Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Marrakesh Express

[This is my review of Circus Flora's Marrakesh for KDHX-FM]

“Just join the circus like you meant to do, when you were so high. Pitch your troubles under a tent and you're bound to loose 'em by and by.” -- “Join the Circus” from Barnum (lyrics by Michael Stewart)

Summer isn't our best season here in St. Louis. What with the heat, humidity, bugs, storms, and endless road construction, even we natives wouldn't be surprised to see Virgil leading Dante on a sightseeing tour. But there's one harbinger of summer to which everyone can look forward: the annual visit of Circus Flora. For around two hours and some change you can “pitch your troubles” under the red and white big top next to Powell Hall and be amazed and entertained by some of the world's finest circus performers.

The show this year is entitled Marrakesh and there is, as usual, a story line, delivered with her customary aplomb by Circus Flora Theatre Director Cecil MacKinnon in her persona of Yo-Yo, the Narrator. This time around it has something to do with disappearing guests at a party in Marrakesh, with the elephant Dondi as Charlie Chan. If you can't quite follow it, don't worry. It's only there to link the individual acts which are, by turns, elegant, thrilling, and hilarious.

Marrakesh features the customary mix of old friends and new discoveries. Katja Schumann and her graceful horses are back, as are the exuberant and talented St. Louis Arches. The tumbling and acrobatic youth troupe of the Circus Day Foundation, the Arches have become a traditional favorite, especially with the younger set. Ditto the Ianna Spirit Riders, the only youth circus bareback riding ensemble in the country and another product of the Circus Day Foundation.

Kids and adults alike will also be happy to see the return of Nino (Giovanni Zoppé), whose inspired clowning runs throughout the show. A kind of circus jack-of-all-trades (juggler, clown, aerialist), Nino demonstrates yet another skill this year: bareback riding (I sense a recurring theme here), in combination with the elegant Tosca Zoppé.

The Flying Wallendas are back as well with their trademark multi-person pyramid on the high wire. This time there are three instead of the usual seven, but when two of the three are on bicycles, it's still a heart-stopper - especially when they're working, as always, without a net.

Easily the flashiest of the new acts (new to me, at least) is Alesya Goulevich, Guinness World Record holder for the largest number of hula hoops spun at one time. Her performance is a fast-paced mix of juggling, dancing and acrobatics, culminating in that word record spin, during which she turns into a veritable human slinky. It's a spectacular display of muscle control and coordination; don't miss it.

Newcomers Andrew Adams and Erika Gilfether are pretty flashy as well, with a gravity-defying silk act that combines the grace of classical dance with the strength and control of gymnastics. Later in the evening, Sasha Alexandre Nevidonski does an equestrian variation on the aerial silk theme, assisted by his students Rosie Eastman and Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan. The trio spins and flies around the ring on silk streamers in a stylish airborne ballet.

They don't get into the very top of the tent, however. That area is reserved for The Flying Pages, a remarkable family of trapeze artists whose youngest member, Mercedes, is clearly still in grade school. Anthony Page's triple somersault is a highlight, but they're all impressive.

It wouldn't be a circus without dog act, and this year it's the comedy antics of Pino (Diane Wasnak) and Bonzer. Wasnak's Pino is a Chaplinesque figure engaged in a running battle with a charismatic black and white Australian Shepherd over possession of a derby hat and top billing. There are also plenty of laughs - and even a few thrills - in the two appearances of Circus Flora's new elephant, Dondi. At least for this show, Dondi's bag of tricks isn't especially large, but the affection between her and her trainers, the Schacht family, makes it all charming.

Circus Flora will continue to entertain and delight through June 24th [2007] in Grand Center, right next to Powell Symphony Hall. For ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site,, where you can also read up on the company and view some impressive photos of previous seasons.

Maybe you can't really “join the circus like you meant to do, when you were so high”, but you can marvel at it for a couple of hours in air-conditioned comfort. Add a slushie and some popcorn and you're a kid again. Who says there's no fountain of youth?

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