Features Vol. III, No. 4

THE LIFE OF DAVID BALDING:

FRIENDS, ANIMALS AND THE ART OF CIRCUS

 by Jessica Hentoff

David Balding with his wife Laura before the Flora Big Top

David Balding with his wife Laura before the Flora Big Top

Tentmaster Erik Jaeger stood before the small group assembled under the big top for the first company meeting of Circus Flora’s 2014 production, The Pawn.  I am a founding member of Circus Flora and my students, the St. Louis Arches, perform with Flora every year. I was there with members of this year’s company, the Flying Wallendas, the Flying Cortes, Hovey Burgess, Adam Kuchler and others. There was one person missing. Ivor David Balding, Circus Flora’s founder, producer and artistic director. David died May 10, in a fall at his home, just a couple of weeks before this show was to open.

.Erik spoke in his understated, Midwestern drawl:  “David Balding was my friend, he believed in animals in the circus and he was passionate about the art of the circus.”  Simple, straight forward and direct, Erik nailed it. Those three qualities did, indeed, define Ivor David Balding.

At the memorial a week later, online and in the articles written after David’s passing, people talked about these three defining aspects of David Balding.

David was a Friend

David was a bridge who connected many people. He was comfortable with people from different backgrounds–from those in high society to circus roustabouts–and all of them thought of him as a friend as well as an employer. Circus Flora board member Debbie Monterrey Millett wrote for CBS about the “feeling of family and acceptance” that was felt on Circus Flora. It was a place where an 8th generation circus performer, an inner-city teenager and a farmboy from Alabama all felt appreciated and part of the magic and its creation.

David was a man who loved a good chuckle, a good haggle and a good meal. There were more pot lucks on Circus Flora’s back lot than on any show I was ever with. It was the friendship and the camaraderie that people enjoyed. It all started with David, who brought everyone together.  Christine Bertelson posted on Facebook “The sense of family that he engendered that kept so many brilliant, talented, loving, and irascible personalities and species in the same orbit is irreplaceable.”

A friend is someone who believes in you and across the board, the sentiment echoed by numerous people from performers to musicians to grooms, was about how David had confidence in them and gave them their first opportunity to work in the circus or to work in the circus in America. Anouk Schmidt was the woman David chose to work with young Flora the elephant. A devoted horsewoman, Anouk, along with Sacha Pavlata and David were the core at the start of Circus Flora. Anouk met David at an interview on Big Apple Circus when he was the producer there. “David always believed in me & saw my potential. He gave me my chance to work in the circus,” she said.  On David’s Facebook wall, many people echoed this including aerialist,  Una Mimnagh, who wrote “he makes me feel that circus is important in this world and that I am good at it. I wish I had another chance to thank him for his confidence in me. ”

Alex Pavlata, Los Alarcon, Stephanie and Valerie Koechlin of Aerial Mirror, and this year’s Duo Kate and Pasi were among those who got their first big American breaks on Circus Flora. There were so many people who felt they owed him a debt of gratitude for believing in their work.  Circus Flora House Manager, Harald Boerstler, was thankful to David “for befriending me, trusting me, hiring me and teaching me.”

David was for Animals in Circus

David was raised in a family of horse trainers.  In Britain, his grandfather had sold horses to various circuses. His father was a famous British polo player and race horse trainer in the United States. David grew up on a horse farm in Camden, South Carolina. He married Laura Carpenter and they lived together on a farm where she raised Connemara ponies and basset hounds. They got to know each other when she let Circus Flora park at her place when the company needed a place to stay. There is an oft told story about how Flora got loose one day and made quite a mess of the place but most notably setting the basset hounds loose!

David’s love of animals drew him to the circus.  He worked at Chipperfield Circus taking care of horses, camels and other animals.  David had and worked with many animals in his lifetime including Red Oak Mikey, the miniature horse,  Jack the Clydesdale, Ian the Percheron, stump tailed macaque, Zoe, and Tony the capuchin monkey (who came to live with me). David had a very special relationship with many of his dogs but none more so than his rescued German shepherd, Portia, who he found tied in the woods with a wire around her neck and he named after the Shakespeare quote “The quality of mercy is not strained.”  Many of his happiest times were spent just sitting with Flora or another one of his animal companions. You can see it in every photo of him when he is with one of them.

