By Lori Barrett
In the stage show Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, human acrobats and contortionists portray flowers, butterflies, giraffes, an emu, and a unicorn. Neil Goldberg, the show’s creator, has had a lifelong passion for acting and the jungle. Before he dreamed up this show, however, he wasn’t sure his love for performance and animals could coexist on the same stage.
“I’ve always wanted to create a set piece that would bring jungle animals to life, because I’m not a fan of animals in circuses,” says Goldberg, in between rehearsals at his production studio in Pompano Beach, FL. After traveling overseas and discovering cirque-style performing arts, Goldberg found a way to transform his artistic visions into a reality. Originally an event producer for big-time corporate clients, Goldberg was asked in the late 1980s to develop a show for an IBM conference. To prepare, he toured the world and looked at international performance art. At the traditional circuses he visited, he saw animals being trained to perform—elephants learning to spin Hula-Hoops on their legs and trunks and bears being taught to walk on high wires. He decided he wanted nothing to do with that. “The discipline and repetitiveness of . . . teaching these tasks without being able to communicate through speech seemed challenging and not a role I would like to take on,” Goldberg says.
He instead became enchanted with performance groups that focus on human acrobats, aerialists, contortionists, jugglers, and musicians. Goldberg’s show for IBM ultimately included a magic act from France and acrobats from Russia and China. His audience loved it, and so did his clients. “Within a short time, I was producing dozens of these events,” Goldberg says. He’s quick to note that this came as something of a surprise to him. “Circus wasn’t my thing; theater was. To me, circus was always very distracting.”
Eventually, Bally’s, the Atlantic City casino operator, saw the show and hired him. A month after his production opened in New Jersey, he appeared on The TODAY Show. “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since,” Goldberg says. His circus creations are now on the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s (ASPCA’s) list of animal-free circuses, which are recommended for audiences hoping to avoid shows that feature trained animals.
The ASPCA isn’t categorically against animals used in entertainment, but it is against having exotic or wild animals in circuses. According to the organization’s position statement, the ASPCA is “opposed to using wild or exotic (nonnative wild) animals, whether taken from the wild or captive-bred, in circuses, carnivals, and other traveling animal shows because of the stress, cruelty, and physical, social, and psychological deprivations that the animals inevitably suffer, many as a direct result of being on the road much of the year.” Among circuses the ASPCA recommends are the Bindlestiff Family Circus, which offers a hybrid of vaudeville, wild west, and burlesque; Modern Gypsies, a performance-art troupe that combine dangerous stunts with comedy; and Circus Smirkus, a company that bring youth performers and international circus professionals together under the big top.
Offstage, away from the lights and spectacles, Goldberg shares a home with his partner and three Italian Greyhounds: Grace, Bella, and Shauna, who, at 17, still wakes with her tail wagging every morning. “They’re just so cuddly and loveable,” he says, not only about his own dogs, but also about Italian Greyhounds in general.
Christa Whitaker, founder of Rocket Angel Italian Greyhound Rescue in North Fort Myers, FL, attests to Goldberg’s passion for animals. About a year ago, in the midst of the tanking economy, Whitaker says he stopped by to check out her shelter as she was trying to figure out what to do about relocating. “I never dreamed anything would come of that,” Whitaker says.
Goldberg donated money to Whitaker’s group through his Neil Goldberg Dream Foundation, a charity funded by production profits and ticket sales. Goldberg’s generosity helped finance the shelter’s move to a house with 10 acres of land. And, it paid for fencing—installed by local volunteers—so that large and small dogs could have separate areas to run. The first donations were anonymous, but now that Goldberg shows up on Sundays so his posse of dogs can play with the Greyhounds at the shelter, his anonymity has been blown.
“Yeah, I’m a big fan of his,” says Whitaker. “He’s got a huge heart.” In addition, since she boards Goldberg’s dogs when he and his partner are away from home, she can speak to his skill as a guardian. “He’s a great pet parent,” she notes.
As is often the case with people who spend time under the big top, travel is a large part of Goldberg’s life. Cirque Productions recruits performers from around the world for shows seen in the United States and abroad. Luckily, having the support of his partner and a happy home-away-from-home for his dogs allows Goldberg to travel—and bring his artistic vision to cheering crowds—without worry.