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Circus Tradition: Adhering to It Here, Updating It There


If you think it's tough being a horse whisperer, consider Sara Houcke's job. She talks to tigers. The seventh-generation circus performer, billed as Sara the Tiger Whisperer, is a star of the 132nd edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which opened Wednesday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and moves to the Anaheim Pond next week.

Houcke, born in Torquay, England, is just one of Ringling's featured artists who is trying to break through conventional notions of circus performances. She had worked with camels, zebras, horses and elephants, but in 1999 she decided to enter the traditionally male domain of the tiger cage.

"A man in the ring is a little bit more of a macho type," says Houcke, 25, who uses vocal commands with nine tigers and also does an elephant act. "With me, it's more like the tigers are my children than anything else."

It took a year to fully earn the big cats' respect, she adds. "I have a great relationship with them. I can pet them, kiss their noses, put my head on their shoulders. I feed them meat out of my hand rather than from a stick. If I'm not feeling well, they totally know it."

Have the tigers ever harmed Houcke? "No," she says. "They're big pussycats toward me."

Meanwhile, David Larible quotes Fellini, reads Dickens and speaks five languages. Raised in Verona, Italy, he also happens to be a world-renowned clown and another seventh-generation circus performer trying to break with tradition. Rather than white-face makeup and slapstick, Larible's act is inspired by centuries-old European performing traditions.

Larible bases his comedy on his homeland's commedia dell'arte, a 16th century theater form that combined improvisation with stock characters and scenarios, and on the European version of the Auguste clown, a naturalistic Everyman whose makeup allows the performer's own facial features to be seen.

"When you say 'clown,' people think of Bozo and McDonald's; that's what I'm trying to fight," says Larible. "When you do clowning the right way, it's an art."

Also in the ring this year is the hand-balancing act performed by Ringling novice Mei Ling. Almost all hand balancing is done by men. Ling knows of only two other women--in Europe--who perform tricks as difficult as hers. And she knows of no one else, male or female, who executes them atop a rotating motorcycle.

Ling, 23, a third-generation circus performer and native of Berne, Switzerland, began hand balancing at 15. "My teacher gave me his routine, with choreography and music," Ling says. Her dad suggested adding the motorcycle.

From a platform 10 feet to 15 feet above the bike, Ling balances her body primarily on one hand during her five-minute act.

"Hand balancing is about strength," says the 5-foot-2-inch performer.

"That's why it's more of a male routine. It's a cool feeling. It makes me feel powerful."

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, through Sunday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, 3939 S. Figueroa St. $13-$35. (213) 748-6136 or Ticketmaster: (213) 480-3232. Wednesday-Aug. 4 at the Anaheim Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave. Tickets $13-$15. (714) 704-2500 or Ticketmaster: (714) 740-2000. Show times vary depending on the day.

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