Matthew Wittmann


McCandlish Lithographic Corporation
The Greatest Show on Earth Presents 50 Famous Elephants with Beautiful Girls, 1942

By the 1940s many regarded the circus as old fashioned, prompting the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to bring in a bevy of talented artists and designers to modernize the show. One of the most unusual and entertaining results of this effort was the grand “Ballet of the Elephants” staged for the 1942 touring season.

The act featured fifty elephants in pale blue tutus accompanied by female dancers dressed in pink performing a routine that was choreographed by George Balanchine. Balanchine convinced his friend Igor Stravinsky to contribute the score, but the open tonalities and desultory rhythm of his “Circus Polka” proved problematic for elephants used to the driving beats of the circus band. Despite the obvious challenges of choreographing the four-minute routine, the act proved popular with audiences captivated by the novelty and grace of the elephant ballet.

In line with the forward-looking orientation of the circus, this charming poster was designed by Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954), an avant-garde American artist who gave a distinctly modern flair to the season’s advertising. Despite its success, there were some critics like Brooks Atkinson, who thought the tutus demeaned the “noble beasts,” and he wryly warned Balanchine that “the elephants do not forget, and you cannot tell by the expression on their faces when they are ready to strike.”

MS Thr 495, Gift of Arne H. Ekstrom, Stravinsky-Diaghilev Foundation, 1990-1994