Circus goes Xtreme
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus XTREME offers something for fans of the traditional three-ringed event while spicing it up by adding 21st century death-defying antics by performers who would be equally at home at the X Games or in Cirque du Soleil.
“I noticed a difference between our show and traditional ones because this brings a whole other aspect of performances,” said Koji Kraft, the troupe leader of the Freewheelers — BMX Riders.
“The extreme element with the traditional element is a cool feature that I don’t think has been done before. You get that performance side of things and also the athletic ability of the new stuff that’s coming in.”
As one of the stars of this updated version of entertainment under the Big Top, Kraft has a strong understanding of what he and the other riders can bring to audiences.
For two decades, he competed in BMX events. During that time, he won the BMX World Championships in mini ramp, earned three silver medals, placed second in vertical at the World Championship and was only the second person in the world to land a double back flip in competition on a bike.
An injury two-and-a-half years ago caused him to lose interest in riding. Then, a childhood friend who owned Division BMX contacted Kraft about a new endeavor. With Division and Ringling Bros. under the same parent company, it became an effortless crossover to combine a modern extreme sports element with traditional attractions such as trained Bengal tigers, contortionists and high-wire artists.
Other new routines include Art on Trampoline, Mongolian Marvels and Slackline & Parkour, which features members mixing acrobat and martial arts moves.
“They asked me to step forward and pave the way for the next generation of performers in the circus,” he said.
Initially apprehensive with what he could bring to Ringling Bros., he said he’s not only enjoying his new career path but has a high degree of respect for his fellow performers.
“I’ve never seen a circus show until I came here,” he said. “As a kid growing up, I don’t think we, as a family, could afford to go. Now that I know that it’s actually not that expensive, I was like, ‘Wait a second. I could have gone this whole time when I was younger!’
“I enjoy watching the raw unattainable talent from people around the world that are in this circus. You don’t get to see that anywhere else. The Human Cannonball, which, I guess, has always been a part of the circus, I thought that was probably the most extreme thing I’ve seen in a long time,” Kraft said.
The Freewheelers — BMX Riders presentation involves seven riders from around the country who execute side-by-side back flips, front flips and Superman seat grabs, where the rider kicks the bike out in front of him and his legs out behind it at the same time and complete release moves. And they do it all nearly 15 feet above the arena floor.
“Back when I competed, it was on my own time. Now that I’m working for a company, you have a set routine. It’s different than competing as a singular athlete. Now you’re working with seven other guys, and you have to be on the same page and wavelength. Otherwise, you hurt other people or vice versa. So it’s constant practice and being more professional than you did as a solo act.”
Kraft points out that while there are regular practices to make their portion of the show run smoothly, the riders also are given a chance to shine individually.
“There are certain points in the show where we’ve got a little freestyle. It is called Freestyle BMX for a reason. The reason why the circus wanted to bring this into it is because it has that element of ‘wow factor.’ You can bring that thing where everyone’s like, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that was going to happen!’
“That’s the excitement part of it, and what makes it so extreme is when things are pushed to the limit and performed out there. It’s an incredible thing to be a part of, too.”
Asked if there is anything he’s brought from the extreme sports world into the circus, Kraft brought up his interest in science that began in high school.
“I loved physics. My teacher taught me the different timing and how long it would take for someone to be in the air and go to the other side and stuff like that. Because of that, we had an act together for Ringling Bros. on the first day of rehearsals.”
As troupe leader, he needs to keep all the different personalities in the BMX Riders focused on working together and being prepared to give their best at each performance.
“None of us had ever been a part of a team because we got into freestyle BMX because it was not a team sport. It was an interesting learning experience and helped us grow as people. We’ve become more a family than individuals.
“You definitely have to baby-sit a bunch of guys that you’re friends with. It’s hard to be in charge of them and keep that balance of being friends with them. Sometimes, you’ve got to be the boss and tell people where they’ve got to be and what they’ve got to do, and pick and choose when people gotta do early morning PR at four in the morning.”
He then added, “The guys that I work with are awesome. They bring a lot to the table. Everybody has a different type of unique style.”
At the same time Kraft and his fellow BMX Riders also make the circus a fun time for the whole family by participating in other parts of the show.
“When we got there we thought, ‘We’re BMX Riders. We only ride bikes. What are you guys doing having us dance now?’ There were a few guys that were kind of resistant to that but it became something fun. We learned that we can make it our own and it became a performing arts aspect.
“It’s cool because it pushes you as a human being, puts you into a different element and see what you’re capable of and what you’re not. That’s the interesting part of learning how to join a performance side versus just doing your own thing.”
Members of the BMX Riders will also join Circus XTREME’s international cast during the All Access Pre-Show, which is free with ticket purchase and takes place an hour before the main event. It presents an opportunity to meet the performers, try on costumes, learn circus skills and more.
“That’s a real interesting part of the show because none of us expected to be flatland riding. We didn’t think later on in our career that we should practice these ground tricks. A lot of us are ramp riders. We’re used to being in the air a lot of the time. It helps us relearn stuff that we did as kids.
“We start doing the smaller tricks on the ground during All Access, which are actually more technical and require more balance and ability than some of the stuff in the air. Then, in the show we end up with tricks in the air. So, you have this progression of BMX.”
Although this is his first time performing in the circus, Kraft said he is pleased enough to have already signed a new contract to remain with Ringling Bros.
“I want to stay as long as I can. It’s been a great experience, and I see it only growing,” he said.