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Commentary: Circus arts thrive in St. Louis with Circus Flora and Circus Harmony

Nancy Kranzberg

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

Jack Marsh, the Executive and Artistic Director of St. Louis's Circus Flora, credits Philip Astley, a horse trainer, with being the founder in the 18th century of the ring as Circus Flora uses.

Today the performers are quite different. We think of acrobats, clowns and trained animals. We also tend to think of Ringling Bros and Barnum & 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 1700s 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 travelling 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.

Marsh also reminded me that here in America we have the Universoul Circus which is promoted in black communities and Latino circuses which thrive in Mexico and on the border to the United States.

Cedrick Walker, founder of the Universoul Circus says, "We get to share our culture with everyone and each member of the audience leaves with a message, that everyone belongs. The Universoul Circus is for the people--it's their show.”

The Mexican Circus has roots that actually date back to Pre-Columbian times.

According to Jessica Hentoff, "The Circus Lady," who now performs with St. Louis' 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 to be a good circus performer.

Hentoff is the artistic and 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 and physically handicapped. Circus arts doesn't require one skill set. Maybe you can't juggle, but you can flip, or you can't flip but you can have great balance and 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.

The late Ivor David Balding was the director and producer of Circus Flora. After working for Joseph Papp in 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 won 5 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 who performs in Circus Flora as the clown-narrator "Yo Yo," has performed extensively with theater companies in New York, and 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.

Circus Flora has exceptional educational programs such as "Clowns on Call" which is Circus Flora's first year-round outreach program. Led by professional circus clowns, this program provides magical distraction, engaging young hospital 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 often does "Pop Up Circus Acts" around town.

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

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.