Sunday, June 21, 2009

Circus Flora

It was a warm sunny day last Saturday as we made our way to the parking lot behind Powell Symphony Hall in the downtown St. Louis arts district where a beautiful circus tent awaited. Outside there was a modest pony ride, a concession stand, and an old automatic player circus organ. Inside the tent a wonderland awaited.

Circus Flora made St. Louis its home in 1987. It only runs for a few weeks each year. Every year there is a theme around which the acts are loosely assembled. This year the theme is “Medrano” drawn from the historic Cirque Medrano a/k/a Cirque Fernando that first set up at different locations in Paris in the late 19th Century and continues as a traveling circus throughout Europe today. The basic story of this year's Circus Flora show is that the beautiful star of Medrano is a sought after socialite who attracts high society to the circus as well as some of the great artists of the time. In fact, famous paintings inspired by Cirque Medrano were done by Toulouse-Latrec [Jane Avril], Degas [Miss La La a la Cirque Fernando] and Renoir [Jugglers at the Cirque Fernando].

The big tent with four tall peaks is night blue inside with crystal chandeliers. At one end of the ring an elaborate red and gold pillared entranceway is capped by a band box where the five person circus orchestra sits. We sat in the box seats next to the ring, but not close enough to get squirted by the clown. The crowd numbered about 1000, with adults outnumbering children two to one.

This one-ring circus strives to be true to its European roots. Throughout the show a narrator in whiteface wearing a gold and sequin embroidered costume roams the ring telling the story and introducing the acts, weaving them into the story. Some acts fit the story better than others, but I don't want to quibble. For the most part the story line enhances a non-stop display of traditional circus skills. No lions, tigers or elephants, just ponies, stunningly beautiful horses, a goat, one main clown, and a comedy dog act with a dozen mixed breed rescue dogs. Interspersed with modest juggling and clown acts are world class performances by The Flying Wallendas on the high wire, Cossacks performing at full gallop on horseback, and The Flying Pages on trapeze. Because the story was set in 19th Century Paris there were numbers incorporating the can-can and an astounding hoop act where the star encased herself in about fifty rotating hoops at once. Most acts somehow incorporate Nino the Clown (Giovanni Zoppe, one of the producers), in little red knit hat and the obligatory red bulb nose. Nino sometimes has a shadow, a very small child dressed in exactly the same costume.

We were very taken by the local teen acrobats, the St. Louis Arches, who train year round and also perform at the City Museum. These kids are of different genders, ages and abilities; all beautifully full of spirit. They jump and tumble and build impossible human pyramids. We were immediately reminded of our teen gymnast neighbor from Syracuse, Taniya Williams, who we both felt would fit nicely into a Arches costume.

After a couple of hours we sauntered back into the sunny afternoon humming circus music. Overall the effect was like a dream play; not exactly a story, no moral or message, just the sights and sounds of a modest and wonderful circus. Circus Flora is theatre at it's best, original, accomplished and completely absorbing. It's a treasure waiting for everyone to discover.

1 comment:

  1. Hi ho fellow flatlander. I am always so thrilled to find other St. Louis bloggers.

    Alas, I've never been to Circus Flora, but have always heard raves about it.

    Come visit me sometime.