UniverSoul holds on to its core, looks to expand as it marks 25th anniversary


Lena Black-Josey and her mom, Pamela Black, rose to their feet in applause as UniverSoul Circus opened a new, high-octane show in Atlanta.

Black-Josey, now 27, was 9 years old when she started going to the UniverSoul Circus every year with her mom.

“I love it,” said Black-Josey, smiling. “I love all of it.”

Stilt walkers from Trinidad and Tobago. Aerial acrobats from Mongolia soaring and flipping using a teeterboard. Motorcycle daredevils from the USA flying at high speeds.

UniverSoul Circus, which combines circus arts, stunning visuals and an eclectic mix of music (from hip-hop to Caribbean rhythms to African beats to Beyoncé), returned this week to Atlanta, where it all began 25 years ago.

The traveling circus has been entertaining families across the country, but the roots are here. It was founded in 1993 by Baltimore native and concert promoter Cedric Walker, who wanted to showcase black talent.

The circus evolved to become a platform for presenting talent from around the globe from Caribbean dancers to a comedic dog act from Chile to the multitalented ringmaster, Daniel “Lucky” Malatsi, a South African native turned Atlanta resident who can dance, do acrobatics, and keep the audience pumped up. This is a circus that prides itself on celebrating cultures from around the world and bringing them together under a huge red-and-yellow striped tent.

All the while, the circus has remained headquartered in Atlanta. UniverSoul Circus now celebrates a major milestone with a new show in Atlanta coined “25th Anniversary — bigger, louder, faster, funkier, with even more soul.”

With the iconic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey taking its final bow last year after more than 140 years, UniverSoul finds itself as one of the last surviving circuses — and one of the largest left in the country.

So the question becomes: Is this a moment of opportunity or a time of peril for UniverSoul?

A number of circuses have been on the decline over the past 15 years, facing tighter regulations and protests over the use of exotic animals.

UniverSoul is one of about 15 to 18 active national touring circuses remaining in the United States, according to Richard Flint, a retired historian from Baltimore and past president of the Circus Historical Society, a nonprofit promoting the history and culture of the circus since 1939.

In circus circles, Flint said UniverSoul is known for its strong and receptive audiences and for presenting a show that is festive and highly interactive, with lots of audience participation. The circus has expanded in recent years to new markets including National Harbor, Md., and plans to take its circus, for the first time, to Europe later this year.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey was felled by a variety of factors. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups, made it difficult to continue operations.

Animals continue to be part of UniverSoul’s show, but they have been de-emphasized from the live entertainment. During the opening night in Atlanta on Wednesday, elephants never even made an entrance, and four tigers briefly appeared as part of a magic show. Jackie Davis, executive vice president of UniverSoul Circus, said the two elephants in the show didn’t participate because the opening night was a travel day, and not because of a change in plans for elephants. But in discussing expansion plans into new markets, she said no final decisions have been made about which animals will be part of the show. Their website, meanwhile, features no images of exotic animals.

“Our shows are not animal-driven,” said Davis. “That has never defined us.”

Fulton County Animal Services officers and veterinarians do an inspection of all animals, housing and paperwork upon arrival into the county and make periodic inspections during their stay. A review of inspections during the past four years revealed the circus was cited for potentially violating an Atlanta city animal abuse ordinance in February 2015. When “Bo” the elephant refused to return backstage after its set, a circus staff member used a tool called a “bullhook” to regain control of the animal. The case eventually went to court, and the elephant handler was acquitted. Inspection reports include concerns raised by Fulton County Animal Services for insufficient water or hay, and sores or bruising on animals. Fulton County officers follow up to make sure concerns are addressed.

As long as UniverSoul features animals in its show, the circus will continue to face opposition from those who believe animals do not belong in a circus.

“Wild animals belong in the wild, not chained and confined, forced to perform, deprived of all that is natural to them,” said Christina Scaringe, Animal Defenders International’s general counsel, in a press release. She said local campaigners with ADI will be near the circus tent handing out leaflets and “informing audiences about the suffering and telling people that the animal circus is no longer acceptable in a modern, advanced society.”

Animals aside, UniverSoul will need to overcome other forces to keep families returning to the circus, again and again. How do you draw an audience when video games and cellphones captivate young minds?

For UniverSoul, Davis said the challenge is to continue finding exciting talent from around the world, and to keep the show highly interactive, with great music and cutting-edge technology.

For Emma Mills of Atlanta, there’s nothing like the live entertainment of a circus. She said her 4-year-old son, Landon, was mesmerized start to finish. His favorite act of the night? The soaring motorcycles. Between each flying motorcycle, he looked up and said, wait for it. Wait for it! And then his eyes got wide as the motorcycles flew high into the ring.

Meanwhile, mom enjoyed the global feel of the show. And her favorite act? Two aerial dancers from Cuba, who seemed to float, upside down or sideways, adding graceful twists.

As the show came to a close, Lucky, the ringleader, clad in a shimmering blue jacket and blue sparkly shoes, asked children in the audience to stand up and take a pledge. Repeat after me, loud and clear, he said.

I am unique. I will love those who are different from me.

We may have different beliefs, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race.

EVENT PREVIEW

UniverSoul Circus

Through March 11. $20-$40. Old Turner Field Gold Parking Lot, 755 Hank Aaron Drive SW, Atlanta. Also, March 14-18 at Gwinnett Place Mall, 2100 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth. 1-800-745-3000, www.universoulcircus.com.



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