act.)

Clown David Larible is also featured in this year's show. Actually, clown is a misnomer for the Italian Larible. Far from the boffo fall-on-your-bum humor Americans associate with clowning, Larible's style is sophisticated, understated and surprisingly gentle. At the 1991 edition of the show, he had thousands of "children of all ages" eating out of his floppy checked cap.

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