A guide to the nation's touring circuses -- We review Ringling Bros., the Moscow Circus, and Cirque du Soleil

Springtime approaches, and you can practically hear the stomping of elephants and smell the cotton candy. Yes, circus season is here, and this year the big tops are bursting with new wonders. The following pages offer a critical peek inside the tents of three of the biggest nationwide tours: the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, now without its legendary lion tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams, who retired last season; the Moscow Circus, boasting the greatest acts from the Soviet Union; and Cirque du Soleil, a bizarre piece of theatrics which will be rejoined by its featured clown, David Shiner, starting next month.

If these circuses aren’t heading your way, another one probably soon will be. Some of the most notable are the five-ring Carson & Barnes Circus, which has a national tour and the largest menagerie of all, with more than 100 animals; the Pickle Family Circus, a small, no-animals, clown odyssey performing on both coasts; and three troupes that tour the East only. They are: the Big Apple Circus, a one-ring tribute to the golden age of the European circus; the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, the world’s largest still performing under an outdoor big top; and the Royal Hanneford Circus, which has two units — one featuring silver-painted bodies in a living statues show, the other with the Riding Fool, a funny bareback act. Step right up!

With its authentically elaborate Russian costumes, music, and finely honed performances, this one-ring circus is a disciplined helping of glasnost featuring some of the most unusual acts around. There’s a double-jointed rag doll clown, a sexy Hula Hooper who gyrates rainbows up and down her body, bears who juggle with their feet, and Chernievski — 13 tricksters who do four nail-biting somersaults on 10-foot-high stilts. The star attraction, however, is undoubtedly the world-famous Flying Cranes, an almost mystical aerial ballet troupe, who appear in the second half of the show. As smoke rises from the floor of the darkened arena, pastel lights illuminate the 10 graceful, white-leotarded bodies zipping up to the starry ceiling, bouncing down in the nets, and soaring with quadruple flips on the trapeze. The intense Russian sensibility doesn’t lend itself to some acts, though; Moscow’s clowns don’t seem to be having much fun. B+

· Most delightful act: Katia, the tiny 2 1/2-year-old Russian brown bear. Wearing a frilly party dress, she claps her paws while dancing on her hind legs.
· Greatest expectation: The Cranes’ leader, Willy Golovko, and star somersaulter, Petr Serdukov, may soon try the so far impossible — a dangerous, record-breaking, midair quintuple somersault, in which Serdukov will flip five times at rocket-like speed before catching the hands of Golovko.

Ringling has two circuses, known as the Red and the Blue, now crisscrossing the country. There are many subtle differences and one big one: Clown aficionados should hold out for the Red.

The Ringling Red Circus
Like a fantastic explosion of neon, the Red’s three rings of nonstop action are a frenetic spectacular that’s ideal for kids and traditional circus lovers. The new headliner is David Larible, a charming, Chaplinesque clown from Italy who yanks audience members into the big ring for his gags. Providing major wows are fourth-generation Russian juggler Gregory Popo-vich, who tosses eight rings in the air while precariously balancing on an eight-foot free-standing ladder, and 14 Chinese acrobats who one by one mount and then simultaneously ride a single bicycle. Other staples include two trapeze acts, the flying Vargas and Espana families, and 20-year-old Mark Oliver Gebel who, under the tutelage of his father, noted animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, commands 21 elephants to jump up on hind legs and walk single file. The show’s finale, the double-barreled cannon shot, is the only letdown. Two helmeted humans are shot into a safety net and the cannon act is over before you can say boom. A-

· Greatest delight: The Skaters Waltz duet performed by Larible and his voluptuous sister, Vivian. She balances on her head along the trapeze’s narrow bar, shaking bells from her feet and hands, while he similarly jingles bunches of bells down below in the ring.
· Biggest thrill: The Globe of Death. Two motorcyclists zoom, right side up and upside down, chasing each other around the floor in a giant metallic ball, while a steely showgirl stands calmly in the center.

The Ringling Blue Circus
This is the circus to see if you want over-the-big-top, sequin-encrusted dazzlement. With a crack of the whip and a loud ”Ho!” star animal trainer Flavio Togni flamboyantly commands his 18 Asian elephants and 39 horses to spin around, jump up on hind legs, and dance to the beat of a 15-piece band. Other spectacles include the three sparkly, bodysuited Ayala ladies swinging from their hair to the tune of ”Wind Beneath My Wings” and the thundering drum act of Los Gauchos Latinos, which is enhanced by billowing smoke machines. The grand finale is grand indeed: A Star Wars sequence featuring all 110 performers kicks off with flashing strobes and spotlights. Then golden- outfitted showgirls trot atop elephants, while the exuberant Flavio closes the circus by bossing the elephants con gusto. A

· Loudest gasp: When one of the Quiros high-wire acrobatic troupe back-flips without a net, misses his step, and barely catches the wire with one hand — saving himself from a 40-foot tumble into the customers.
· Biggest eyeful: King Tusk, the largest land mammal traveling the earth. He’s 14,762 pounds of elephant with gilded, 6 1/2-foot-long ivory tusks.
· Scariest menagerie: In one steel cage, four tigers, two lions, three leopards, two black bears, a wolf, and two hyenas cooperate with animal trainer Luis Palacio.

You know you haven’t arrived at an ordinary circus when a swarm of impish, gibberish-spouting elfin-dressed humans called flounes (a contraction of clown and flo, Quebec slang for child) drag stragglers to their seats before the show begins, even if it means carrying them there. With its cello, sax, and synthesizer jazz band, blue smoke and green laser beams, this Canadian invention is more theater than circus, more ballet than gymnastics. A silent ringmistress, France La Bonté, leads the dazzling, dreamlike experience, and the 39 performers wear costumes that look like a cross between those in Cats and Robin Hood. There are no animals (making this the sweetest smelling circus), yet the bizarre troupe doesn’t seem quite human, either. In her solo trapeze act, feral-maned Anne Lepage lunges at the audience like a lioness in balletic fashion. The contortionists, four young girls, move with the grace of swans. Children might get restless watching this circus, though, since it runs a full 2 hours and 45 minutes. A-(reported by Mark Schwed)

· Most colorful moment: When petite Xu Hui Man lies on her back and, with her hands and feet, twirls and flips five peacock-colored umbrellas into a swirling rainbow.
· Most strapping stud: Vladimir Kehkaial, a black-bikinied Adonis who swings above the audience, 40 feet up, suspended from the ceiling.
· Hottest act: Vassiliy Demenchoukova’s one-handed handstands high atop a precariously balanced tower of seven chairs, performed while holding a cake covered with lit candles in his other hand.