Insane Clown Pass

Well-balanced Wallendas, popular pachyderm guide trip down a gaudy memory lane

On the day after Christmas, I found myself at Circus Flora, a spectacle I opted for over yet another Neil Simon comedy at the Herberger.

Circus Flora, performed in a big, plastic tent in Scottsdale, began with an unscheduled performance by me: Singled out by the clown for not having applauded his entrance (I was busy scribbling "I hate clowns" in my notepad at the time), I found myself in a spotlight with my new rubber-nosed pal, whose grumpy impersonation of me was well-received.

Formed in 1985, Circus Flora is a one-ring circus, which means a lot of quick set changes, in this case presided over by a bitchy sprite in a feather headdress and platform Mary Jane shoes.

Several "acts" are cobbled together with a convoluted story line about the birth of man and the discovery of mythical Pandora's Box (in this case, PanFlora's Box, represented by a great paperboard crate filled with 4-year-old gymnasts). I doubt that the youngsters in the audience caught much of the dialogue about "man facing his demons" (at one point, a woman dressed in silk scarves wandered onto the stage, and the ringmaster brayed, "Remember, she's an allegory!") or the repeated references to Elysian fields; the kids were there for the company's namesake.

Luckily for them, Flora the elephant was trotted out time and again to perform her most popular trick: walking the circumference of the performance area and "smiling." She looked embarrassed.

Although its publicity promises an entertainment that's more performance art than traditional circus, I didn't see much that wasn't bargain-basement Barnum and Bailey. Circus Flora's undoing is an overabundance of amateur tumbling (I attended with a gymnastics instructor who counted a couple dozen vaulting and acrobatic blunders), and several sloppily executed animal acts, the worst of which included a goat in a lion's suit and an appearance by a smudge-brown Pegasus, whose "performance" turned out to be horse feathers (she paraded the ring several times, wearing flimsy fiberboard wings that prompted the kid in front of me to shriek, "I hope she don't fly over us with those!").

There aren't many laughs for kids of any age in Circus Flora. Aside from the clown--who performed an impressive trapeze act--there are few funny bits. A longish segment in which a pack of brindled boxers dressed in togas plays soccer might have been amusing, but two of the pups got into a gory fight that took two pooch wranglers to break up, and that scared the heck out of the little girls in the box next to ours.

I feel a little silly critiquing a circus, particularly one that claims to be about more than making a spectacle of itself. Circus Flora is a non-profit organization that provides a "circus school" in each town it visits, where kids can learn tumbling and acrobatic stunts. And the Flora "family" is involved in the worldwide effort to save the African elephant; its namesake serves as a spokes-elephant for conservation groups around the country.

From what I saw, Circus Flora has historical significance, as well. With the advent of ultrasmooth three-ring exhibitions like Cirque du Soleil, Circus Flora represents the tatty, bombastic, big-top entertainment that's gone the way of the penny arcade. After Siegfried and Roy, Circus Flora's live music and cheap sets recall the traveling tent shows most of us saw as kids, where a mangy lion jumped through a fiery hoop and a Volkswagen full of clowns provided big laughs.

What keeps the 14-year-old Circus Flora in league with the likes of Ringling Brothers are its star performers, the fabulous Flying Wallendas. Most of the performers in Circus Flora are members of this more than 200-year circus family, which closes each show with its death-defying high-wire act.

Press materials for the Scottsdale performance promised that the Wallendas would re-create their famous seven-person pyramid for only the fourth time in 36 years. (They cut the routine from their act in 1962 after two members of the troupe plunged to their deaths during a performance.) The stunt features four people yoked together by steel bars, which hold two people above them. The top of the pyramid is a seventh person, who stands on a chair as the entire group moves across a high wire. It's an unnerving sight, watching seven people slowly climb on top of one another while balancing on a wire about as big around as a broomstick.

The event takes about five minutes to stage, but significantly longer to work up to. The troupe started preparing for the feat more than a year ago, and, while many families were gathered around their Christmas trees last week, the Wallendas were busy brushing up their balancing act.

Curious about why a person would risk his life twice a day for pay, I made an appointment to speak with Tino Wallenda, grandson of Karl Wallenda, a renowned skywalker who created his family's high-wire act in the early 1920s and who once said, "The rest of life is just time to fill in between doing the act."

Tino called me several hours early because, he told me, "I tend to be absent-minded, and I figured I'd forget our appointment." (One hopes he's less absent-minded while he's walking a cable 40 feet in the air with six members of his family piled on top of him.)

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