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Musings: The Big Top comes inside

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 6, 2011 - Circuses are peripatetic beasts, roaming under cover of canvas from one town to the next, trying their best to roar their loudest to trumpet a claim to status not simply as the greatest show in town but The Greatest Show on Earth!

Circus Flora, our very own St. Louis circus, which many of us cherish as just that -- the greatest one-ring circus on Earth -- has done its share of out-of-town gigs.

The late composer Gian Carlo Menotti brought the show to life 25 years ago in Charleston, S.C., when he presented the troupe to his American iteration of the Spoleto Festival. Circus Flora, which in those days starred a rescued pachyderm named Flora, returned to Charleston for several additional engagements.

The tent's also been pitched in New York City, at Lincoln Center, and in Washington at the Kennedy Center. It has sailed forth to Nantucket.

Eventually, and lucky for us, Circus Flora has settled in St. Louis, and in a quarter century of hithering and thithering much of it was done around town here. Flora has had two county homes, at Faust Park and Queeny Park. In the city, it had runs in Forest Park and at Union Station, but now the stakes are permanent in a parking lot behind Powell Symphony Hall.

The Symphony lot has always seemed to me to be a perfect home for the little circus that could. Flora is an institution that has survived in a world where the flash and glitter and the gimmickry of commercialism threaten to trample the refinement and charm of something as rare as the one-ring circus. These small in size but incredibly affecting entertainment organisms hold fast to standing traditions. They appreciate that scale, not size, is what matters in the Ladies-and-Gentlemen-boys-and-girls world. Such circuses offer contrast to canned, homogenized entertainments. They dare to squirt you in the face and revel in allowing you feel the heat of a galloping stallion and hear the heaving sighs of physically taxed athletes.

Circus Flora is the McCoy, so close you can touch it, smell and feel it.

Flora's presence on the Symphony lot has made good sense for years. For one thing it brings something exotic and exciting into an urban neighborhood and adds to a growing inventory of individuals and institutions that make city living so attractive. But there is a deeper, perhaps less easy to understand but nonetheless urgent reason for the circus's long-term establishment in a predictable environment.

This has to do with life in these United States in these unsettled times. The lickety-split pace of contemporary society, the pushing off of quality to the margins, the tendency of commercial media to pimp for the slick and easy rather than the textured and demanding - all diminish our culture. The glitzy threatens to displace work produced by hands and lungs, by intellects, by people with elevated missions, by men and women with souls.

Thus it is good news when there are marriages, temporary perhaps but strengthening nevertheless, of two equally marvelous institutions that have art and soul at the heart of their missions, Circus Flora and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, for example.

On Saturday and Sunday, all of us have the opportunity to see the Symphony carry Flora over the threshold. Once inside, Circus Flora is to fly with the greatest of ease through the airy upper reaches of Powell Hall and mingle with a full orchestra installed in its usual space on the stage.

"It is wonderful of the Symphony to bring us in out of the cold," Ivor David Balding said the other day. While having a lot of fun saying that, there is meaning behind the statement. Balding is a founder, now artistic director and producer, of Circus Flora, and he recognizes that having work in cold weather days is just as important as the usual summertime activity.

The person ultimately responsible for asking the close neighbor, Circus Flora, to come into the hall, was Fred Bronstein, Symphony president and CEO. Bronstein, like everybody else in the performing arts business, is on the look out constantly for something that will play and pay in Powell Hall, and he had to look no further than his back yard.

The artistic concept belongs to Cecil MacKinnon. Her starry suit and trademark hat, her whiter-than-white makeup and her magnificently mannered peregrinations have made her an institution in St. Louis and in the circus world at large. MacKinnon had done Shakespeare with orchestras, so why not the circus with which she has had such a productive artistic relationship for so many years?

Inspired by Shakespeare or not, and notwithstanding the enthusiasm of Bronstein and Balding for the collaboration, the circus, of course, does not wander in from the back lot into the concert hall. A story was developed, "The Floating Palace," which is based on a mid 19th-century Mississippi riverboat.

Risking guilt at tooting our own boatswain's whistle, I have to say the description of the Floating Palace story reminds me plenty of Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore," which the Beacon produced last weekend at the Sheldon Concert Hall.

The "Palace" is animated by wild adventure and mistaken identities and forbidden romance - all Pinaforian elements. There is to be all that, plus high-wire artist Tino Wallenda walking over all our heads displaying his extraordinary balance and grace.


This week, Symphony president and CEO Fred Bronstein talked enthusiastically about collaboration with Flora and with awe on the subject of technical challenges. Before a deal could be hammered down with Circus Flora, he said, a structural engineer was brought in to make certain that the Hall would be up to the demands of a circus and the sorts of rigging that would have to be installed. The engineer determined Powell Hall, indeed, to be high wire and acrobat worthy.

On Monday, when everyone else in the hall had a day off, Bronstein said he went to see what was going on and was astonished by the complexity of the rigging. But in addition to his reaction to the technical wizardry, he also appreciates the refinement and style of the circus. "Fantastic," he said.

Although Circus Flora is a one-ring circus, plenty will be going on to delight and amaze the audiences. A hand-balancing act is on the bill; so are the "home-thrown" St. Louis Arches, an acrobatic troupe who'll take your breath away as they fly around the ring. Also on the bill are Duo Voltart, the hand balancing act from Canada; the incredible Vince Bruce, whose rope tricks are as lyrical as they are amazing and Alesya Gulevich, who raises the position of the hula hoop from hips to art.

Surely you've heard of the Flying Wallendas, who've been risking their necks for circus audiences for generations in performances all over the world. They are coming to the hall with their leader, Tino Wallenda.

Johnny Peers and the Muttville Comix are barking at Powell Hall's doors, ready to provide woof to the warp of this circus tapestry. And aerial acrobats Andrew Adams and Erika Gilfether will take to the skies cream-and-gold skies of the hall. MacKinnon, to serve as the narrator, will be watching every move.

Please don't forget there's music. The orchestra will bring us the work of a splendid range of composers from the baroque to the modern: Handel to Aaron Copland, with Georges Bizet, Edvard Grieg, Manuel de Falla, Dmitry Kabalevsky and Igor Stravinsky in between. Alastair Willis will be on the podium as ring-maestro to the musicians.

Newspaperman Ben Hecht once said, "Time is a circus, always packing up and moving away." With these performances Sunday, however, we are offered a chance to freeze time for a while. Furthermore, while the circus may pack up and move time and again, we know, come late spring when the Symphony lot clears off, Flora will be back home again.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.