Circus performers train for risks

Ringling Bros. acrobats in Trenton on Friday. An accident two weeks ago in Rhode Island injured eight.
Ringling Bros. acrobats in Trenton on Friday. An accident two weeks ago in Rhode Island injured eight. (MELANIE BURNEY / Staff)
Posted: May 20, 2014

They are all too familiar with the risks that come with performing death-defying acts to captivate audiences.

Performers train for and live for the thrill of the big top and accept the dangers of the profession. For them, life is always a circus.

A horrifying accident at a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show in Rhode Island two weeks ago put a glaring spotlight on those risks and how performers cope with the dangers of the business.

"You can't think about the accident when you perform," Svetlana Gololodova, a veteran aerialist with the Cole Bros. Circus, said in an interview from Tannersville, Pa., where the circus performed last week.

"You can't be upset and think, 'This could happen to me,' " she said. "You have to think about what you are doing."

After a weekend stint in North Jersey, the traveling circus will arrive in South Jersey for performances beginning Wednesday at the Burlington Center Mall.

The shows will include a crowd-favorite act in which performer Petya Milanova is held aloft by her hair in a "human chandelier."

It is the same routine that was performed at the Ringling Bros. show in Providence in which eight female aerialists plummeted at least 20 feet to the ground when a support on a suspended metal frame broke.

The acrobats were hospitalized, some with head injuries and neck and back fractures. A dancer on the ground also was injured.

Investigators have said a clamp known as a carabiner apparently failed, causing the collapse. They have not determined why.

Two of the injured acrobats previously worked with Cole Bros. and performed with Milanova in a three-ring hair act. Milanova, who has performed with the circus since she was a teenager, was too distraught to be interviewed.

"It's a terrible thing, the accident that they had," said Elvin Bale, Cole Bros. director and vice president of operations, who also knows the injured acrobats. "You don't expect something to fail."

But Bale, a retired daredevil, knows all too well that failures can happen. He broke his legs and back in a circus accident 20 years ago in Hong Kong when he missed landing on the air mat in a human cannonball act.

"It's a sad thing, but it's part of life," said Bale, a fourth-generation circus performer.

Dale Thomsen, a Cole Bros. human cannonball, said he "feeds off the adrenaline" of performing. The cannon, billed as the largest in the circus industry, propels him 90 feet.

"I have definitely fallen in love with the circus. It is hard not to," said Thomsen, 28, of Mount Cloud, Minn.

Ringling Bros. pulled the hair-hanging act from nine performances of its "Legends" show, which closed Sunday in Trenton at the Sun Bank Center.

"We are in the business because we love it. We understand the risks we take very day," said Matt Belopavlovich, 27, of Madison, Wis., a Ringling Bros. clown and preshow host. "But we are proud of what we do."

"The safety of our cast, staff, and crew, as well as our guests, continues to be our highest priority," the circus' parent company, Feld Entertainment, said in a statement.

At a Friday matinee Ringling Bros. performance in Trenton, an audience packed with schoolchildren applauded the show and performers.

"I loved it. The aerial acts were amazing," said Michelle Barbosa, 13, an eighth grader at Franklin School in Kearney, Hudson County, who was on a class trip. "I got so shocked. I thought they were going to fall."

Teacher Bob Lombardy said he was relieved to learn that the hair-hanging act had been pulled from the show.

"Once I heard that it was dangerous, I was glad that they got rid of it. No one wants to see anyone get hurt," he said. "There was so much other good stuff to see."

Bale said every possible precaution is taken for Milanova and all performers. Equipment is reinforced and checked daily, he said.

"I love being with the circus," he said. "The show must go on."

The Cole Bros. Circus will perform four shows at the Burlington Center Mall on May 21 and May 22 at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. each day. Admission is free for children under 13. For more information, visit

856-779-3814 @mlburney

comments powered by Disqus