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Poster for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey
The Victoria & Albert Museum
The Circus Polka was an act which involved fifty elephants wearing tutus who were being ridden by dancers (also in tutus). Presumably, all and sundry would polka. I can’t imagine a pachyderm polka, but it seems to me to be something that an elephant wouldn’t really enjoy.
The routine was choreographed by the famed George Balanchine (1904-1983) to music by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) for the circus manager John Ringling North and under the direction of those lovely folks at the Barnum and Bailey company.
This peculiar elephant ballet was part of the 1942 season in New York’s Madison Square Garden. That season’s circus show was called “Holidays.” These events were always well-attended. Madison Square Garden had been the New York home of Barnum’s circus since 1881. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey had been performing separately for decades, but often worked in unison, combining officially in 1919. So, by the time this pachyderm polka was staged with Balanchine and Stravinsky in 1942, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus was an institution.
This poster was one of many dramatic images which advertised the 1942 show, Here, we see, against a black background, two gray Indian elephants who have been stripped of their tusks, Both wear dancer’s tutus and are frozen in their choreography forever. A pirouetting dancer joins them. It reads:
THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH
50 FAMOUS ELEPHANTS
WITH BEAUTIFUL GIRLS.
IN AN ORIGINAL BALLET
COMPOSED BY IGOR STRAVINSKY
STAGED BY GEORGE BALANCHINE
As well as…
BUY DEFENSE BONDS
RINGLING BROS AND BARNUM & BAILEY
This is the work of Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) and the posters were printed in New York.