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Commentary: The Circus Arts Thrive In St. Louis

The modern definition of a circus is based on the ancient word referring to the actual performance area, a circle of sorts, in which gladiatorial events, chariot races, etc. took place.

Today the performers are quite different. We think of acrobats, clowns, and trained animals. We also tend to think of Ringling, Barnum and Bailey and the frenzied three ring circus, but in reality as one of America's oldest theatrical traditions, the circus started as a European transplant in the late 1700's and was perfected in the United States by the likes of John Bill Rickets, who established the first American Circus in 1798.

Our own Mid-America Arts Alliance recently sponsored a traveling exhibition entitled "Step Right Up" curated by Timothy Tegge, a long time circus historian, collector, and performer. Tegge, a second generation circus performer, was immersed in circus culture from the day he was born.

According to Jessica Hentoff, "The Circus Lady" who now performs with St. Louis's Circus Flora, and one time performed with New York's Big Apple Circus, both artistic one ring circuses, one doesn't have to grow up in the circus and be from a circus family to be a good circus performer. She is the artistic/executive director of Circus Harmony, St. Louis's only year -round circus school and social circus program based in the City Museum.

Hentoff says she has worked with people from 5 to 82 years of age. She says, "I've taught children of all labels-autistic, ADD, LDD, deaf, Down syndrome, physically handicapped, etc. Circus arts doesn't require one skill set. Maybe you can't juggle, but you can flip, or you can't flip but you have great balance and can walk the wire."

St. Louis is very fortunate to have Circus Flora, which is one of only three cities in the country with an annual resident circus that also provides year-round educational outreach programs. The organization has played an important role in the renewal of circus as a performing art. Circus Flora is recognized as the first circus in the United States to successfully tell a story using a plot and original live music. The narrative acts as a framework through which humans and animals perform in concert with one another. By integrating classic traditions of the circus with contemporary theater techniques, an ensemble cast, and compelling narrative, Circus Flora produces shows that consistently deliver wonder and world-class entertainment to audiences of all ages.

Ivor David Balding is the artistic director and producer of Circus Flora. After working for Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival, he founded the New Theater in New York and produced 21 plays. His productions were nominated for two Tony awards and one five Obie awards. He conceived and co-produced the Circus World Championships which was broadcasted worldwide on  the BBC. These are just the tip of the iceberg of Balding's accomplishments.

Cecil Mackinnon, the theater director and featured performer "Yo Yo the Narrator," has performed extensively with theater companies in New York, founded the Pickle Family Jugglers, a comedy juggling act that expanded into The Pickle Family Circus. In 1994 she received the first Citizen's Exchange Council grant to travel to Eastern Europe to research circus in transition.

Balding and Mackinnon are just two of the forces that make Circus Flora the dynamic institution that it is. It takes a lot more than "spit and glue" to keep such a well-oiled machine running.

Circus Flora has exceptional educational programs such as "Clowns on Call' which is Circus Flora's first year-round outreach program. Lead by professional circus clowns such as Claire Wedemeyer, "Clowns on Call" performers provide a magical distraction, engaging young patients in the circus arts while providing a respite from the world of tests and worry.

Circus Flora has partnered with Craft Alliance and the St. Louis Symphony and you might have noticed some "Pop Up Circus Acts" around town.

Circus Flora as well as Jessica Hentoff's Circus Harmony are two crown jewels in St. Louis' thriving performing arts scene.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.