FEATURE — Winter 2009

(Photo: Whitney Curtis)

His Life Is a Circus

Alumnus Joel Emery, executive director of Circus Flora, helps bring big joy to families near and far.

by Terri Nappier

“There is work that is work, and there is play that is play; there is play that is work, and work that is play. And in only one of these lies happiness.”—Gelett Burgess

Joel Emery found author Burgess’ secret to happiness when he took the reins of Circus Flora nearly three years ago. As executive director of St. Louis’ resident circus, Emery, AB ’97, juggles many acts. He finds great pleasure sharing Circus Flora’s magic with as many people as possible and helping preserve the historical, cultural practices of the circus.

Circus Flora is one of only three resident professional circuses in the country. Much to Emery’s delight, the burgeoning circus performed for its largest number of attendees in its 23-year history in June 2009. Some 23,000 people packed the Big Top tent during the 2½-week run. For each show, nearly 1,150 beheld trapeze artists, high-wire acts, acrobats, animals performing tricks, clowns, a hula-hoop artist, and more.

With its single sawdust ring, Circus Flora blends old-world traditions with contemporary production techniques. Every year, the circus performs around a theme. Recently audiences witnessed “Medrano”—a look at the mystery and intrigue of the French circus in the late 1880s. In 2008, Circus Flora brought Robin Hood and his Merry Men back to life in “Sherwood Forest.”

Sasha Alexandre Nevidonski, an equestrian-aerial-ballet artist, and his American Saddlebred, Mammut, are one of the finest human-animal acts of the circus. (Photo: Dan Donovan)

“We integrate contemporary production practices, with our lighting and sound and theater techniques,” says Emery, who studied cultural anthropology and political economy at the University. “At the same time, we keep one foot planted firmly in the past. We have the sawdust ring, which is traditional, and we have animals in the show, because the circus actually originated with horses.”

One of Circus Flora’s finest horses is Mammut, a 13-year-old American Saddlebred, ridden by Sasha Nevidonski, an equestrian-aerial-ballet artist (at right). Other animals include dogs both large and small, a miniature donkey, an African pygmy goat, a paint pony, and a Romany rooster.

Prior to 2000, the show featured Flora, an African elephant for whom the circus is named. One of the founders, Ivor David Balding, adopted Flora in 1984 after poachers killed her mother. She now lives at an animal sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. According to Emery, Circus Flora—for practical and philosophical reasons—will continue to feature only domestic animals.

The human performers often come from multi-generational circus families. “We have fifth-, sixth-, seventh-generation circus performers,” Emery says. “We have the Flying Wallendas high-wire act, for example. Last year, they had their eighth generation, Little Ysabella, walk on the wire in our circus.”

Emery values the family environment. “It’s in the back lot; it’s in the audience; it’s part of the whole Circus Flora experience,” he says.

Circus Flora’s theater director, Cecil MacKinnon, aka “Yo-Yo the Clown,” narrates each show. (Photo: Dan Donovan)

Emery appreciates the intimacy of the circus as well. No one sits farther than 40 feet from the ring, so the audience watches human and animal feats of grace and agility up close. “We offer no computer-generated special effects here; this is real performance,” he says. “Occasionally a safety harness appears, although the Flying Wallendas don’t use a harness or a net. They are up there, and if something were to go wrong, something would.”

Emery conducts his own tasks, however, with feet planted firmly on the ground. He collaborates with two other full-time employees—the artistic director, Balding, and the development director, Kate Poss—on best marketing practices. (Together, they work with 60 seasonal employees: artists, crew, technical staff, etc.) Emery brings to the task several years’ experience as vice president of operations for a title insurance company and in development for nonprofits—Support Dogs, Inc., and Boys and Girls Town of Missouri.

“At Circus Flora, I manage the business functions of the organization, as well as fundraising and development,” Emery says. “Yet there is an artistic component as well.”

One big challenge Emery faces is growing the nonprofit’s contributor base, which is especially hard in the current down economy.

Operating what is basically a once-a-year event presents him with another complexity. When he worked in the title insurance industry, Emery says, monthly, quarterly, and annual cycles emerged. After launching a sales initiative, he could assess results and make changes fairly quickly. With the circus performing in St. Louis annually, if he makes a change, he cannot assess, adapt, or recover for another year.

Artist Alesya Gulevich dazzled circus-goers with her high-powered hula-hoop act. She also dazzled her way into the Guinness Book of World Records by performing with the most hula hoops at one time—107 hoops for five rotations—on Monday, June 15, 2009. (Photo: Dan Donovan)

The circus allows for innovation, though. Last summer, Emery added a “barbecue with the performers” on the second Sunday between the matinee and evening performance, which had low turnout in 2008.

“The barbecue sold too well,” Emery says jokingly. “We had several hundred people there and not enough tables and chairs. Fortunately, because service was a little slow, tables turned over. We sold a lot more tickets for the second show as a result.”

A peanut-free preview and Friday afternoon matinees at a discounted price were other 2009 additions. “We worried about getting people to the Friday matinees at all, and both shows sold out.”

Emery says Circus Flora welcomes opportunities to partner with area organizations: with businesses on corporate outings and with other nonprofits on innovative fundraising events. “We offer a 25-percent nonprofit discount,” he says. “Last year, we partnered with churches and a children’s day camp that sold tickets at full price. Circus Flora then gave back about 25 percent to each organization.”

The circus also reaches out to the community and builds brand recognition through summer service programs. “Share the Circus” gives tickets to families from underserved communities to encourage family bonding. “Community Circus Camps” allow underserved children to learn circus skills, trust, and teamwork, all under the Big Top. “Tumbling and Teamwork” partners a Circus Flora performer with children from an area nonprofit, whereby students receive weeks of acrobatic lessons culminating in a performance during the circus’ summer run. And the “Ianna Spirit Riders” preserve the oldest circus art form of human-and-horse exhibition.

“We try to create more than the annual circus that is visual and public,” Emery says. “Connecting to the community is vital.”

Connecting to a permanent locale has been central to the circus’s growth as well. Thanks to the efforts of Vince Shoemehl, Jr. and others in 2001, Grand Center is now Circus Flora’s home. Before 2001, Circus Flora roved various St. Louis parks and performed at different times of the year. Now the Big Top goes up every June behind Powell Symphony Hall.

“We’ve had between 5 and 10 percent increases in attendance every year since then,” Emery says.

Emery stresses, however, that the nature of the circus is to move. Over the years, Circus Flora has performed at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; it spent five summers performing on Nantucket Island. The Nantucket Atheneum lost funding in 2009, so Emery is seeking other touring opportunities.

“The reasons to tour are multiple,” he says. “Obviously one is financial, but another is to provide our artists with more work,” leading ultimately to more magical live performances for families.

Terri Nappier is editor of this magazine.

For more information, visit: http://www.circusflora.org