Circus is family affair for ringmaster

For dads whose jobs require a good deal of travel, being away from the kids on Father’s Day can make for a pretty depressing day.

Johnathan Lee Iverson’s job requires him to be on the road pretty much constantly. But he won’t be alone on Sunday, because his wife and kids travel with him.

And the fact that Iverson is ringmaster of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will make the family’s Father’s Day celebration that much more festive.

The fabled circus troupe’s latest production, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents "Dragons," opens today at the Thomas & Mack Center for a four-day, seven-performance run.

The show, which takes as its theme the Chinese Year of the Dragon, meshes dragon lore with a roster of circus acts and performers that is scheduled to include aerialists, acrobats and trapeze artists, martial artists, equestrians, stunt motorcyclists, trained tigers, elephants, dogs and cats, and, of course, the circus’ famed clowns.

There’s also a free all-access pre-show for ticketholders. The pre-show begins one hour before circus showtime, and visitors can take part in activities – learning juggling and balancing skills, for instance – get performers’ autographs and meet the clowns.

Iverson has been with the circus for 14 years. He met his wife, Priscilla, a dancer, 11 years ago, and they have two children, Matthew, 7, and Lila, 3.

Having his family accompany him on the road is "huge, as you can imagine," Iverson said during a recent telephone interview.

"Being a performing artist, you’re more often than not called away to perform here and there. So it’s a fantastic advantage."

Priscilla joined the circus as a member of a Brazilian dance troupe. Now, Iverson said, he and his family are members of a community that, except for the fact that it’s mobile, is pretty much like any other community in which a family might live.

His children attend circus-provided day care and school and, just as in any other neighborhood, friends are made and shared activities are pursued.

Also, Iverson said, "we’re a family with over 300 people who know your children, which means you have potential baby sitters galore of every different background.

"It’s really like any other neighborhood," he added. "Ours just moves."

Iverson is a trained singer who began performing at age 11 with the Boys Choir of Harlem. His credits include many concerts and several off-Broadway productions.

"They hired me for my singing voice," he said of the circus. "We have a tradition of wonderful singing ringmasters throughout our history.

"It’s enhanced the show immensely because, I don’t care what you’re doing, music always enhances the moment, and we at Ringling Bros. are no different than any other performing genre: We have had a great music tradition."

From a practical standpoint, having a ringmaster who can sing is handy when things go astray.

"We do the show 450 times a year and mishaps do occur, when fantasy is sometimes interrupted by humanity," Iverson said. "It’s good to have a live band and it’s good to have a ringmaster and it’s good to have performers who can adjust on a dime. But music is also a very intricate part of the whole."

Even in an age of DVRs and iPads and movies crammed with computer-generated effects, Iverson said the circus still both entertains and inspires.

Movies require stuntmen and special effects to impress, he said, while "we’re the living, breathing miracle."

"People can deny it all they want, but we love the idea of overcoming ourselves. There is no artist, no other genre, that displays that more vividly than circus. You’re not going to see what we do anywhere else.

"There’s a wonderful, dynamic mystique. Who are these people who work so hard and can fly and can balance tons of weight and can dare death and win?"

In the circus, "it’s the real thing," Iverson said. "We’re like a mini-Olympics."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ or 702-383-0280.

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