Ring Master

Circus Flora is circus at its informal best.
Paolo Vescia

Some soft, blinking light of common courtesy ordinarily warns people against squabbling on a circus high wire. But this is just practice. And these are the Wallendas -- the Flying Wallendas.

So, 25 feet up inside the lofty blue peak of the Circus Flora small top, 16-year-old Aurelia Wallenda leans over the red-vested shoulder of her father, Tino, who is doing his usual best to stay in touch with a 5/8-inch strand of cable beneath his feet, to quarrel about the best way to perform their routine.

Their voices yatter at each other for a moment. Then, as the duo approaches the safety of one of the two overhead bird nests, Tino finally puts on the fatherly tone.

"Aurelia," he booms through the tent, "I don't need you to tell me how to do this right now. I've been doing it a lot longer than you have."

At 50, Tino's claim is more modest than bold. He and his family have been appearing with Circus Flora, now playing in Tempe, since it first pitched a tent in 1985. His wire walking goes back 43 years, to the day his grandfather, the great tightrope man Karl Wallenda, lifted him onto a low wire and began teaching him the basics of balance.

Over the years, he has risen, so to speak, to the family's renowned heights to become one of the surest walkers in the business. A few years back, he even revived one of his family's most challenging and breath-stealing acts -- the seven-person pyramid.

So, where's the respect?

Tino himself will tell you the prospects for circus acts like his have been diminished more by a culture glutted with spectacles than by back-talking youngsters.

In the days when Karl Wallenda was the household word for thrills, the circus was the annual big deal -- the event that drew kids, as old movies always show, to the edge of rail yards and fairgrounds to watch the striped tent rise.

"But there is just so much going on now," Tino says. "You look at cable TV and you've got 200 or 5,000 stations, and you've got everybody setting themselves on fire and jumping into an inferno. Add to that all the computer-generated effects and stunts you can do, and no wonder we've taken a second seat."

Yet watching the Wallendas glide across the tightrope, or practice a new routine on the gravelly dirt outside the tent, you can't miss the circus delights of bodily precision and bold dares. Like other efforts in athletics and art, theirs is a perfectionist's game.

They are among the reasons that Circus Flora is circus at its informal best. Like other American circuses that have sprouted since the 1960s, Flora is a one-ring affair that values intimacy above spectacle. You may not hear the workaday grief that a teenage tightrope walker gives her father. But you're sure to get the feeling that everything -- the clowns, the jugglers, the Cossacks and gauchos with their teams of horses -- is happening somewhere just beyond your lap.

The ideas behind the circus reflect the performers themselves. Yet it was founded by Ivor David Balding Jr. in 1985. He opened the first tent at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1986. And ever since, he's been wrestling with how to redefine and revitalize a tradition that goes back at least two millennia.

Flora has been here before. It started coming to Scottsdale in the early 1990s. But last winter, the Scottsdale Cultural Council pulled the plug on the circus to shift money to the then-new Museum of Contemporary Art.

This year, the City of Tempe, ASU and a group of smaller sponsors wisely stepped in to give Flora a temporary home on the south bank of the Salt River, just east of Rural Road.

Given the inability of the Rio Salado project to attract worthy developers, the circus might just be the best use we'll ever see on that dry land. And Flora's "smaller is better" message may even sink in.

The circus carries the name of the main character of the show, an African elephant named Flora. Her own tale and name are straight out of the Babar children's tales. According to lore, she wound up with Balding in 1983, when she was just 2, after having been orphaned by tusk poachers in Tanzania.

This year's show is the elephant's swan song. At 18 -- a teenager in elephant years -- she's getting too big for the one ring. And she basically needs a life.

Balding is weighing a couple of potential game preserve scenarios for her. The likeliest would give her relatively free roam of the circus' land in South Carolina.

In the meantime, she'll be working the ring in a story intended to give her the ovation-laden sendoff she deserves. "Farewell to Flora" continues Balding's faith that circus and theater can marry and produce a distinct realm of magic.

Seated on a folding chair outside his Airstream trailer on the circus lot, Balding says the idea for this circus has come to him over time, as his career as a circus owner has unfolded.

Before founding Circus Flora, he bounced around in theater, circus and television production for more than 20 years. He dropped out of Harvard, and into theater, in the early 1960s to stage manage the classical actress Eva Le Gallienne.

Balding says Le Gallienne rightly sized him up as someone who didn't take an intellectual approach to theater. "I didn't like Ibsen enough for her," he quips. "I was more instinctive about it. She thought I'd like the circus and the circus would like me."

After working for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and producing numerous plays of his own in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he eventually hooked up with Jimmy Chipperfield's renowned circus operation in England.

"It sounds childlike," Balding says, "but the first morning, walking into one of those circus buildings for practice, I felt like I had been there all my life. I just felt completely at home."

He says that Circus Flora has been a 15-year effort to extend that sense of comfort to an audience of strangers. He's done that by building a family of performers, a far different environment from the theater with its on-again, off-again cycle of relationships that accompany the opening and closing of shows.

"You put a show on and all these people became your extended family," he says. "Yet after it was over, you never saw them again."

So he hit on the notion of running a circus as a repertory company.

Says Balding, "It occurred to me that I could take a core group of people and develop a story line using theatrical technique."

Former Big Apple Circus member Sacha Pavlatta and the Wallendas were among the first to join him. Along with Flora herself, they've given the story the natural plot and chronology of Aurelia Wallenda and Flora both growing up.

The artist in Balding causes him to stew over how to improve the mix. Maybe he needs to make it smaller, he says, or reduce the lines of dialogue.

"I know we haven't gotten it exactly right yet," he laments.

But that doesn't mean this circus will lead you wrong.

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