Circus Flora in Powell Hall with the St. Louis Symphony
By Nancy Kranzberg
September 6, 2013
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."