In an industry known for big things - big tents, big animals, big crowds - it might be hard to outdo a show that explores the fiercest creature of mythology in the luckiest year of the Chinese zodiac.
The sister-sister partnership behind a new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey production is setting the tent pole high.
"Dragons," the circus tour running through Monday at the Wells Fargo Center, may be the most thematic, modern, and inclusive one yet. In coordination with the Chinese Year of the Dragon, the show - conceived by Alana and Nicole Feld - targets a tech-savvy generation of children by blending contemporary with traditional elements, high-tech with human-powered spectacles, and fantasy with reality.
"When kids and families come to the arena, they are comparing our show to what they see at a rock concert and what they are doing with a video game," Nicole Feld said in an interview.
There will be dragons. But someone has to lure them out of hiding: That duty falls to a diverse cast of performers, including clowns, "Cossacks," martial artists and aerial contortionists. In order to summon the beasts, the cast must exhibit four dragon traits: courage, wisdom, heart, and strength.
A family of eight motorcyclists blazing around the inside of a steel globe requires at least a few of those characteristics. So does the rider who hangs off a horse galloping at 40 m.p.h.
"They're putting forth the most incredible feats to summon this dragon," which reveals itself gradually throughout the event, Alana said. "The more incredible the feat the performers do, the more the dragon starts to show itself."
If dragons seem like a boyish fixation, the Feld sisters' production demonstrates that their spirit spans the gender line. The lead creators of "Dragons" are women, as are the performers offering some of the show's most dangerous acts.
Carmen Torres, of the motorbiking Torres family from Paraguay, is the sole stunt-riding sister among the eight Dragon Riders. The producers praised her and other female thrill seekers, including three horseback riders and eight Ukrainian contortionists that perform 30 feet above the ground.
"There's definitely an emergence of more female daredevils," Alana said.
The Feld family's ownership of the circus dates back to the mid-1950s, when "The Greatest Show on Earth" ceased production, changed hands, and moved from tents to arenas.
Nicole Feld became the first female producer of the historic circus in 2004, and she has worked with Alana on productions since 2010. A third sister, Juliette, is currently working on "Disney on Ice," another Feld Entertainment production.
Nicole and Alana also noted the show's female director, Shanda Sawyer, who has also worked on TV specials, tours, and music videos for performers such as Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé.
"Whenever we've really tried to have really, majorly imaginative ideas, we like to call her in," Alana said.
The circus under the Feld sisters is evolving in other ways.
Audience members have recently had an unprecedented opportunity to interact with the performers. The All-Access Preshow, started by the sisters a few years ago, opens the arena floor to families for an hour before most shows. There they can meet performers (and animals), try on costumes, practice their balancing skills, and see an elephant paint.
"When families sit down to watch the show, they actually have met these people," Alana said.
For the show itself, the producers have included such "rock concert" features as an LED video screen and a live band that plays original, contemporary music.
Alana and Nicole are already at work on the themes for next year's show.
Meanwhile, their father, Kenneth, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, is still involved with the company's productions, they said. In addition to the Disney and circus productions, the business includes Feld Motor Sports, established in 2007.
"We all are sort of taking on new roles," Alana said.
The new roles of the Feld sisters are increasingly prominent. As the third generation of their family to manage a show that dates back more than a century, they are taking steps to assure that the circus stays current.
"We spend a lot of time really trying to understand who our audience is and what their kids want," Nicole said.
But the overall goal remains the same, Alana said: A memorable experience for the whole family.
"It really is for children of all ages . . . When a family gets in the car to leave the show, they all have something different they want to talk about."
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
The show goes on at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday; and at 7 p.m. Monday at the Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. Pre-show and animal open house are one hour before shows; free to ticket holders. Tickets: $10-$95 at the Wells Fargo Center, by phone at 800-298-4200, or http://comcasttix.com. Information: www.ringling.com.