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David Balding, Founder Of Circus Flora, Lived A Life Under The Big Top

(Courtesy: Circus Flora)
David Balding, founder of Circus Flora

The fact that David Balding spent a third of his life in the real and metaphorical spaces beneath one big top or another is absolutely, precisely fitting.

A founder of the one-ring Circus Flora, Mr. Balding died Friday night at the age of 75 at home in Weldon Spring from injuries suffered in a fall. But as his friend and associate Holly Harris said, he rarely stopped working and on Friday he worked to the end. He’d led his staff in a production meeting on the day he died, and he was planning a future show at home that evening.

Harris wrote that for Mr. Balding, "the circus was always a microcosm of the world, a harmonic unity of the opposites that David drew together within the grand tent.  His huge heart nurtured the magic in each of us and delivered it to the ring in its greatest purity.”

Circus Flora

Circus Flora, named after the elephant Mr. Balding rescued, got off to a stellar start in the mid-1980s when the composer and impresario Gian Carlo Menotti asked Mr. Balding to organize a circus for the fledgling Spoleto Festival, in Charleston, S.C. Mr. Balding put the arm on circus friends he’d made over the years, including Karl Wallenda, patriarch of the Flying Wallendas.

At the summit of his career, which was centered in St. Louis, he was impresario, artistic director, development whiz and mainstay of Circus Flora. His most recent actual big top — a flamboyant red and white pavilion rigged every spring behind Powell Symphony Hall — has served as a most comfortable accommodation for his big heart, the description bestowed on him Sunday by Harris, and one of the co-founders of Circus Flora, Alexandre "Sacha" Pavlata.

“We have been together for a long, long time,” Pavlata said. “He was a kind man — sometimes too kind — and had a huge heart and worked very hard. He was an exceptional man, a brother to me.”

Throughout its history, Circus Flora faced challenges.

Credit (Courtesy: Circus Flora)
Circus Flora at night.

Tino Wallenda, a long-time friend and associate of Mr. Balding, recalled the early days — when the going got tough and there was talk of pulling up stakes and quitting. Wallenda and other performers preached the doctrine of The Show Must Go On, but it wasn’t easy. The show moved from pillar to post in St. Louis, Wallenda said, and stability was elusive. But the show did go on, with Wallenda and members of his close and extended families participating thrillingly and memorably.

Although the organization is on an even keel now, keeping any not-for-profit afloat — especially a no-lions-and-tigers circus with emotional depth as well as the flashing of sequins and flying trapeze sensuality — requires juggling that involves more than balls, hoops and Indian clubs.

And there were physical challenges. Where once Mr. Balding was a man who swung himself nimbly high onto his beloved Flora’s back and rode horses as if he were bred to the saddle, at the end of his life he was sometimes on crutches, sometimes in a wheelchair, and in pain often severe enough to keep a lesser ringmaster out of the sawdust.  

As Flora grew older, the necessity of a separation became clear, but for Mr. Balding it was rather like putting a precocious child in a nursing home, and his separation from the elephant he rescued when she was a calf was heartbreaking.

The circus has had 28 separate productions. Each year, the various acts are configured into a specific dramatic theme. This year the theme is chess, and the name of the show is “The Pawn.” The 2014 run begins May 29.

Circus Flora has played not only in St. Louis but in such places as the Glimmerglass Opera at Cooperstown, N.Y.; the Spoleto Festival; at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, and in collaboration with the Scottsdale Center taught circus arts to Native American children in the area; and in Washington at the Kennedy Center. In January 2008, Balding received the “Excellence in the Arts” award from the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis.

In St. Louis, Mr. Balding did not confine himself only to Circus Flora. He had a long and productive association with Grand Center, the midtown entertainment district, and during the circus’s tenure there it has become one of the brighter stars of the St. Louis performing arts pantheon.
Mr. Balding was the original producer and artistic director of the First Night festival mounted there on New Year’s Eve, and three years ago Circus Flora stretched a high wire across the stage of Powell Hall and moved in to perform a holiday production with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
A life lived large

Mr. Balding’s was a life lived magnificently large. His father, Ivor Godfrey Balding, was, with his two brothers, one of the three most celebrated polo players in the world during the sport’s golden age in the 1930s. As his son David Balding said, the brothers – Gerald, Barney and Ivor – came to America with nothing and wound up having enormous successes on polo fields. Ivor G. Balding eventually worked for Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. So young David was reared in proximity to enormous wealth and privilege. 

