Circus Flora's "The Pawn" Makes All the Right Moves

Jun 2, 2014 at 10:30 am
A kiss from a camel ensures victory for the red team. - All photos by Allison Babka
All photos by Allison Babka
A kiss from a camel ensures victory for the red team.

If Circus Flora cofounder Ivor David Balding were here to see the 28th anniversary edition of his beloved event, he'd be well within his rights to shout, "Checkmate!"

With The Pawn, Circus Flora's story revolving around a theatrical chess match between two teams of anthropomorphic pieces, this year's one-ring circus continues the long-running production's tradition of dramatic tension and gasp-inducing stunts. Balding, who profoundly affected the international circus and theater scenes and who passed away May 9 in Weldon Spring, wrote the foreword in the event's program booklet, focusing on the similarities and connections between the circus and chess.

Indeed, we were struck by how easily circus antics fit into a larger story about the intellect behind a game of chess. Below, find six of our favorite Circus Flora lessons we'll keep in mind the next time we sit down to play the Game of Kings.

1. Pregame is as essential as the chess match itself.

If you're going to battle a formidable opponent, you've got to get into the right frame of mind, and the activities outside Circus Flora's big top certainly prepare you for what awaits. A magician mesmerizes the arriving audience with tricks while an ornate calliope wagon pumps out familiar circus notes. Animal lovers can ride or have photos taken atop decked-out camels, and game masters can play chess on a life-sized board.

2. The queens are the most important pieces on the board.

At the beginning of the show Yo-Yo the Narrator claims, "The king is beautiful and can do almost nothing. The queen has the power," and the gold-clad clown turns out to be right. Denied a king at first, the Green Queen chooses a suitor from the audience, wiggles out of her formal dress to reveal comfortable dance shorts, and dazzles the inevitable king by balancing on his hands and juggling up to five cylinders with her feet. The Red Queen is no less talented, wearing a large crown as she defies gravity while performing stunts on the high wire with her world-renowned family, the Flying Wallendas. Plus, like the narrator says, the queens may move anywhere they like on the chessboard.

The St. Louis Arches show off their balance and bravery.
The St. Louis Arches show off their balance and bravery.

3. The right music increases the game's drama.

A good soundtrack makes everything better, including chess. Resident composer Miriam Cutler and musical director Janine Del'Arte have developed orchestration that eschews the game's typical silence and instead brings every move to life. The Circus Flora Band watches the action from a tower high above the chessboard, accenting the heavy swing of a kettle bell or the scary lean of an off-balance, sixteen-block pillar with expert string plucks, flute trills and cymbal crashes.

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