Review: Circus Flora celebrates a quarter century of fun
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2011 - Many familiar faces, some not seen for a while, have returned to St. Louis to help Circus Flora celebrate its 25th anniversary with an exciting, briskly entertaining show.
The legendary Flying Wallendas, who were not part of last year's show, are back, forming pyramids and riding bicycles -- forward and backward -- on the high wire, and the equally legendary Alexandre Sacha Pavlata has returned after a hiatus of several years.
Pavlata is one of the founders of the circus. This year, he performed with the Wallendas on their high wire act. He also assisted his niece Aurelia Wallenda as she soared high above the crowd on the rope swing. Aurelia, now a young woman, was only 8 years old when she and Sacha first closed the show at Circus Flora with their graceful rope acrobatics.
Other favorites from years past included Giovanni Zoppe, alias Nino the clown, and the spectacular trapeze performers the Flying Pages. The Pages, descendents of a famous Cuban circus family, push themselves to the limit of their prodigious skills.
At Friday's opening night, after building excitement with a series of increasingly daring leaps and turns and mid-air rolls, they tried a triple somersault and missed by millimeters. As Anthony Pages slipped from the grasp of his outstretched catcher and tumbled to the net below, the crowd gasped and then cheered the spectacular failure. One of the most engaging facets of Circus Flora is the sense of camaraderie between the performers and the audience, a sense that is enhanced by the intimate presentation, with seats literally inches from the single wooden ring.
Circus Flora is also notable for its community outreach. A constant from the beginning has been its work with children, best illustrated by the St. Louis Arches. This troupe of young acrobats, ranging from kindergarten to college-age, perform under the direction of Jessica Hentoff, herself a former acrobat for Circus Flora. She is now director of Circus Harmony, which teaches circus skills to young people and works on social causes.
Some of the Arches have become performers in their own right. Among this year's featured acts, along with the Wallendas, the Pages and the rope-dancer Uma Mimnagh, who is the epitome of power tempered with grace, were the acrobatic duo of Bateman and Robinson. Sidney Bateman and Terrance Robinson, who performed a hand-balancing act together on a small table in the center of the ring, are veteran members of the St. Louis Arches. It was announced that both of them had been admitted to prestigious French Canadian circus schools for the fall term.
Two terrific new acts -- at least new to Circus Flora -- appear this year, and although they are quite different in content, they share a highly appealing quality -- they move as fast and as effectively as a good screwball comedy.
The Olate family's dogs are, hands down, the funniest dog act I've ever seen. The 10 dogs, most of them poodles or poodle hybrids, zip around the ring, riding scooters, jumping rope, doing back flips, whirling like dervishes. The Olate act seems over in an instant, a hilarious instant.
And the Donnert brothers, fifth-generation circus performers, stand on the backs of horses and toss each other Indian clubs with blurring speed. They end their act by trading the clubs for flaming torches in a spectacular, galloping finale.
David Balding, producer and artistic director of Circus Flora, has done an excellent job of mixing the old and the new for the Silver Anniversary of what has become one of St. Louis'sfinest institutions. The shows will continue in the big top just east of Powell Hall in Grand Center through June 26, For tickets and information, call 314-289-4040 or see www.circusflora.org. There is also a Circus Flora box office in the Centene Center for the Arts & Education, 3547 Olive Street.
"Remember," reminds Cecil MacKinnon, the circus' mistress of ceremonies, "We belong to St. Louis."
Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.