His niece, the journalist Linda Blackford, wrote, “David grew up with four sisters – Bettina, Pamela, Sheila and Linda -- so as one of my cousins pointed out, 'the world was his oyster'." He remained incredibly close with all of them throughout their lives.

“He had no children, except for Flora the elephant, but had five nieces and three nephews, many of whom worked for and traveled with the circus at different times throughout the years," she added.

“David also loved good food and good gossip” Blackford continued, and some of our favorite memories are the family meals at his beloved Red Oak Farm in South Carolina, which always featured inappropriate banter and plenty of cackling laughter.

“My cousin Sabrina Jewell also pointed out how David's varied life made him comfortable in every and any setting, from the country club to the backside of a racetrack. That's a rare and charming attribute, and helps explain his successes in many different venues.”

This eclectic and adventuresome life was only partially spent with horses, although he was a lifelong horseman and enjoyed equestrian sports. Magnificent horses were often stars of his shows.  As much as he loved animals of all sorts – from performing roosters to rowdy trained stray dogs to monkeys and llamas and that one lucky elephant called Flora -- his consuming love, however, was the theater in one of its manifestations or another. His career began as a child, when he organized plays featuring his four sisters.

Before he settled into the challenges of running his circus for a quarter of a century, he had a peripatetic career. His adult career began as stage manager for one of the greatest American actresses of all time, Eva Le Gallienne. He also worked with the theatrical legend Joe Papp and his New York Shakespeare Company. Balding founded the New Theatre in New York City and produced 21 plays for it, including “The Knack,” “The Ginger Man,” “Scuba Duba,” “Steambath,” “The Man in the Glass Booth” and “Lenny.”  His productions were nominated for two Tony Awards and won five Obie Awards.

The celebrated lighting designer and producer Jules Fisher was still a student at Carnegie Mellon University when he met Mr. Balding in 1959.  He came to New York to light a play based on Robert Penn Warren’s 1947 novel, “All the King’s Men.”

“David was the carpenter,” Fisher said, and after a while Mr. Balding went from hammering shows into proper expressive physical form to producing them, and in the course of that phase of his career, he worked with giants of the theater such as Harold Pinter, Mike Nichols and Sibyl Burton, Fisher recalled.

Eventually, Fisher helped Mr. Balding to get a job at the Big Apple Circus. “But after a year or two, he said, ‘I’m going to start another circus,’” Fisher said. And so he did.

Hovey Burgess, a master teacher at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University, has been a member of the Flora company for more than two decades as a juggler, teacher and wise man. He was a mentor to Mr. Balding, guiding him to a deeper understanding of the medium he had chosen for his life’s main occupation.

Mr. Balding was never one to stand aside from hard physical work and one day, Burgess recalled, they were in the bed of a truck shoveling the sawdust onto the ground. Burgess told Mr. Balding the story of Philip Astley, whose father was a carpenter. Horse traders making their ways from Ireland to London to sell their horses often stopped at Astley’s father’s carpentry shop at Newcastle-under-Lyme, and the young boy because fascinated with horses and horse folks.

That interest was translated, after a time,  into performance, and because of that –and the connection to sawdust – Astley became the father of the modern circus and a lesson for the young impresario.

Sunday evening, Pavlata told of chance meetings with Mr. Balding in Europe and in New York.  Then both found themselves together, working at the Big Apple Circus.  Pavlata, a brilliant trapeze artist and aerialist, was of a like mind about the relative merits of large and small circuses.

“I was tired of working for a big operation such as Big Apple,” he said.  Soon, and fortuitously, the prospect and possibility of David Balding’s one-ring dream came true, and the new one-ring circus began to come together. Besides Mr. Balding and Pavlata, Mr. Balding’s sister, Sheila, and her husband, Sam Jewell, were co-founders as well.

Although he paused in places he called home – St. Louis chief among them in his later years -- Mr. Balding was a true and happy vagabond, and loved moving about this country and in Europe. Other the old log house in Weldon Spring where he lived with his wife, Laura Carpenter Balding, whom he married 20 years ago this June, and the family farm in South Carolina,  his classic Airstream trailer was a home of special and in estimable value to him.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Circus Arts Foundation, 3547 Olive Street, Second Floor, St. Louis, Mo. 63103. A memorial service will be scheduled when the members of the circus company have returned to town.

Mr. Balding was predeceased by sister Sheila Balding Jewell, a co-founder of Circus Flora. His survivors include his wife Laura Carpenter Balding of St. Louis and Weldon Spring; his sisters Bettina Blackford, Charlottesville, Va.; Pamela Jencks, London; Linda Shearer, Houston, Texas, five nieces,  three nephews – and Flora.