It was showtime inside the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and for the first time in his life, acrobat Ivan Vargas — this time taking to the ring as a clown — was truly nervous.
“It’s one of the few times I had ever been nervous,” Vargas, now 23, says of his debut as a clown six years ago. “I just wasn’t sure if I was going to be funny, or entertaining. You practice these things for weeks for this show … but you don’t have a live audience.”
For Vargas, a sixth-generation circus performer on his father’s side and fifth-generation on his mother’s side, the expectations were high as he made the transition from flying trapeze artist to clowning. It is an art form, he says, that demands much more than a red nose, oversized shoes and some goofy antics. In fact, Vargas wears none of the above, opting instead for a burst of colorful short hair and rainbow sneakers (more suited to his acrobatic tricks).
“Being a clown is a lot of fun, but it is a lot of work,” says Vargas, speaking from a tour stop in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. “You have to know a lot of skills. Not just physical skills, but how you interact with people, how good you are on the improv. As the saying goes, ‘Send in the clowns.’ And you need to be able to just get on the floor with whatever props you have and do something to entertain the people.”
Today, Vargas is one of the senior clowns of Ringling Brothers’ three units, a position, he says he never dreamed he would have. Beginning on Thursday, he will entertain fans in Atlantic City, when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus returns to Boardwalk Hall for their new show “Super Circus Heroes.”
The circus returns to Atlantic City for four days, with shows on Thursday, April 24, through Sunday, April 27. In addition to its international cast of performers known for everything from knife throwing to astounding aerial feats to motorcycle cage riding, the show also features Asian elephants, horses, camels and, of course, some over-the-top clowns.
For Vargas, who grew up in the circus with his parents and sister and was even born between circus performances while on a tour stop in Madison, Wisc., the latest “Super Heroes” tour theme is personal.
“I’ve always wanted to be like my parents; I always wanted to be like my friends,” Vargas says. “To me, they were all superheroes. I’d see them flying through the air, balancing, and all those flips.”
Vargas, who began training as an acrobat at the age of 7, says he always felt there was something missing in his performances. When the opportunity to try out as a clown presented himself, he auditioned, never expecting to be chosen.
“I wanted to interact with the people more,” Vargas says. “They needed another (clown) member for a new tour and I was asked to try it out. I never thought about being a clown. I never thought I would be in that elite group. I tried it out and I loved it.”
Every clown, Vargas says, is different. Some work as magicians, others as jugglers. But all of it, he says, requires a precise timing and keen sense of personal interaction that must be honed over years.
“You don’t have to follow anybody else’s path, but you do need to know other skills,” Vargas says. “And know how to interact with people. Sometimes it’s babies, 2-year-olds, 5-year-olds, and sometimes its 80-year-olds who remember the older clowns. This is all way before you even put on the makeup.”
For Vargas, part of the allure of the circus — and in particular, this “Super Heroes” tour — is that it shows children that anything is possible.
“We can transform anybody into a superhero,” Vargas says. “Everybody has a superhero in them. You just need to find out what it is and let him out.”