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Circus Flora soars at home in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 6, 2009 - Before the show really gets underway at Circus Flora, before the horses gallop and the acrobats tumble and the aerialists soar, three clowns come into the ring, carrying boards and buckets of paint. They are dressed in yellow overalls and red clown hats and they proceed to “accidentally” knock each other down with the boards and spill gallons of what looks like white paint all over each other. Soon, they are covered in the gooey white stuff and are sputtering to clear it from their noses and mouths.

One of the clowns is really a full-time clown – Giovanni Zoppe, known as Nino. The second is Johnny Peers, who will appear a little later in what might be called his regular job, presiding over an amazingly talented menagerie of dogs rescued from pet shelters. The third clown is actually Tino Wallenda, patriarch of the legendary Flying Wallendas. Before the evening is out, after a thorough scrubbing, Tino will walk across a wire high up in the Big Top with his daughter, Aurelia, on his shoulders.

Circus Flora is a celebration of family, and not just because many of the performers are related to one another, like the Wallendas and the Pages, a family of trapeze artists. Everybody does more or less everything at Circus Flora, and the communal nature of the show is one of its most enduring charms. The circus as a whole is a family.

The circus, based in a big red-striped tent on the parking lot behind Powell Hall, opened its 23rd season in its home base of St. Louis on Friday, June 5. It will be in town through June 21. (See schedule).

Most of the acts have been here before with Circus Flora, if not last year at some point in recent years.

The Flying Wallendas have been a part of Circus Flora since the beginning. This year, the Wallenda troupe numbered only four, so the seven-person pyramids of past years were not possible. But there was a smaller pyramid, and Tino Wallenda made up for the lack of record-setting spectacle by continuing to perform in his clown persona when he was on high. He played the role of a dumb cluck who suddenly notices he is standing on a wire way up in the air with nothing below to break his fall but a thin layer of well-trod sawdust. With help from his daughter, he finally was able to scramble to the safety of a platform, only to turn around and prance confidently back across the wire.

Two acts that always draw cheers and gasps from the crowd have their roots in St. Louis. The St. Louis Arches, a tumbling and acrobatic act made up of local children and teenagers, go back to the early years of the circus, and some of the performers are the children of previous Arches. They are directed by former aerialist Jessica Hentoff. She won a Visionary Award from Grand Center this year for her work, as she puts it, “teaching children how to fly.” The Arches perform regularly at the City Museum.

Of more recent vintage are the Ianna Spirit Riders, young performers based in this area who ride bareback and sometimes seem to be dancing on the backs of horses. They are directed by Jennifer Buck.

The dog act was one of the highlights of the first half of the show, as Johnny Peers led his dogs – there were at least 15 of them – through an energetic and funny performance. The dogs walked on their front legs, jumped through hoops, rolled barrels and turned back flips. All the while, they barked and scurried about, and the act always seemed to be at the absolute limits of controlled chaos. 

The three Mighty Cossacks leapt on and off and climbed under and around galloping horses, and horseman Sasha Alexandre Nevidonski rode bareback (and bare-chested) through the ring, suddenly soaring into the air holding onto to enormous red scarves suspended from the top of the tent.

The act, with a man flying on giant wings of red cloth, had an eerie balletic beauty.

Other acts of acrobatic skill included Aleysa Gulevich, inspiring both awe and laughter as she twirled and twisted increasing numbers of hula hoops until their number exceeded 30, and Terry Crane, riding a rope high in the air and descending rapidly in what might be called extreme rappelling.

The show ended rousingly with the Flying Pages, six trapeze artists – three male, three female, the youngest an 11-year-old girl – who flew between two trapezes and sometimes soared to a third platform near the very top of the tent. They closed their act with a triple somersault, executed perfectly.

And the show ended as it always does with mistress of ceremonies Cecil MacKinnon reminding us, “We belong to St. Louis.”

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 cultural critic.