Clowns, acrobats and magicians on stage, smells of sawdust and popcorn, all the traditional ingredients of the circus are there. Except live animals, which the German circus Roncalli replaced with holograms. A pioneer in raising awareness of animal welfare, this circus was, in 1991, the first to do without wild animals in Germany. And in 2018, he completely scratched live animals from his program.

“For Roncalli, it is no longer appropriate to show real animals on stage,” insists circus director Patrick Philadelphia to AFP. On the one hand, circuses find themselves increasingly physically constrained with urban densification, he notes. “If you set up in the middle of a market square, in the center of a town, there is not enough space for outdoor enclosures where the animals could run,” explains the 49-year-old.

The nomadic life inherent in the circus also makes daily life difficult for animals such as horses, embarked in vans to the next destination. “For a circus that protects animals, it no longer made sense,” summarizes Mr. Philadelphia. Looking for a way to maintain an animal presence, particularly appreciated by children, it was a “duet” between Justin Timberlake and a hologram of the late Prince who inspired him with the idea of ​​using 3D imagery. “If we can project the image of someone who is no longer of this world, why not do it with an animal?”, he summarizes.

Under the passage marquee in Lübeck (north), a steam train surrounding the track launches the festivities to the sound of “Sunday Morning, the hit of Nico and The Velvet Underground. Then a bright green parrot appears, soon replaced by an elephant and her baby elephant, which stamp their feet and trumpet, themselves chased by galloping horses.

Making the visual illusion realistic turned out to be a technical challenge, with the audience standing around the ring, unlike in theater where the audience faces the stage. Came from eleven cameras fixed in height, the high resolution images are projected on a fine mesh net which surrounds the scene vertically. With dimmed lights, it becomes almost invisible, but the images clash.

The absence of animals contributes to the fame of the circus. So, if Sophie Schult had “never heard of Roncalli before”, she “discovered that they really didn’t have any animals anymore”. “It was particularly important for me,” explains this 29-year-old student, who had bad memories of previous shows. “I always remember the narrow cages in which they were kept. Cruelty towards animals, in fact,” she says during the intermission.

Even without real elephants or lions, Andreas Domke and his two sons attend the performance enthusiastically. “It’s good without it, because they’re really trying to do something original with the rest of the show,” judges this 39-year-old doctor. The magic of the show also operates on the less young, like Mathias and Marina Martens, 63 years old each, who say they had the impression of falling back into childhood. “The acrobatics were fabulous,” says Mathias Martens, whose wife is categorical: “The animals don’t need to be here. To see them, the zoo is enough”.