The word circus conjures several interpretations, a different idea according to every one’s experience. Many of those definitions, as Circus Flora teaches us, can brilliantly oppose each other in both harmony and balance – and that the chess player can appreciate.
For years, the St. Louis-based summer tradition has walked a tightrope between themes of Ringling - with its peanut-scented, animal-driven spectacles announced to the center (and only) ring - and the modernized Cirque du Soleil, whose bright lights and flashy costumes mesh with choreography. Circus Flora has always lingered somewhere between, uniquely designed around a new storyline each year that keeps its tradition fresh with each new season.
“It’s hard to say where we land between those two reference points,” said Jack Marsh, Circus Flora’s artistic director. “We have the appearance of that circus big tent, the ring filled with sawdust, the horses and the dogs and all the other performers - so we’ve got that classical feel. But we also have this focus on narrative and storytelling. We blend a lot of worlds and also create our own thing; I don’t think anyone is focused on the narrative side of circus as we are, at least in the U.S.”
Now in its 28th season, Flora’s latest installment -- The Pawn -- uses chess to drive a storyline vehicle that is packed like a clown car. Using theatrical war drama inherently provided by the King’s Game, then fueling the show through the differing characteristics of an entire 32-member cast of pieces, The Pawn has opened up an idea of circus that leaves its audience wondering why a relationship with chess took this long to forge.
The bond was made a year ago when Marsh and Co., hesitant on whether the game was fit for a circus, sought inspiration from the World Chess Hall of Fame - which has found happiness in otherwise-obscure marriages before. The connection was instant.
“On a broad level, we are always looking to partner with other unique institutions as part of our mission of looking at chess and how it is interwoven in different cultural aspects,” said Shannon Bailey, curator of the WCHOF. “People may not immediately think that chess and the circus could be related -- but there are fantastic correlations. The same is true for how we united chess and music, chess and fashion, and chess with pop culture. The partnership with Circus Flora is another great fit.”
The Flora crew was toured around the Jon Crumiller Collection of historical and ornamental chess boards and sets, offering them new perspective into the history of chess and how it has been treated among other cultures and centuries. Translation barriers between the game and the circus began to fall.
“It was totally inspiring,” Marsh recalled. “We weren’t too enthusiastic about making a black-and-white show, so we were excited to see vibrant colors in the sets, with lots of red and green, and were happy to go in that direction with our design. We saw that some of the characters weren’t always your standard medieval chess pieces most are familiar with now, that the knights weren’t always portrayed by horses - sometimes they’re camels or elephants. These sort of things gave us all these little sparks, and we were able to bring some creativity into it by diving into the history of these pieces. We thought we’d see where it goes.”
The Pawn arrives as a wonderful translation, with its symbiotic chess-circus themes proving palpable through the entire two-hour, two-set show. An equestrian bareback rider who fearlessly performs tactics from atop his galloping horse, a strong man and his queen who execute in perfect harmony, flying trapeze artists who dare the delicate balance of the night.
Supporting it all is an intelligent design of light, beginning with a chessboard grid that illuminates the sawdust ring like a checkered stage, and entertaining live musical direction that successfully carries drama through its natural peaks and valleys. The relationship is so seamless that, at times, it is not entirely clear whether chess or the circus is controlling the show.
Regardless, the effects are quite the same.
“We’re really happy with how it came out,” Marsh said. “I think the history and the cultural treatment of chess that we researched really shows through - and at the same time we were able to put on a cool circus in the way that we have always done it.
“We were excited to work with (the Hall of Fame), they have been a treasure in that respect,” Marsh said. “It’s cool that chess has become such a big thing in St. Louis and, with us being such a St. Louis-based institution, we were glad to not only do our part to promote it, but also put on a show that was both strong and true to the game.”
Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.