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'Medrano' is under big top at Circus Flora

Posted 11:30 a.m. Mon., June 1 - This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 1, 2009 - While the horse trots around the sawdust-and-dirt-covered circus ring, Sasha Alexandre Nevidonski swings his legs up, out of a standard straddle. His knees land on the horse's back. The horse picks up speed, almost to a gallop, still circling in the dark, musty tent. Nevidonski pushes himself up until he's standing upright on the horse's back.

He moves quickly, executing the straddle-to-stand (move) within 30 seconds, but practice for other Circus Flora acts isn't over yet.

"We want a show about performance," said David Balding, artistic director and producer of Circus Flora. "We were the first circus to do more than develop a theme."

This is the 23rd consecutive year that Circus Flora runs in St. Louis. This year's opening show -- which is peanut free -- is June 4, and when the Beacon went inside the big tent about a week before that date, rehearsals were intense.

The beginnings of Circus Flora date back to the opening of the Faust Park carousel house. Balding prepared to perform there by bringing horses and elephants to St. Louis. After that ended, he planned to go to California, but the move fell through. He stumbled upon good fortune when he found a place in this area to keep his animals.

"The circus is very lucky," Balding said.

Every year, the circus adopts a new storyline, written by Balding and Cecil MacKinnon, theater director and the circus' narrator. For the 2009 season, the two created "Medrano," rooted in Balding's experiences as a 21-year-old at Cirque Medrano in Paris.

"It was the best of times," MacKinnon said -- in character -- during a run through. "It was the worst of times. It was ... Medrano!"

"Medrano" is a throwback to 19th century can-can-era Paris. Set design, costumes, live music and performances coincide with the story. The band situates itself on stage above the entrance to the ring, and plays original music composed by Miriam Cutler.

"We started the idea of circus theater -- telling a theatrical story," Balding said. "We started Circus Flora with an idea to create a theater company that specialized in one-ring, European-style performances."

In addition to that, Balding wants the audience to be able to see the performers, instead of seating patrons far away and using opaque styles. About 1,150 chairs encompass the ring in the red big top tent. In previous years, the circus attendees sat on benches, but the chairs keep everybody within 42 feet of the action.

During the two-hour show, attendees will see acrobatics, a Hula Hoop act, dancers on horseback and aerialists, including Nevidonski. He said he feeds on the audience's energy and aims to entertain.

"I don't think you'll feel good if nobody claps for you," he said.

He describes his work as equestrian aerial ballet. Seven years ago, he combined his horse act with a high-flying act. The finished product involves Nevidonski elevating himself on the horse, then grabbing an oversized, suspended piece of silk. While in the air, he performs acrobatics.

"It's my life, I love it," Nevidonski said about his work. "It's payable vacation and you're doing what you love to do."

About 50 performers participate in the circus, a majority of whom live in trailers next to the giant red tent. Walking around the trailer-filled parking lot feels like a stroll through a neighborhood.

"Everybody in the circus world knows each other," said Jocelyn Twist, Circus Flora's media relations representative. "When you're around it long enough, you fall in love with the people. You fall in love with the circus."

Twist said she likes to spend free time at the tent, and understands the ins and outs of preparation.

"The rigging is kind of the foundation," Twist said.

Riggers set up high wires, nets, lights, chairs, the ring and -- of course -- the tent. Although Circus Flora's logo includes elephants, no elephants are in the acts this year. Flora, Balding's beloved elephant after whom the show is named, is at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee and hasn't been in the production for four years. However, there are dogs, horses and a rooster.

The theatrical circus runs from June 4 to 21, with shorter shows for children on Wednesdays and a peanut-free opening night. There are matinee and evening shows Fridays through Sundays and no shows on Mondays.

Although there's less than a week before the show opens, Nevidonski is still "bump proofing" a female horse by calming her -- a technique he applied after he practiced standing up on her.

"I'm making her brave so ... any distraction doesn't bother her," he said. "She wants to be safe here."

Within a week, she'll be a part of his high-flying, original act that's just one part of Circus Flora.

Christian Losciale is an intern with the St. Louis Beacon.

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