David always wanted an elephant. And he got Flora, who was orphaned when her herd was culled in Africa. Anouk and David learned how to work with her under the tutelage of the renowned Smoky Jones. Circus Flora was named after David’s beloved Flora and she graced its ring for many years.  David’s difficult decision to move Flora to an elephant sanctuary is heart-breakingly documented in the film, One Lucky Elephant.

David’s sister-in-law Dorothy Carpenter noted what few people knew about him:

–His work in promoting the finally passed  ( though now eroded) International ivory ban with Flora as “spokes elephant” as seen in  Mary Englebreit’s  “Only elephants should wear ivory” poster.

–His famous statement on the “animal-human partnership” that is reprinted in every Big Apple Circus program as well as in Circus Flora’s.

–His respect for the wildness of wild animals but realistic acknowledgement that once animals were taken or orphaned and rescued from the wild, they were owed a life other than boredom in a cage, a life that challenged and respected their intelligence.

In David’s own words,  “Circus Flora concentrates displaying the individual talents and personalities of human and animal performers highlighting their relationships to one another,”  In fact, the term “showcasing the working partnership between animals and humans” is part of Circus Flora’s  mission statement.

David was Passionate about the Art of the Circus

David had gone from working in theater to sports to circus—the perfect combination of the two, in many ways. David started as a stage manager at the Westport Country Playhouse where he worked with Broadway actress Eva Le Gallienne who had performed as an equestrienne at Cirque Medrano. This was his introduction into the circus world. He started at Medrano as a spotlight operator.

In New York, David worked for Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival.  David founded the New Theater in New York where he produced 21 plays including the famed, Steambath. His productions won 5 Obie Awards and earned him two Tony Award nominations. He ended up working for CBS Sports in Europe which found him in London, where he conceived and co-produced the popular Circus World Championships which was broadcast on BBC followed by network specials for both CBS and NBC.

David was a producer of Big Apple Circus the first year they played Lincoln Center. Eventually, he combined his love of theater and circus. David started Circus Flora with co-founder Sacha Pavlata,  equestrienne/elephant trainer extraordinaire, Anouk, and the support of the his sister and her husband, Sheila and Sam Jewell. Circus Flora officially opened at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina in 1986 and has presented 25 different shows from the Kennedy Center in Washington DC to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in Arizona.  St. Louis is Circus Flora’s home. David’s partnerships with composer Miriam Cutler, musical director and composer Janie Del’Arte, and theatrical director Cecil MacKinnon were key in fulfilling David’s goal “to create a truly American Classical Circus, with a narrative that engages audience members personally and emotionally.”

In Erik Jaeger’s tribute, he talked about how the art of the circus was more important to David than how much candy floss he sold. David cared about the quality of the artists who performed at Circus Flora and he cared about them as people. The show always had truly great acts and more than one performer ended up living on his and Laura’s farm for extended periods of time. The performers felt how David’s long time friend and colleague, Tino Wallenda, phrased it in a speech honoring David this past January. “ I’m proud to have been able to serve you, and to serve Circus Flora.””

In 2008, Ivor David Balding received the Excellence in the Arts award from the Arts & Education Council of St. Louis for his lifetime dedication to the arts. In his acceptance speech he said “We must remember to cherish and embrace rituals which engage our hearts and our souls. We need something from each other that we cannot get from a computer screen.” His wife, Laura, thought that sentiment of David’s important enough to put on the back of his funeral cards. David chose the ritual of the circus and  Circus Flora absolutely touched people’s hearts and souls.

