When you see this year's edition of Circus Flora — and anyone who enjoys snap, crackle and pop theater won't miss it — pay special attention to Giovanni Zoppe, better known to St. Louisans as Nino the Clown. Like everything else in Circus Flora, quality trumps quantity. Hence, Nino is the one-and-only clown fueling anarchy in this one-ring circus. Because he's as permanent a Flora fixture as the large red-and-white tent itself, it's easy to take Nino for granted. But don't do that. If you occasionally keep at least one eye on him, you might notice that when Nino is not cavorting from a swinging rope ladder or strutting about with a live rooster perched over his head, what he's mostly doing is watching. Ever with a smile on his face, this sixth-generation circus performer is on the alert for something to go awry. The fact that it never does (at least not when I've attended) does not make Nino any the less watchful. He is circus to the core.
This year's theme, Ingenioso, transports us to the (saw)dusty plains of La Mancha, the chivalrous, fantastical world of Don Quixote (Carlos Svenson, a lean horseman from Sweden) and his faithful squire Sancho Panza (Nino). Before the theme fades to irrelevance, as it always does midway through the show, Quixote and Sancho meet Dulcinea (Jennifer Vidbel), who runs a dog-and-goat act that suddenly becomes a dog-and-goat-and-pony act. Then they encounter conquistadors in search of the New World — which they'll likely never find so long as they continue to ride their horses backward and upside down.
So begins yet another splendiferous edition of Circus Flora, which is making its 24th annual appearance in St. Louis. The evening is full of modest wonders. We're entranced by the beauty of six white ponies performing together. (Did I say six? Look again. Now there are twelve!) And the performers' expertise is at such a high level, it almost erodes some of the suspense. Will Julien Posada pull off a complete somersault while walking on a low wire? Of course he will, though we'll never know how many months or years it took him to perfect these few symmetrical seconds.
While it's surely important to keep the show fresh, there's also a comfort factor in seeing some of the same performers return. The balletic equestrian aerial silk act by Sasha Alexandre Nevidonski, in which fabric and flesh intertwine in effable beauty, continues to enthrall. The exuberant local troupe, the St. Louis Arches (ages ten to eighteen), makes its annual buoyant appearance. In addition to the tricks they execute, to see such poise in youngsters is very reassuring.
Age is a contradictory commodity at Circus Flora. Although some of the kids in the Arches seem to be getting older, Nino the Clown appears not to have aged a bit. He is timeless. And we in the audience — well, we youthen. Spend two hours with Nino and his high-flying, bullwhip-cracking friends, and you just might leave Circus Flora feeling as if you've spent time, not with Don Quixote, but rather with Ponce de León. Where is the Fountain of Youth? In an air-conditioned tent adjacent to Powell Hall.