'Greatest Show on Earth'

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to Chattanooga

photo Three members of the Lopez Troupe perform a bicycle/splits ride across the high wire.

IF YOU GOWhat: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey CircusWhen: 7 p.m. today and Friday, March 14-15; 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 16-17Where: UTC McKenzie Arena, 720 E. Fourth St.Admission: $15, $22, $29 and $39. $5 discount for Sunday show if guest is wearing green or says "green" when calling the box office.Phone: 423-266-6627Website: www.ringling.comALL-ACCESS PRESHOWGuests who want to get even more out of their circus experience can get a behind-the-scenes look during the all-access preshow, free with every ticket. An hour before showtime, visitors can ask questions of the cast and have photos taken with the performers, human and animal alike.AMONG THE STARS• Anton and Viktor Franke: A father-and-son comedy duo.• Battulga Battogtokh: The strongman juggles bowling bowls, lifts telephone poles and performs hand-balancing feats.• Brett and Cathy Carden: Their three turns in the spotlight feature three Asian elephants; then three camels, two Arabian horses, two Shetland ponies and a miniature horse; and finally terriers, poodles and mixed-breed dogs.• David Shipman: The ringmaster.• Dean Kelley: The preshow party host is known as the Swiss Army knife of clowns for his multifaceted skills, which include juggling, stilt walking, unicycle riding, balancing and spinning objects and making sound effects.• Lopez Troupe: This family works the high wire, motorcycle globe, knives and whips.• Sergey Novikov: His one-of-a-kind performance showcases his gymnastics training to climb aerial straps then fall in twirls and flips from dizzying heights.• Smaha Troupe: The family's acrobatic juggling skills include juggling five clubs at a time, foot juggling, over-the-head passes and rapid-fire launches of multiple rings.

In the typical office, the greatest danger workers face is running out of coffee or putting up with tedious Muzak in the elevator.

Shifts for Maria Lopez, 29, on the other hand, are a bit more exciting.

As a performer in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Lopez starts her day 22 feet above the ground on the high wire with her husband, Jonathon, and brother-in-law, Johan. There, they perform vertigo-defying tricks such as handstands and unicycle rides, all without benefit of a safety net.

Later, Lopez's father-in-law, Alfonso, throws knives with 12-inch blades at her and her sister-in-law, Erika.

Before she can clock out, however, she joins Jonathon and Johan behind the handlebars of three motorcycles, which they race around inside the Globe of Steel, a 12-foot-wide cage that is the world's smallest for this sort of act.

Although she is quick to point out that she must maintain absolute focus during all three of the family's acts, Lopez says it's hard to see what she does as work.

"It's my hobby, my passion," she says, laughing. "It's like you're on vacation all year long, and even better, they pay you for it."

The Lopezes are one of a dozen acts that will be featured today through Sunday, March 14-17, when "The Greatest Show on Earth" sets up in McKenzie Arena.

Lopez is a Chile native and, like many performers under the big top, being in the circus is a family tradition. She is a second-generation performer, following in her mother's footsteps. Her husband and brother-in-law are fourth-generation performers.

The Lopez Troupe spent years performing throughout Latin America and South America before joining Ringling Bros. in 2009.

"Ringling Bros. has many, many years of history in the circus tradition, not just here in America but internationally," Lopez says. "To be part of this show for me is exciting."

The first two years, the family troupe was exclusively a high-wire act, but this year, the circus amped up every aspect of the show for its gold-edition Fully Charged tour.

In addition to LED lighting and improved sound and pyrotechnics, the company approached the Lopezes to hear ideas for diversifying their act. The current trio of stunts was the result, but Lopez says they could add even more in the future.

"I want to do more," she says. "We need to wait and talk about what kind of ideas they have for the company for next year, but I'm prepared for everything."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.