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Circus Flora soars

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 7, 2008 - Circus Flora opened its 21st season in St. Louis on Friday, June 6, with one of the best shows in its history. Anchored by two superb trapeze acts – three when you count the deceptively goofy-appearing high-bar antics of clown Giovanni Zoppe, known as “Nino” – the show started strong and stayed that way.

Every year, the show is knitted together with a dramatic theme, some more successful than others, and this year’s theme of Sherwood Forest worked very well. Pitting Robin Hood and his Merry Men against the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and his minions succeeded in part because it gave impetus to plenty of acrobatic action. This year’s costumes, by Nina Reed, were particularly colorful and added to the liveliness of the brief playlets within the circus.

wallenda300.jpgCircus Flora will appear beneath the red big top in the parking lot of Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center through June 22. Performances are 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, call 314-534-1111 or log on to www.circusflora.org .
Credit Olinka Wallenda

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The highlights of the show this year were two very different trapeze acts. In the Duo Madrona, young trapeze artists Ben Wendel and Rachel Nehmer wrap their bodies around the bar and themselves in an intricate and sometimes breathtaking dance in the middle of the air. Their performance combines romanticism with athleticism to create a work of muscular beauty.

The Flying Cortes are a more traditional high-bar act, with Colombian brothers Robinson and Alex Cortes working near the ceiling of the tent on twin trapezes. Robinson is the catcher for his brother and for the two women in the act, Alida Wallenda and Chyrstie Toth, as they swing through the air from one trapeze to the other, creating a thrilling sense of danger as the flyers hang suspended for a split second, turning 180 degrees in the air so the catcher can grab them with his strong arms.

Alida Wallenda, who is married to Robinson Cortes, grew up performing at Circus Flora with her family, the Flying Wallendas. As she soared near the ceiling of the circus tent in the trapeze act, her father, Tino Wallenda, paced the sawdust below, watching her every move. He was ready, he said after the show to a visitor, to “be a mattress” in case anything went wrong. Nothing did.

The Flying Wallendas, who have been in almost every show since the circus came to St. Louis in 1987, performed on the high wire, bringing silence to the crowd and then cheers as men on the wire with a bar resting on their shoulders carried family members seated on chairs across the netless chasm. Sacha Pavlata, co-founder of Circus Flora, joined the Flying Wallendas for the act.

There were several memorable horse acts, including bareback acrobatics by members of the St. Louis-based Ianna Spirit Riders, and an astonishing performance of dressage – horse-dancing really – by rider-trainer Lisa Dufresne.

The St. Louis Arches, the St. Louis youth circus troupe from Jessica Hentoff’s Circus Day Foundation, brought some of the biggest cheers of the evening as they flipped themselves – and one another – through the air. The Arches have become an established and honored St. Louis institution, one that, in the tradition of circus families like the Wallendas, is passed from one generation to the next.

Donald Hughes, one of the original Arches, now teaches with Hentoff, and three of his children are part of Circus Flora. Shaina and Donald Hughes Jr. – “Li’l Donald” -- are prominent members of the Arches acrobatic troupe. And 5-year-old Donovan Hughes is the tiny red-nosed clown who delighted the audience by following “Nino” around, imitating his moves like a comedian in a classic silent film. Donovan is so serious about clowning he has changed his name, or so he says, to “Donavino.”

Harper Barnes is an author and free-lance writer living in St. Louis. 

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