I had the honor and privilege of working with David Balding and on Circus Flora since he founded this jewel of a show twenty-eight years ago. A few months before that first Spoleto engagement, David saw my Hentoff & Hoyer Double Trapeze act and offered us a contract. It was the beginning of a relationship that changed my life. I am the only person who is fortunate enough to be both a founding member of Big Apple Circus and Circus Flora. In both cases, I felt the shows brought back the joy and sense of wonder that circus is meant to evoke. “Circus as it ought to be,” in the words of my teacher and first aerial partner, Warren Bacon, who was David’s technical consultant for Circus Flora.

Long time circus partner Sacha Pavlata described David as “magnanimous and magnificent…a tremendous visionary, a champion and friend to us all. His love and circus vision is what made ours possible.”  I know it was David who was behind providing funding for the St. Louis Arches to be part of Flora from the very first and even up to this year. Sacha Pavlata thinks there were “many more beautiful ideas funded out of his and Flora the elephant’s own trunks…er pockets.”

Not only did David create Circus Flora, he was the person who asked me to start teaching in St. Louis and to form the St. Louis Arches. So, in a very real way, Circus Harmony would not be here if it were not for David. I believe that it’s not the life you make for yourself, it’s the life that your living makes for others that matters most.   As I was writing this article, I learned that the cover of this edition of Spectacle magazine was going to feature two St. Louis Arches alumni who just performed in the 2014 graduation show for Ecole Nationale de Cirque and, at the moment,  are performing in France. They are not the only Arches who have gone on in the circus world.  By starting a traditional circus, David Balding helped develop the future of the circus. David’s vision of a traditional one-ring circus with animals, great acts and a true feeling of family, both in the ring and on the back lot of the tent, made Circus Flora the best circus in America to see and be a part of.  It had a profound impact not just on the thousands of people who came to watch the show but on the artists—very much including all of the St. Louis Arches—who got to perform there.  I often say my job at Circus Harmony is that I get to be like Peter Pan and sprinkle the magic fairy dust on children so they can fly. The magic dust is sawdust and you could find it in Circus Flora’s ring, thanks to Ivor David Balding.

 

David and Jessica Hentoff

David and Jessica Hentoff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read more about David and his life from:

NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/theater/david-balding-producer-who-adopted-an-elephant-dies-at-75.html?_r=0

NPR:

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/19/313996706/for-a-showman-larger-than-life-an-even-bigger-best-friend

St. Louis Public Radio:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/david-balding-founder-circus-flora-lived-life-under-big-top

St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/ivor-david-balding-circus-flora-founder-dies-at/article_59fa1e85-3df7-559e-89e1-8ef517d7862c.html

Circus Flora:

http://www.circusflora.org/people/bio/ivor_david_balding/

Circus Harmony:

http://www.circusday.org/circus-harmony-mourns-the-passing-of-david-balding/

David, Flora and Jessica in the sketch Café Flora

David, Flora and Jessica in the sketch Café Flora

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something New This Way Comes

Circus Center Tumbles into Ovid’s Epic Poem

Under the Direction of Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva

 by Judy Finelli

This is certainly an age of experimentation in the world of circus. Circus is being combined with a plethora of performance traditions and ideas – everything from steam punk to burlesque. Circus Center has done its share of experimentation over the years. With Executive Director Barry Kendall (who has a theater background) it seems fitting that Circus Center should partner with Dr. Kathryn Syssoyeva who has explored the traditions of combining circus with theater thoroughly. She is a specialist in the biomechanics of the legendary Russian theatrical director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and influenced by her study of other relevant theatricalist explorations, including the work of Bertolt Brecht and Carl Weber, of the Russian directors Evgeny Vakhtangov and Yuri Liubimov (The Taganka), of the French theatricalists Jacques Copeau and Michel Saint-Denis, of the contemporary American director Lee Breuer (Mabou Mines), to name a few.For her collaboration with Circus Center, she chose excerpts from Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses. Those mythological stories will serve as a springboard into the fabric of the circus acts. She is calling this project “Cabaret Metamorphoses – Tales from Arachne’s Web” – a circus-theater-cabaret devised by members of Circus Center along with Ms. Syssoyeva, aided and abetted by choreographer Janette Fertig and composer Sheng  Ge.

