Even more magic this year at Circus Flora
Circus Flora launched its 26th season Friday night with a bang, plus a startling flash of light and a bright puff of smoke. The theme this year is “The Wizard: Merlin and the Legends of King Arthur,” and magic was in the air.
When: runs through June 24
2 and 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
1 and 5:30 p.m. Sundays
7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays
10 a.m. Little Top, special one-hour shows for kids, on Wednesdays
How much: Tickets start at $10
Where: Under the air conditioned big top near Powell Hall, Grand Center
This year’s circus is a wonderful blend of old and new, of thrills and chills and laughter and moments of astonishment at the extraordinary feats of performers, both human and animal. It is also unusually funny, and the musical accompaniment by a small band perched high above the sawdust is rousing, blending medieval music with jazz and blues and even a touch of Cajun fiddle and Western swing. The music director is Janine Del’Arte and the resident composer is Miriam Cutler.
One of the keys to the enjoyment of Circus Flora is the knowledge that has been based here for more than a quarter of a century, and there are always plenty of familiar faces. Perhaps the most popular – indeed, beloved -- of the veteran performers is Giovanni Zoppe, who plays Nino the Clown and combines slapstick with breathtaking acrobatics. In 2004, Zoppe became the youngest performer to be inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame.
Like many of the mainstays of Circus Flora, Zoppe has the circus in his blood – he represents the sixth generation of his family to enter the ring. This year he took note of the seventh generation by introducing “Nineto” – his son Julien, not yet 2 years old – who proudly wears miniature versions of Nino’s baggy green pants, red vest and pointy red cap. Nineto is adept at tumbling (I’ll leave it to the reader to define that term) and has a surprising ability to appear and disappear from the large and mysterious wooden box that is the main prop for much of the evening’s magic.
Nineto’s father received some of the biggest cheers of the evening from the near-capacity audience of well over a thousand people for his antics on a trapeze and a rope ladder swinging high in the air. Besides being a funny clown, Zoppe is a first-rate trapeze artist. He specializes in appearing, time and again, to be just on the verge of tumbling to the sawdust from his precarious perch up near the pinnacle of the Big Top, only to save himself at the last nanosecond.
Also familiar and warmly welcomed were the St. Louis Arches, youngsters from this area ranging in age from pre-school to college, who delighted the crowd with coordinated group acrobatics and juggling. The Arches perform under the direction of Jessica Hentoff, herself a former acrobat for Circus Flora. She directs Circus Harmony, which teaches circus skills to young people and works on social causes.
Leading the ceremonies, as usual, was Cecil MacKinnon. Instead of her usual medieval clown garb, she was dressed as Merlin in bright gold pants, a brocaded jacket and a high pointed hat. She wore a long gleaming-white beard and seemed to glitter as she pranced around the ring, introducing acts and tying together the story of the young Arthur, or at least a zany version of it that seemed to owe a lot to the novel “The Once and Future King.” (Although that estimable tale of the life of King Arthur didn’t, as I recall, place “The Invention of the Wheel” in Arthur’s time, as Circus Flora daringly does.)
Special night at the circus
When: 7 p.m. June 14
How much: $75
Details: This Beacon festival ticket includes prime center circus box seats and a post-performance party. Circus founder and ringmaster David Balding and his wife, Laura Carpenter Balding, entertain us at a reception at their circus home behind the big top. David is one of the world’s foremost authorities on circus history and circus magic, and he’ll share his knowledge with us over drinks and snacks. Laura is a peerless equestrian and trainer, and veteran circus executive.
It quickly becomes clear that the wheel is integral to several acts early in the evening, including a graceful pas de deux between acrobat Shayna Swanson and a giant hoop whose movements she seemed to magically control -- whether she is inside it with arms and legs splayed out, like a figure from Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings, or standing with her back to it waiting for it to spin around three or four times and circle back to her hand like a boomerang with a GPS.
Later in the show, Swanson provided one of the highlights of the evening with a punkish acrobatic act in which she prowls the sawdust, grabs a waving rope hanging from the ceiling and proceeds to subdue it by climbing it and bending it around her body, sliding up and down and swinging to and fro.
Additional dramatic acrobatics were provided by Swanson’s former student Laura Lippert, a St. Louisan who attended the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School. Lippert, tall and graceful, performs a lithe ballet in the middle of the air, supported by a chair hanging from a rope.
Sasha Nevidonski demonstrated that a well-trained horse can perform dance-like dressage both with and without a rider, and Luciano’s Pound Puppies supplied laughs with a menagerie of rescued mutts ranging in size from small terrier to large Standard Poodle. Repeatedly, the dogs were set up to perform an act – jump through a hoop held by a trainer – only to subvert it at the last instant – jump on the trainer instead. Other new acts this year included the Bertini family, extraordinary unicyclists, and Aerial Mirror, twin sisters who work together on a hoop suspended in the air, weaving their bodies together.
The best-known act in Circus Flora history, along with Nino the Clown, are the Flying Wallendas, who are marking their 23rd year with the circus. They are known for their human pyramids, and this year for the grand climax of their high wire act, working without a net, they performed an exciting four-person, three-level pyramid, with Aurelia Wallenda climbing to stand on the shoulders of her father, Tino. He in turn was standing on a rod supported at either end by two family members actually walking the wire.
There was no aerial trapeze act to close the show, as there has been in recent years, but the Riders of the Ring, five men and a woman performing acrobatics on big, beautiful, speedy horses, provided plenty of seemingly death-defying excitement to bring the evening to a dramatic and satisfying close.