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'Ingenioso' is ingenious Circus Flora production

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2010 - St. Louis-based Circus Flora opened its 24th season Friday night with a bang and a gallop. The Riders of the Ring, a daring troupe of Cossack horsemen, sped around the single ring performing acrobatics on horses traveling literally at breakneck speed. Adding to the sheer exhilaration of the performance was a whip banging like a firecracker in the air.

To cap the performance, lead rider Omar Chinibekov crawled under his horse, heading for the other side. He fell once, rolled to his feet, brushed himself off, ran to his horse, hauled himself back into the saddle, and tried it again. Grasping for handholds, with the horse galloping at full speed, Chinibekov slowly worked his way down one side of the horse, under its belly, and up the other side. A loud cheer went up as he pulled himself back into the saddle after a successful equine circumnavigation.

The horses and their riders set the tone for the evening’s performance, which was notably brisk and lively. As usual, there was an overall theme to the show – this time, Don Quixote’s battle with windmills and other imaginary forces of evil. The theme was enlivened by the acrobatic clowning of Giovanni Zoppe as Sancho Panza, and the blending of the animal acts – including horse-riding goats and tiny dogs that could leap like Michael Jordan -- into the storyline.

Among the new acts this year was Julien Posada, who not only walks a wire, he dances on it. Accompanied by flamenco rhythms from the versatile circus band, he literally leaps and skips and stomps across a cable slung between two stanchions. He even performs back flips, ending up on his toes back on the wire.

Bare-chested Alexandre Sasha Nevidonski, who has made several appearances with Circus Flora, was recognized with applause the moment he rode into the ring. His specialty is enveloping himself in red silk banners hanging from the rafters and then slowly lifting himself into the air. The act combines ballet-like aesthetics (and sex appeal) with acrobatic strength and skill, and is an audience favorite.

Other acts this year include Andrew Adams and Erika Gilfether, who weave their bodies together in intricate patterns while suspended from ropes; Vince Bruce, a Brit who twirls ropes like a cowboy; Carlos Svenson, a horseman who took the role of Don Quixote, complete with a trash-can lid for a shield, and Jennifer Vidbel, who somehow manages to keep control of a menagerie of dogs, goats and gorgeous white ponies.

The show concluded with a spectacular triple somersault performed on high trapezes by the Flying Pages, an audience favorite.

One of the things that makes Circus Flora so appealing, in addition to the sheer closeness of the performers as they work within the limitations of the small ring (and the heights above the ring), is the welcome familiarity of some of the acts. Two of the most popular acts – the St. Louis Arches and Zoppe as the red-capped slightly naughty clown Nino -- have been with the circus from the beginning.

The Arches, a troupe of young St. Louis gymnasts and acrobats, are coached and choreographed by Jessica Hentoff, a former trapeze artist who last year was named St. Louis Arts Innovator of the Year by the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis. She is the director of Circus Harmony, a circus school that aims to “defy gravity, soar with confidence and leap over social barriers, all at the same time.”

Every year, the Arches have a few new members, but their number also includes youngsters we’ve seen before, some of whom have been with the circus from kindergarten to college, and one of the pleasure of Circus Flora is seeing how the young acrobats have progressed.

This year, two former Arches – Elliana Hentoff-Killian and Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan – performed a graceful and, at times, gasp-inducing acrobatic duet on a hoop suspended above the ring.

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies and performing arts. T

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