- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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The Circus is coming to the States.
After a year's worth of shows in Australia and New Zealand, the Nitro Circus announced they're adding stops in Europe and North America to their 2011 Nitro Circus Live schedule, starting with a one-off show in Las Vegas in June. Details on cities and dates for the rest of the global tour will be announced in the next few weeks, once the tour's promoters hash out deals with arenas. But that first stop, they say, will be the biggest.
"If you can go to one show, Vegas will be the one," says ringleader Travis Pastrana. "We're building new contraptions and coming up with stunts and tricks no one has tried before." The Vegas show will also be the only show filmed for the Nitro Circus 3-D film, which begins production in April and is set for release in early 2012.
"We're putting together the best show we can dream up," says freestyle motocross rider Cam Sinclair, who performs the double backflip at each of the shows. "Travis and I are planning something really exciting for Vegas."
Selling out that show seems like a no-brainer. Vegas is home to the season-ending AMA Supercross race each May, which draws sell-out crowds of 40,000 and is where riders from Evel Knievel to Mike Metzger to Robbie Maddison have gone to perform their biggest stunts. It's also home to six Cirque du Soleil shows and legions of dirt bike riders and action sports fans. But while the shows Down Under have been a raging success -- a recent sold-out show in Hamilton, New Zealand, drew 25,000 people in a city with a population of less than 145,000 -- aside from Sin City, the U.S. is a notoriously tougher sell.
"Europe is going to be difficult because of the language barrier, because so much of our show is based on interacting with the crowd," Pastrana says. "And I was super skeptical about coming to the U.S. It's harder to get people excited here than it is overseas. We have to step it up."
And they believe they have. For the global tour, the crew hired S2BN Entertainment, a live touring and production company known for producing rock shows, Broadway musicals and sporting events. They're also using everything they've learned over the past two years to create a show they believe even the most jaded American sports fan will appreciate. There is little down time, enough choreography to keep the show flowing and enough spontaneity to keep fans on their toes.
The cast will remain roughly the same, with the core Nitro Circus members performing at every stop and picking up guest stars along the way. "I should be the toughest guy to impress," Pastrana says. "I watch every practice and still, every show, I am blown away. Every show feels like the night I did the double backflip at the X Games. There is so much energy."
What sets this show apart from others before it, like Tony Hawk's Boom Boom HuckJam, which ran from 2002-2008, or the Nuclear Cowboyz, which is currently touring the States, is the unpredictability from night to night. The first half of each show sets up each performer's story and features essentially the same choreography from show to show. But after intermission, the show changes based on which rider had the best practice, spent the most time in the foam pit, wants to go for a new trick, has family members in the audience or has come up with a new and creative idea he or she would like to try to end the show with.
"We'll switch the show at the last minute so someone can go for it, pass-fail," Pastrana says. "This isn't Cirque du Soleil. It's planned, but there is a lot of crashing in what we do and the audience understands that." It's the crashing -- and the possibility of crashing -- that the Nitro Circus crew believes holds the crowd's attention until the final trick. The second half of the show feels more like a best trick contest, or like being privy to a practice session between world-class riders trying to one-up each other.
"The crowd knows there are consequences to what we're doing and that we're really taking chances and pushing limits," says Jolene Van Vugt, one of only two women who perform on the tour. (Skateboarder Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins also has a segment.) "When someone stomps a trick and we run over and tackle him and give him high fives and hugs, that is real and true and the audience feels that," she says. "None of us are actors. We're athletes who are going for it every night."
So far on this year's tour, BMXer Andy Buckworth landed his sport's first no-handed double front flip -- after Pastrana offered a few non-Disney-approved words of encouragement -- and Jaie Toohey landed a triple tailwhip backflip, a first for him. At last summer's X Games, nearly every athlete who rode onto the podium thanked the Nitro Circus for getting them there. Chad Kagy, Andy Buckworth, Steve McCann, Jake Brown, Cam Sinclair, Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins and the ringleader himself, Travis Pastrana ... they all warmed up for X by spending a few weeks performing on the Nitro Circus Live tour in Australia and trying tricks for the first time in front of packed arenas.
But because actual competition is still a major part of these athletes' lives, they walk a fine line between pushing themselves and staying healthy for the next show and the next contest. The Vegas show will take place a month before summer X, which leaves little time to heal up after a big crash. "It's a huge concern," Pastrana says. "The show is doing so well the promoters want to do five shows a week. But if we're being true to the Nitro Circus, every show has to be epic. Every rider has to feel like they're doing something special and progressing themselves and their sport. When you're tired and beat up, the injuries get worse, so we're focusing on quality over quantity."
Which means there will be only a handful of shows in North America, but every one will likely feature a rider doing something he or she has never done before. Which is something that makes this show special: It's not just about performance; it's about progression. No longer are major contests the only place where athletes debut first-time tricks, nor are money and medals their only motivation.
"At these shows, we feed off each other," Buckworth says. "Travis saying, 'Get out there and take your ------ hands off!' makes me want to get out there and take my ------- hands off. And the crowds are amazing. If you do something cool at the Dew Tour or X Games, you get a nice golf clap. On this tour, you get screaming and cheering and total craziness." And that's just from the fans.
10hEthan Sherwood Strauss