- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

Too often “multiculturalism” has been so politicized that it excludes rather than uniting our heterogeneous nation. But in St. Louis, in keeping with the spirit of the holidays, the various troupes of the Circus Day Foundation are, as they claim, “helping people defy gravity, soar with confidence, and leap over social barriers.”

In addition to its regular performances and its school at the City Museum in St. Louis, the Foundation (three years ago in Circus Salaam Shalom) partnered children from the black Muslim Clara MuhammedSchool and Jewish Central Reform Congregation in resoundingly successful shows. Said one of the black youngsters, “It was the first time I’d seen a Jewish kid.” For the last two years, the foundation has also presented Far East Meets Midwest, with performers from the St. Louis Modern Chinese School, Japanese Top Spinning Master Hiroshi Tada, St. Louis Osuwa Taiko Drummers and Aikido martial-arts practitioners.

Also part of the foundation’s regular cast is the Fabulous Flying St. Louis Arches, an acrobatic company, from the city’s public, private, parochial and homeschools.

Meanwhile, Circus Salaam Shalom has developed into the Patchwork Circus, whose performers include Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Caucasian, Hispanic, Afro-American, Chinese, urban and suburban children. Among the Circus Day Foundation’s new projects is Casa Volando Circus, composed of homeschoolers; and Circus Sublime, which specializes in juggling and other challenging gravity-defying arts.

In the interest of full and proud disclosure, the artistic and executive director of Circus Day Foundation is my daughter, Jessica Hentoff. She used to be a professional clown, fire-eater, juggler, and, much to my foreboding, a trapeze artist. But now that she has three children, Jessica mostly focuses on the foundation and teaching in schools, community centers, a juvenile detention center and circus camps.

Jessica’s credo is: “I believe that, in today’s society, it is necessary to learn, from a young age, that race, religion, socioeconomic standing and other labels that describe us, do not define us. No matter who we are and where we are from, we can find a common place, where our individual boundaries touch, overlap or better yet disappear in the face of what connects us.”

As her various troupes reveal, she emphasizes: “When we say, ‘We teach the art of life through circus education,’ we really mean it. Circus and life are both about juggling your responsibilities and balancing your priorities. They are about cooperation and communication. They are about what we do, rather than who we are.” Among her performers: “Precious Paulina, born in Poland with spina bifida, now spins through the air on Spanish web rope; and Marvelous Mei Ling, who only has a thumb and pinky on one hand but still manages to perform on the aerial lyra trapeze.” The Circus Day Foundation’s newest project is Circus Harmony: “a confluence of tumbling, juggling, balancing, aerial artistry and clowning performed by young people and set to a medley of melodies played by different musicians from various cultures just as our circus acts are performed by children from different backgrounds.” Many years ago, when I was playing clarinet in a high-school band, I enjoyed the sprightly marches, gallops and waltzes of the classic circus bands that came to Boston with the Ringling Bros. and other troupes. But never before have I heard a circus band with such a kaleidoscope of colors and rhythms as the Circus Harmony project with its different musical influences.

Their music can now be heard not only live in St. Louis but also on a CD, “Circus Harmony/First Movement” (for more information, go to www.circusharmony.org).

Included are the Persian Latin jazz of Farshid Soltanshahi; the St. Louis Osuwa Taiko Drummers, with roots in the ancient art of Japanese drumming; and Sandy Weltman and the Hebrew Hillbillies, fusing the Jewish gypsy jazz of klezmer music with bluegrass. Also involved is the Circus Day Foundation’s own traditional St. Louis Community Circus Band; and the luminous, lyrical Zheng (Chinese harp) of Xiaoyu Yan. (One of the songs on the CD, “Jessica’s Day,” was written by my friend, Quincy Jones, for Jessica when she was a child.) The nation is now in one of the more rancorous divisions in our history, and while these harmonious circus sounds may not reach Congress or Michael Moore, they do prove that among these children, individual boundaries can and do disappear.

When Jessica was on the road as a performer, she ended her letters to me in delight that “Every Day Is A Circus Day!” She has made that come true for a rainbow of St. Louis children.

But why stop there? The torch can be taken in other towns and cities.

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