Ever since David Carradine played a warrior monk on the run in that 1970s TV classic "Kung Fu," the Shaolin Warriors of the Henan province in China have been the public face of qigong, that uber-disciplined form of exercise that makes the rest of us feel like the rough equivalent of the strawberry jelly sloshing around inside a Dunkin' Donut.
There is one such tasty treat aside my keyboard right now, which perhaps explains why I could never be a member of the barrel-chested Shaolin Warriors and also why their feats at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus so blew me away Saturday night.
These gentlemen — whose pride did not prevent them from joining the circus parade and waving to the giant lollipop-holding, sugar-dosed American kiddies — not only bent steel with their necks and chopped oak with their skulls (I had a vicarious headache), but, in one truly heart-stopping moment that one young member of my family was constantly talking about even a full day later, one of these terrifying brothers dove through a spinning octagon that was outfitted with sword blades and filled with flame. Just for kicks, he then stuck a hood over his head and, so blinded, traced his w-a-a-y back through the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, eventually diving again and landing bang in the middle of the tiny target, apparently through some kind of osmosis one develops at the age of 4 on the slopes on Mount Song.
It's quite something. I've seen the Shaolin Warriors (joined in these feats of daring by "Kung Fu Kings" Junjie Sun and Guojing Qin) tour by themselves, but it's better yet when you also get the rest of the circus. As annual editions of the Greatest Show on Earth go (and I've seen about 20 of them), "Dragons," the 142nd, is one of the best. It's easily in the top two or three productions, mostly because it comes with a far sharper edge than most of the Ringling editions of late, but also because it is faster-paced and more urgent.
I suppose there are sacrifices in terms of sweetness and warmth, but "Dragons" compensates with action and an unusually generous number of those great moments when mouths are dropping open in surprise. The Shaolin Warriors could certainly take care of that all by themselves, of course, but this year's show gets off to an especially strong start thanks to Kanat and Tatiana Tchalabaev, whose Cossack riding troupe is one the few routines that can really fill an entire arena. There are 12 riders in this remarkable act, which is choreographed as to feel like it can't even be contained by all three rings of the circus. I've seen a lot of horse acts, and this one is especially good at showcasing the magnificence of the beasts, while the riding skills of these performers are formidable. It gives the top of a circus show the kind of swirl of action it rarely has enjoyed in the past.
Traditional elements abound, of course. The elephants are present (as, on the streets outside, are the protests of those who find the animals' presence objectionable). The big-cat act this year is, as they say in the trade, a mixed-cat act, hosted by the British showman Alexander Lacey, who shows up with lions and tigers in the same ring. These acts have changed some over the years, and Lacey focuses on intimate connections with his beasts. There also are performing domestic cats, a terrific baker's dozen of trickster dogs rescued from shelters and what you might call a mixed-hoof act from Vicki Zsilak that includes llamas, ponies, donkeys and goats. If you don't agree with the notion of performing animals, a tradition to which Feld Entertainment fervently clings, this is not your show.
There is also a Globe of Death (here themed as the Dragon Riders), an act I've seen a wearisome number of times. But even though these steel balls are ubiquitous (the act actually has been around for a century), you really don't want to see anyone other than the Torres Family of Paraguay (aside, perhaps, from the competitive Dominguez Riders). The Torres crew of siblings and cousins (seven men, one woman) now stuff a world-record eight dirt-bike riders into their 16-foot globe. The Eight, as they say in the trade, is the world record for this size of globe, re-created nightly on this tour. This is new: Not long ago, six was all you ever got. But six ain't eight. I'd never seen more than seven.
Ringling has an old-school ringmaster in Johnathan Lee Iverson, who rolls hyperbolics off his tongue with a very satisfying vibrato, but the circus has been casting around for a clown worthy of the crown of the great Bello Nock. They have a big find this year in Paulo dos Santos, a little person of a plethora of athletic talents (he is quite the tumbler and break dancer, and even takes his own spin in the Globe of Death). To some extent, "Dragons" is themed around Santos' personal journey to gain courage, wisdom and heart. This was a great idea — huge arena shows need a point of human identification, and dos Santos has a big heart and a huge personality. I only wish they'd put a final button on that quest; somehow it felt unfinished. Dos Santos could, I think, be a star of this circus. With monks sticking swords into their necks, his vulnerability and warmth are badly needed.
When: Through Sunday at Allstate Arena in Rosemont; Nov. 14-25 at the United Center in Chicago
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $13-$60 at 847-635-6601 or 312-455-4500 or ringling.com or ticketmaster.com