Kathryn Syssoyeva

Kathryn Syssoyeva

For Ms. Syssoyeva “devising” here means something very specific. Devising is arrived at through improvisation in which the performers connect deeply with the material – beyond technique, skill sets and training to a nonverbal state of being. This is achieved by maintaining eye contact between artists, compelling one’s partner to action or movement – in other words daring to leap into unknown territory. For Kathryn, circus artists can be liberated from the conventions of the circus act – for example from having to point their toes if that would be false with regard to the truth of the script.

The artists are going for something deeper here;  they are breaking through their own technique and limitations in order to arrive at the deeper truth that lies beneath the words in the poems and beneath the circus movements allowing both to merge and to blend in order to create something altogether new, rare and unique: handmade, creative.

My old acrobatics teacher, Joe Price (who is mentioned in Bob Fosse’s autobiography as helping him learn a back somersault for the film “Kiss Me Kate”) used to say “the new old is new and the new is old.” Many Americans probably think that the new circus was invented around 1970 – however there were experiments in the early part of the 20th century in other countries that resemble the spirit and sensibility of the new circus movement. One of the most notable was in Russia from 1905 to 1938. Meyerhold (1878 – 1940) was central to the development of this new combination of circus and theater. He was also responsible for a new method of physically-based theatre training, a key component of which is a set of exercises called the “biomechanics.” His resulting productions of plays by Mayakovsky and Gogol produced exciting, physically dynamic theater, bordering on circus yet still text-based. Meyerhold believed that biomechanically-based movement could cause his actors to feel specific emotions. Thus by making these specific movements, they would feel what was required in the scene. This was a particularly compelling experiment – at once the opposite and the continuation of the explorations of Stanislavsky. It was nothing short of revolutionary.

Kathryn, who is also influenced by the contemporary Russian avant-garde (including directors Lev Dodin, Mikhail Levitan and Kama Ginkas), described one show I would have loved to have seen. It was a production of Chekhov’s “Unfinished Play” (“Platonov”) by the Maly Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. The actors at the Maly trained in the theatre studio Lev Dodin at the Saint Petersburg Theatre Academy, where among other subjects they learn high-level acrobatics. On the stage of Dodin’s “Platonov” is a working river with a house on stilts rising above that river. The actors sing, play instruments, dance, tumble, and a few even swim, dive, embrace and struggle in the river.

After one of her rehearsals I had the opportunity to speak to Ms. Syssoyeva and her choreographer Janette Fertig. Janette described to me how she was saved from a more “acceptable” profession by her surprising discovery of the world of aerial dance. After studying aerial technique, she is now the director of the Aerial Apparatus Dance Theater of Portland, Maine. I was struck by her sensitivity to the movements of the artists on aerial silk that I watched her display.

Janette Fertig

Janette Fertig

I learned that for Kathryn the story is vital to the piece: that and the unique movement qualities of the biomechanics of Meyerhold. She would rather have circus artists who do not rigidly adhere to their technique. She felt it was easier to work with circus artists who are skilled and yet not at the highest technical level. Such artists are more able to let go and be free enough to experiment in this way. I say “easier” advisedly because I don’t consider mixing character, text and story simple. But with Ms. Syssoyeva’s expertise, passion and experience I would say that these students are in excellent hands. Incidentally her passion is a result of her incorporating these specialized movements into the cells of her body in such a way that I think she can inspire others to follow her lead.

As the old saying goes: “fools rush in where wise men fear to tread.” But when wise fools rush in, one can expect something transformational.

The rehearsal I saw was with Leo Harris as Pygmalion, Ariyana La Fey as Pygmalion’s Statue, Sylvie Bryant as Philomela, and Jane Wong as Arachne. There are about a dozen or more stories from Ovid’s poem, woven from Arachne’s spider web as the subtitle suggests. In addition there will be original live music, instrumentals and vocals performed by the company, surprise special-effects and, of course, the unexpected.

Audiences can see the fireworks on July 19 and 20  at Circus Center, 755 Frederick St. (across from Kezar Stadium), Main Gym, San Francisco.

 

Photos by Gary Thomsen