Yo-Yo has a new pair of shoes.
For just shy of 30 years, when Yo-Yo the Narrator stepped balletically into the center of the ring of our city’s own Circus Flora, she was shod in court shoes with a medium heel, rather fancy in the footwear world, shoes in keeping with her studied gestures and attitudes.
On opening night at the circus on Friday, her shoes were quite different, low to the ground, decidedly sensible, nondescript. And intended or not, these new shoes are signifiers.
Yo-Yo – in real life the actress, director and pedagogue Cecil MacKinnon – is a central character and symbol in the circus. She juggles not only Indian Clubs when called upon to do so, but also brings a sense of order to the frenzied activity in the ring, and provides the narrational glue that holds the show together. From time to time, by necessity, she’s had to serve as explicator of the Circus Flora story of the year, which occasionally has been a forest of square pegs pounded into round holes.
No matter. If the story were too cryptic or esoteric, the daring young men and women on the flying trapezes, the thundering horses, the clowns and camels and the puppy-dog acts provided more than your money’s worth.
All this was the gossamer magic of the late Ivor David Balding, who died just before the circus’ season began last year. Balding was a genius-conjurer of the special form of theater Circus Flora represents, circus that is non-commercial, lions-and-tigers free, at once traditional and experimental, truly eclectic and, one way or another, a show that indeed is mounted for the ladies and gentlemen, and the boys and the girls, and, owning a function far greater than thrills, pratfalls and stunts. By taking on an ambition to achieve genuine meaning, it transcends mere entertainment and rises to the status of art.
Nothing wrong with the stunts, pratfalls and thrills, you understand. Mercifully the red-and-white big top of Circus Flora is entirely grand enough to accommodate all that and the philosophy and the metaphors.
This current show is packed with both. Called “One Summer on Second Street,” it is produced by the company’s now artistic director, Jack Marsh. Marsh, who was handpicked to succeed Balding a couple of years ago, served as associate artistic director. His production is markedly different from Floras of the past. It progresses more steadily, having eschewed excessive dramatic twists and turns.
Clearly Marsh, who truly did run away in order to join this particular circus, has reverence for Balding, whom he knew all his life, and for Balding’s vision, which in spirit anyway is incorporated into his production. But equally clear is this: “Second Street” is Marsh’s and his team’s show.
In this fresh feast there are notable pleasures and innovations. Don’t leave the kids home on account of this, but sexuality is evident, as in the act performed by the Daring Jones Duo. In costumery, the sequins are out the window, replaced by everyday fabrics in fresh and vivid colors and patterns, sewn into clothing that is comfortable-looking rather than stagey.
The Wallendas aren’t being poured into tight acrobats’ costumes this year. They wear sailors’ suits.
The 2015 show sews all this and much more up together as a sort of performing crazy quilt. At first blush the plot might sound chaotic, but as you think, it comes together, not only as pretty pieces sewn together at random but as an ensemble of extraordinary physical movement and color and sound and meaning. On the way home, you realize that the meaning has much to say about us, and about St. Louis in 2014-15.
In the show’s Second Street neighborhood, residents have clumped into antagonistic groups and have discovered differences allowing them to proceed to hate each other. When the grown-ups discover the children playing together there is hell to pay, and the children are thus infected. The landlord of the building in which they live decrees “No Animals” in a fit of zoophobia, and there are evictions of tenants with pets. It is an unhappy place anyway, more so without the moderating presence of pets.
But lo and behold, here comes the Handyman. The twitching-with-talent actor Adam Kuchler portrays him. Last year he stole the show; this year he holds its reins, and leads “Second Street” forward, and as St. Francis did, found with animals a special sort of peace.
None of this – neither trying to bridge divisions that separate us or putting on a two-hour circus – is a piece of cake. In the case of the latter, success requires tightrope-walking cats; a tent master; a congregation of jugglers whose name is diversity; the amazingly durable and beautiful Wallenda family; the St. Louis Arches, Jessica Hentoff’s company of the most agile acrobats you’ve ever seen – all from St. Louis; a Canadian trampoline troupe that gives new meaning to bouncing – and others, a veritable circus of others, an exaltation of talent.
Among those others is Helena Valla, who is the definition of dignified. Valla is a seventh-generation circus performer, a woman who glows with beauty nourished by character. Her bio in the program indicates she’s done it all in her career – a handstand act, an equestrian act, a unicycle act and a daring young woman on the flying trapeze act.
Here, this year, when we need to see this so much, Helena Valla appears in the ring with a hamper full of chalk-white doves, symbols, since the time of Noah, of peace. The birds love her, and she them, and we love Helena Valla for presenting our own circus’s gentle message of acceptance of others and the special message of peace.
We’re told that on the path to redemption a little child shall lead us. At Circus Flora, it’s that Handyman who’s making us laugh and clap while mitigating antagonisms, and trailing along with him in a peaceable parade, are animals, all those wonderful animals.