There is a big-man-size hole in the heart of St. Louis’ Circus Flora, a vacancy left by the death of Ivor David Balding last month at 75. Balding was the founder, the sustenance and the animating spirit of the company. But this breach is masked by the magical, ephemeral costumery of the circus, and apparently, with the greatest of ease, the show indeed is going on.
The 2014 installment of Circus Flora – its 28th annual production since its founding in 1986 – is built loosely around a story, as has been the case with previous productions. This year, partly in acknowledgement of St. Louis becoming an international center of chess, the show is called “The Pawn.” It offers basic information about the game: for example, the moves assigned to the chess pieces, including the potential importance of the lowly pawn; the central dominance of woman and the relative impotence of male in the final moves of the intellectually, strategically and mathematically challenging game.
Cecil MacKinnon, theater director and an iconic presence as Yo-Yo the Narrator in Circus Flora performances, propels the story forward. Acts are named for various squares on the chessboard, and if you pay close attention you’ll get the significance of all this.
But in fact, you needn’t get it you don’t want to. That is because flying around with what appears to be greatest of ease is the lickety-split, seamless presentation of the various acts that appear before you in the ring of enchantment. They include:
A multi-talented comic, Adam Kuchler.
An acrobatic bareback equestrian act of dizzying speed, complexity and finesse demonstrated both by steed and the jockey, the exotic S. Caleb Carinci-Asch.
Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan. She presents her trapeze act for the first time this year. Kuciejczyk-Kernan, now grown, appeared first with the show in 2006 when she was 13. She will swing into the realm of circus royalty when she marries Alex Wallenda this summer.
A Finnish act, Duo Kate and Pasi (Katerina Repponen and Pasi Nousiainen). It makes its American debut with the circus this year. The program notes their act defies categorization, including, as it does, lifting, hand balancing and juggling – and no small measure of elegance.
Andriy Bilobrov, and his wife, Mayya Panfilova. These veteran circus performers have worked not only for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey but also for numerous circuses in Russia, Ukraine and China. Bilobrov has tamed five Jack Russell terriers and convinced them to present the public with amazing accomplishments that go far beyond, far, far beyond their usual vocations, which include sofa destruction. Even more amazing, Mayya Panfilova has managed to train house cats to perform acts of derring-do. Although the kitties are not in the show, they appear in special performances for smaller audiences. Panfilova’s strategy: “I let the cats train me!”
Mikhail Palatnik accompanied me to the back lot of the circus last week. He is a member of the faculty of the Department of International and Area Studies at Washington University – and a great fan of Circus Flora. His fluent and animated translations allowed me to interview Bilobrov and Panfilova. Bilobrov is Russian; Panfilova is from Ukraine. They were reluctant to discuss the political situations in their native lands, so we moved to another situation involving traditional animosities, that is dogs and cats.
The couple has been in the United States for nine years. Bilobrov’s troupe of Jack Russells is a comedy on 20 tiny feet, and Bilobrov’s integration of these puckish pooches into circus life and center ring status is a delight to watch. Jack Russells come in a variety of shapes and coats and colors. The Jack Russell terrier is not a pure breed because the dogs cannot be bred to type. They were bred to a size, within a certain small range, allowing to them pursue quarry such as foxes into underground burrows.
The couple added house cats a few years ago. The cat component is reserved for groups smaller than a big-top full of people. Although this is speculative on my part, the reason (as any cat fancier knows) may be that cats spook easily, and the rambunctiousness of a circus audience just might result in the feline artists making a hasty exit into parts unknown.
In any event, Bilobrov and Panfilova are eloquent ambassadors of circuses and circus life. Both are veterans of the Moscow State Circus, a major artistic enterprise in Russia, housed in 40 permanent buildings in the capital. They noted that in Europe, the circus is given much greater respect and prestige than in the U.S., where – no matter how complex and serious a particular circus may be in terms of philosophy – the art form remains stuck as simply entertainment, rather than a nuanced and profound expression of ideas and of the human condition. They feel at home personally and professionally with Circus Flora.
The couple embraces classical values in their performances, eschewing foolishness, even where Jack Russell terriers and house cats are involved, and embracing dignified demeanors and expressions of respect and affection for their feline and canine colleagues. “It is a classical training of animals” and not clownish stuff.
High wire, flips, trapeze
The Flying Wallendas troupe continues to be one of the circus world’s most exciting and formidable high-wire companies. Although its act plays to strength – and what mighty muscles activate that – it is a part of the circus repertory regulars anticipate from year to year. It never fails to affect the viewer viscerally as well as aesthetically, and we are fortunate to have this act and this colossal family in our hometown circus. The Wallendas brought Act I to its conclusion.
The St. Louis Arches appear and reappear throughout the show. This homegrown acrobatic ensemble is the product of the hard work of the veteran circus artist and pedagogue Jessica Hentoff. The troupe, started by Hentoff in 1989, is as jazzy and joyful and lithe as ever. Beyond that, its presence in the Circus Flora company is very much part of a big-top philosophy dedicated to bringing highly trained and talented performers under the Big Top regardless of race and ethnicity. Many children actively tumbling and soaring today were in the Arches as tiny children, and their love of performance is palpable.
Just when you think there couldn’t be anything more unusual in the ring, the curtain parts and in comes Ian Garden Jr. with his fascinating ensemble of even-toed ungulates, the Henning Camels. Included are magnificent black-and-white pied camels and two stately chalk white camels. As Garden says, “It’s amazing how intelligent, inquisitive and loving they can be.” Add to that mischievous.
The show’s finale is accorded the Flying Cortes troupe, and this trapeze act is, as they say, heart stopping in its complexity and daring. The Cortes troupe appeared first with Circus Flora in 2003 and its return this year for a fourth appearance is welcome. One satisfying aspect of the Cortes’ performance is the fact that it isn’t over until it is truly over. After defying gravity for many minutes, the artists’ descents into the net are efforts of extraordinary adroitness and creativity, and serve to bring a great show to a buoyant conclusion.
Buoyant is a way to describe Adam Kuchler, a young artist who is making his debut with Circus Flora this year. Although some might describe his work as clowning, his performances are much more involving than the usual seltzer-bottle, pratfalling behavior guaranteed to get a laugh -- but a laugh that is transitory.
Instead, Kuchler employs an eloquent body language to entice the viewer into his wacky world, where diligence and practice are celebrated and mistakes (bound to happen when one is gathering up a collection of 20 or more glittery little boxes together into a coherent, single, sparkling whole) are excused with a quick, dismissive gesture.
Kuchler began his career with Circus Smirkus, which seems fitting since smirks, along with curtsies, winks, rollings of the eyes, knowing nods and pirouettes are part of this mime-juggler-comic-magician’s repertory. He appears in the title role, The Pawn.
Circus, like chess, is metaphor. In the circus, for a couple of hours, it offers the ladies and gentlemen and boys and girls a vicarious freedom from gravity and care. In beatitude fashion, there are times to laugh and times to be fearful, and a time to stare and a time to shut your eyes.
The circus – this circus anyway – is not so much an escape but a fleeting apotheosis of experience and aspiration, a willingness to fly high and to fall into nets of certain salvation.