Circus Polka, 1942, Fifty Elephants, Balanchine and Stravinsky Team Up—
“Elephants never forget”, as the old saying goes. And we should never forget one of the oddest moments in the history of elephants, circuses and classical music. April 9th will mark the 75th anniversary of this unique event.
In late 1941, choreographer George Balanchine was contacted in New York by John North Ringling with a unique proposition: could a “ballet” be created for his Barnum and Bailey Circus elephants? The idea was intriguing and in January, 1942, Balanchine called his friend Igor Stravinsky who was busy working in Los Angeles. The two Russians agreed on the idea and, for a healthy fee, the composer finished a piano version of what he called “Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant” in mid-February. He had no time to orchestrate it, however, and asked noted Hollywood arranger Robert Russell Bennett who, in turn, engaged up-and-coming David Raksin to do the job. Raksin, who would soon write memorable film scores for “Laura” and “The Bad and the Beautiful”, devised an arrangement for wind instruments, percussion and Hammond organ for a circus band.
Balanchine then had to figure out what to do with all of the elephants Ringling wanted to use for his extravaganza. He decided that his wife at that time, ballet and movie star, Vera Zorina, should ride atop the biggest elephant in the troupe, an old-timer named Modoc.
The premiere of the 3 & 1/2 minute “Circus Polka” was April 9th, 1942, at the old Madison Square Garden in mid-town Manhattan. Stravinsky did not attend. But the audience, along with The New York Times, was amazed by the spectacle that unfolded. To the strains of the music, FIFTY elephants, each wearing a pink tutu, each hosting a “ballerina” on its back, dutifully trouped around the circus rings, led by Modoc and a resplendent Vera Zorina. Ringling’s “choreographic tour de force” was a success. The elephants neither stampeded nor were confused by Stravinsky’s music and Balanchine actually succeeded in teaching some simple steps to Modoc, who essayed them admirably.
“Circus Polka” was a hit but, due to a musician’s strike, was only performed 42 times. A few years later, Stravinsky would re-orchestrate the music and record it. Today, it is still performed in concert halls and a ballet version–substituting pre-teen ballerinas for elephants–is a holiday favorite at New York City Ballet. Alas, there is no filmed recording in it’s totality of the original event. Still photos, along with the music, can be seen in this notable video recorded entirely in Russian. The first half features pictures and videos of Stravinsky, Balanchine and Serge Diaghilev in the 20’s and 30’s; the second half is the “Circus Polka” music and stills from the actual 1942 event.
Even if one has never actually attended, probably every person in the United States older than a teenager is familiar with the venerable entertainment entity known as The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Originally called “menageries”, circuses have a long history in America dating from the mid-1830s. They may not have had any clowns in those days but there were plenty of exotic animals–all of them in cages.
Forty years elapsed before the famous showman P.T. Barnum became a financial backer of (and lent his name to) a struggling menagerie in 1875. Ten years later, Barnum partnered with another entrepreneur, James Bailey, and an empire was born. One of their main attractions was Jumbo, billed as the largest elephant in the world.
Barnum died in 1891 but Bailey successfully toured the circus across the United States and Europe. When Bailey died in 1903, the Ringling Brothers bought the company. For more than another century, the expanding circus entertained millions of people, crisscrossing the country by rail. Special train cars–almost 100 were needed for the mile-long procession–were built to accommodate big tents, laborers, specialty acts, animal handlers and dozens of ever-popular pachyderms.
The complete history of “The Greatest Show on Earth” is full of ups and downs. An increasing challenge, beginning in earnest in the 1970s, was a backlash from animal rights groups against the mishandling of circus animals, especially lions and elephants. In response, the Feld Company, owners of the circus for the last half-century, opened The Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida in 1995.
The ASPCA, the Humane Society and other animal rights groups sued the Felds in 2001 for continued mistreatment of animals and poor conditions at their 200-acre compound. (Some of the 50 or more Asian elephants were allowed to roam free and graze but many were kept chained in cement barns.) Lawsuits dragged on for a decade with the Felds ultimately winning. But in 2015, the company announced that all elephants would soon be retired and on May 1, 2016, the final show featuring elephants took place.
More trouble was ahead. Rising operating costs, declining audiences and the lack of the main attraction—elephants—resulted in a surprising decision: after 142 years, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is about to fold its tents for the last time. Their final performance is scheduled at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York on May 21st, 2017. “The Greatest Show on Earth” had become—if you’ll pardon the expression—”a white elephant”, a nuisance to maintain, but remains a fond memory for “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, everywhere”, who once enjoyed it.
For all the bull prods, sharp sticks, hooks, kicks, punches and pink tutus these captive, noble elephants had to endure, a wiser citizenry humbly apologizes.