In 2018, Germany’s Roncalli circus made a significant change to its program, driven by concerns for animal welfare. As the enticing aroma of sawdust and popcorn wafts through the air, and the clowns, acrobats, and magicians take their positions, one notable absence is evident. The live animals that once graced the circus have been replaced by stunning holographic representations.
The audience, guided to their seats under the grand big top, witnesses all the classic elements of the circus, except for one crucial aspect. In 1991, Roncalli had already halted the use of lions and elephants in their shows due to animal welfare concerns. However, they took an even more progressive step in 2018 by completely eliminating live animals from their program.
Circus director Patrick Philadelphia, aged 49, explained the decision, stating, “It is no longer appropriate for Roncalli to showcase real animals in the ring.” In recent years, circuses have faced increasing spatial constraints. Philadelphia elaborated, “If you’re setting up in the middle of a marketplace in the center of town, there is no space for outdoor enclosures for animal runs.” Additionally, the nomadic lifestyle of the circus posed challenges for animals like horses, which had to be loaded onto wagons and transported to the next town. Philadelphia concluded, “This no longer made sense for an animal-protecting circus.”
As Roncalli sought ways to preserve the enchantment of animals for children, an innovative idea was sparked by a show in which Justin Timberlake “collaborated” with a hologram of the late Prince. This concept inspired them to explore the use of 3D imagery with animals. Philadelphia remarked, “If you can project someone who’s no longer living onto a holographic screen, why can’t you do it with an animal, a horse, an elephant? So that’s where the idea came from.”
The circus’s transition to holograms brought about something unexpected. In Luebeck, a steam train encircles the ring, accompanied by the sounds of “Sunday Morning” by Nico and The Velvet Underground. A vibrant green parrot makes its appearance, followed by an elephant and her calf, trumpeting and stomping to the audience’s delight. They are then joined by a herd of galloping horses.
Creating this visual illusion presented a technical challenge, given that Roncalli seats its audience in a circle, unlike traditional theaters. To achieve this, 11 cameras were strategically placed on the ceiling of the big top, surrounding the performance area. High-resolution images are projected onto a fine-mesh netting that encircles the space. When the lights dim, the netting becomes nearly invisible, allowing the holographic images to come to life.
While live animals once provided thrills, the new technology allows Roncalli to offer something entirely unexpected. Toni Munar, the circus’s technical director, explained, “Whatever you can imagine, it can be created by an animator, by a graphic designer, then it can also be shown up in a circus show.”
Surprisingly, the absence of live animals has become an attraction in itself. For 29-year-old student Sophie Schult, who had never heard of Roncalli before, the absence of animals was a significant draw. Her previous circus experiences with her family had left her with a negative impression, particularly due to the sight of confined animals. She stated firmly, “I always saw the narrow cages where they (the animals) were all kept. That is basically animal cruelty,” during the intermission.
Even without real elephants or lions, the circus manages to captivate audiences. Andreas Domke, a 39-year-old doctor, expressed, “I think it’s good without (animals), because they really try to make the rest of the show special.” The magic of the performance isn’t lost on older audience members either. Mathias and Marina Martens, both 63, felt like children again as they watched the spectacle unfold. Mathias Martens declared, “The acrobatics on show here are amazing,” with his wife adding, “You do not need the animals there. For that, you can go to the zoo and see them.”