Minutes after quitting my job last year, as the Protestant ethic trembled, an imaginary chandelier clattered. This imaginary racket set me to thinking I was crazy and to wondering what I might do next. But hallelujah! A zephyr blew my way and gently suggested that the best thing would be to give in to an honorable impulse by running away and joining the circus.
Then clear light shined on my running-away-from-home plan. Genuine long-term, even lifelong disappearance came into sharp focus as impossible, if not immoral. I realized that the circus world, when one is starting out, anyway, is a young fellow’s endeavor. But hang on. Impossible? Circus Flora—the only circus I know anything about and an institution I deeply love—was pitched nine blocks from my apartment, in Grand Center. So an on-again, off-again running away was clearly possible, in walking distance, familiar. If the new administration would say yes, I was ready to go.
I rode up to meet with the new artistic director, Jack Marsh, and his mother, Cecil MacKinnon, theater director and featured performer. Finding them, I jammed on my brakes and fell into a bloody heap at their feet.
“Let’s do it,” said Marsh, who is boyish but tough, able to execute a head-over-heels flip from standing still and smart and canny enough at only 32 years old to be artistic director, which means not only thinking up stories and acts but also spotting talent and taking care of the wrenching job of firing.
Marsh grew up in New York City and its suburbs. “Wherever the circus was, so was I,” he recalls. His mother is a circus institution and veteran of the Flora company, appearing in the center ring wearing a commedia dell’arte costume and moving the show along with her narrative. As a boy, Marsh would “come around and perform, juggling and tumbling.” He went on to attend Harvard, then law school at the University of Wisconsin. He worked as a lawyer for a while, including a stint as a district attorney in St. Croix County, Wisconsin. In 2014, he helped his mother produce the amazing Circus Flora performances of A Winter Fable with the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall. After that run, it was back to the law. “It was so boring by comparison,” he said. Now he’s back to art and the circus, perhaps for good.
His predecessor, the beloved Ivor David Balding—who founded the circus and rescued its namesake from poachers when she was a calf—died in 2014, at age 75. Circus Flora folks and, indeed, the entire circus world were staggered. Laura Carpenter Balding—his wife, soulmate, and creative associate—is an accomplished horsewoman and has spent her life with animals at her family farm, Three Creek Farm in Weldon Spring. The family jumped in to help and, as shows must, Circus Flora went on.
I had been in and out of Circus Flora’s tents for years. Years ago, I showed up to learn to juggle alongside Balding. Later, at Three Creek Farm, I tried and tried to stand up on a galloping circus horse’s back as it careered around the arena. Most terrifyingly, I tried to walk a high wire stretched over concrete at Union Station (with Tino Wallenda of The Flying Wallendas holding my shoulders).
Dave Barry once wrote of the sea, “Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the tent.” Similarly, after stepping into the middle of Circus Flora’s single ring, I began to understand something that critic Heinz Politzer wrote about the circus: It was “a world between.”
The magnetism of the circus is far more than entertainment. Though it is amusing or goosebumpy on one level—with cavorting clowns and up-in-the-air derring-do—on another plane it is a stage for the unconscious. Circus life is replete with joy and pain, pleasure and danger.
The appearance of abandon, suggesting unfettered fun and athletic virtuosity, is real up to a point. But then the curtain is rung down, disguising harsh aspects of real life but revealing that it wears a mantle of fantasy and a cloak of security.
As these reflections popped up one after another like popcorn and swirled like cotton candy in production, a simultaneous awareness crackled like lightning in my mind, a pervasive off and on light, illuminating home and all that goes into it, persons and animals and possessions and obligations, a place filled full with staggering anguishes and sweet memories of its own, a life in fact I cherish.
There are all sorts of attendant pleasures: applause under the tent and praise outside on the lot. There are pictures in magazines and the joys of friendship. Although there are no check stubs on which are marked benefits, there is value: maps to freedom, to lessons for life outside the margins, to understanding what swims beneath the surface.
