Ashley Vargas lives for the looks of astonishment on her audience’s faces when she performs her nightly show.
As an animal presenter and the host of the All Access Pre-show for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Built to Amaze” Circus, Vargas spends each night working with horses, elephants and other trained animals.
“When I’m working with horses, and I can see people covering their mouths and see the faces they make, I know I’m in the right job,” she says.
Vargas, her horses, and the rest of the show will roll into Phoenix this week and perform June 26 through July 1 at U.S. Airways Center.
The All Access Pre-show, hosted by Vargas, starts an hour before the main circus and is free for all ticket holders. Audience members can come on the show’s floor to meet and learn valuable circus skills from the performers, take pictures, meet the animals and try on costumes.
Once the show starts, the professionals take the stage. This year’s circus includes acts like a Russian couple, Alex and Irina Emelin, who combine magic, animals, acrobatics and comedy.
The couple, who is in the U.S. for the first time for this show, has spent years touring Russia with an unconventional set of animals.
“This family has poodles, rabbits, snakes — all sorts of animals that you wouldn’t expect to see performing at a circus,” Vargas says.
The show also has more traditional animal performers, including a host of tigers and elephants, as well as human performers with unique backstories and talents.
They’re people like 20-year-old Elliana Grace, who’s billed as the youngest female human cannonball and has been participating in circus performances since she was 2 weeks old. The circus’s ringmaster grew up on a ranch near Kansas City and fell into circus life after spending his post-college years performing at rodeos.
Vargas fondly remembers watching Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey with her parents and brother whenever it came to her Florida hometown. She decided to jump aboard the circus train six years ago after meeting a man who rode horses for the circus.
“It’s my love for animals that brought me to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey,” she says.
The performances and each performer’s love for his or her craft keep audiences coming back, she says.
“We have a lot of people who come back year after year or who will follow the circus if it has performances around where they live,” Vargas says. “We just had a guy in Vegas who told me about how he used to go when he was a kid, and now he’s bringing his own kids.”
But even those without children can find something at the circus.
“It’s a show for everyone, and everyone can find something that speaks to them here,” Vargas says. “It truly is a show for ‘children’ of all ages.”
• Julia, a junior at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.