Fun and games of innocence spring up during free time at Circus Flora. A game called soccer-tennis is a favorite. It is played in a miniature tennis court, with the layout drawn in chalk on the circus lot’s asphalt surface. There are parties to acknowledge holidays, birthdays, and other special days. Many of the circus folks travel in Airstream trailers, and they often gather in the staging areas for cocktails as the sun goes over the yardarm. Dorothy Carpenter, Laura Blading’s sister, is the Perle Mesta of Circus Flora, and keeps the parties rolling.
With life lived amongst trained dogs, fiery-eyed Arabians, goats, blue-eyed camels, water-squirting clowns, jugglers, and musicians, life at Flora is a combination of infectious play and serious philosophical complexities that perplex and thrill those who peel the institutional onion.
Hovey Burgess peels the onion without ceasing. He’s the heart and soul of Circus Flora and the curator of knowledge and tradition. Famous in his own right as a historian, teacher, professor, mentor, performer, and author of a multivolume circus encyclopedia, he occupies a special position in the circus universe, reigning as a sort of philosopher-shaman.
Years ago, I asked David Balding for the name and phone number of a juggling expert, and he introduced me to Burgess. Now in his mid-seventies, Burgess is still going strong, living in a Collyer Brothers version of an Airstream trailer parked on the circus lot. He’s told me plenty about juggling, about circuses, about trapeze flying and sawdust. His face radiates the pink-cheeked good cheer of a Coca-Cola ad from 1920, way before the slogan “Bring Home the Coke” had a different meaning. The cheeks and gentle demeanor mask a formidable intelligence and indefatigable loyalty to the art of the circus.
At 16, Burgess wanted to run away and join the circus. A buddy had warned him that he probably would never come back—and he never has used the return ticket. He had good grades in high school but no particular desire to go to a regular college, so he earned his B.A. at Pasadena Playhouse.
For four decades, he was a fixture at New York University’s celebrated Tisch School of the Arts. His circus course was a requisite. Even if a young artist had no interest in the circus, the skills of what Burgess named equilibristics—concentration (learned by juggling and plate spinning) and balance (learned on a tightrope) and strength (acquired on the flying trapeze)—helped prepare student actors holistically for acting careers.
I’m not the first to speculate on this, but it seems Burgess navigates a philosophical tightrope clutched at one end by the Enlightenment trailblazer Benedict de Spinoza, whose understanding of rationalism holds fast today and explains the how of things. At the rope’s other end, holding forth on the why and whither, is Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose advocacy of metaphysics and his understanding of the power of goodness are of special importance to those such as Burgess. Wittgenstein and his apostles and other like-minded men and women look at the circus and see beyond the margins of existence and under its surface. They cringe as the world continues to produce increasing horrors, as our leaders concoct lies about them.
With optimism rising above the world’s lethal messes is Burgess, still daring, young—a venerable man on an existential trapeze. His advice to those who would run away: “Follow your bliss.”
At the end of each show, in the grand finale, a hopeful happy ending and a special rumbustious form of rejoicing and redemption spins around, acted out by the blissful ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of Circus Flora.
As this diverse and radiant rainbow company parades round and round the ring and then out into open air, it is good to remember the suggestion of the 14th-century mystic Mother Julian of Norwich, whose way of saying that the human show must go on is this: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
For centuries, the circus has been synonymous with impermanence: rail cars, trailers, canvas tents, sawdust-covered floors. Though Circus Flora has always felt its historical roots (The Flying Wallendas are old trapeze royalty, dating back to Europe), it’s never felt bound to tradition when it could do something better (like being animal-friendly). Take this February’s big announcement: Thanks to a partnership with the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, Circus Flora has decided to permanently settle in Grand Center. There aren’t renderings yet—or even an address. “We can say that we will be in Grand Center,” says executive director Larry Mabrey, “and that dedicated space won’t be in the parking lot of Powell Hall.” Though he can’t share concrete details yet, he promises that exciting things are in store. Considering the kind of magic Flora’s able to conjure in Grand Center just during the month of June, that seems like a sure bet.