The Panfilov Circus Family

Reflection: In Circus Flora, animals and Handyman bring factions together 

  MAY 31, 2015 

The Show Goes On In Fine Form At Circus Flora

Andriy Bilobrov and one of his Jack Russell terriers
Credit Steve Truesdell

There is a big-man-size hole in the heart of St. Louis’ Circus Flora, a vacancy left by the death of Ivor David Balding last month at 75. Balding was the founder, the sustenance and the animating spirit of the company. But this breach is masked by the magical, ephemeral costumery of the circus, and apparently, with the greatest of ease, the show indeed is going on.

The 2014 installment of Circus Flora – its 28th annual production since its founding in 1986 – is built loosely around a story, as has been the case with previous productions. This year, partly in acknowledgement of St. Louis becoming an international center of chess, the show is called “The Pawn.” It offers basic information about the game: for example, the moves assigned to the chess pieces, including the potential importance of the lowly pawn; the central dominance of woman and the relative impotence of male in the final moves of the intellectually, strategically and mathematically challenging game.

Credit Circus Flora

Cecil MacKinnon, theater director and an iconic presence as Yo-Yo the Narrator in Circus Flora performances, propels the story forward. Acts are named for various squares on the chessboard, and if you pay close attention you’ll get the significance of all this.

But in fact, you needn’t get it you don’t want to. That is because flying around with what appears to be greatest of ease is the lickety-split, seamless presentation of the various acts that appear before you in the ring of enchantment. They include:

A multi-talented comic, Adam Kuchler.

An acrobatic bareback equestrian act of dizzying speed, complexity and finesse demonstrated both by steed and the jockey, the exotic S. Caleb Carinci-Asch.

Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan. She presents her trapeze act for the first time this year. Kuciejczyk-Kernan, now grown, appeared first with the show in 2006 when she was 13. She will swing into the realm of circus royalty when she marries Alex Wallenda this summer.

A Finnish act, Duo Kate and Pasi (Katerina Repponen and Pasi Nousiainen). It makes its American debut with the circus this year. The program notes their act defies categorization, including, as it does, lifting, hand balancing and juggling – and no small measure of elegance.

Andriy Bilobrov, and his wife, Mayya Panfilova, only bring the dogs into the big tent.
Credit Steve Truesdell

Andriy Bilobrov, and his wife, Mayya Panfilova. These veteran circus performers have worked not only for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey but also for numerous circuses in Russia, Ukraine and China. Bilobrov has tamed five Jack Russell terriers and convinced them to present the public with amazing accomplishments that go far beyond, far, far beyond their usual vocations, which include sofa destruction. Even more amazing, Mayya Panfilova has managed to train house cats to perform acts of derring-do. Although the kitties are not in the show, they appear in special performances for smaller audiences. Panfilova’s strategy: “I let the cats train me!”

Mikhail Palatnik accompanied me to the back lot of the circus last week. He is a member of the faculty of the Department of International and Area Studies at Washington University – and a great fan of Circus Flora. His fluent and animated translations allowed me to interview Bilobrov and Panfilova. Bilobrov is Russian; Panfilova is from Ukraine. They were reluctant to discuss the political situations in their native lands, so we moved to another situation involving traditional animosities, that is dogs and cats.

The couple has been in the United States for nine years. Bilobrov’s troupe of Jack Russells is a comedy on 20 tiny feet, and Bilobrov’s integration of these puckish pooches into circus life and center ring status is a delight to watch. Jack Russells come in a variety of shapes and coats and colors. The Jack Russell terrier is not a pure breed because the dogs cannot be bred to type. They were bred to a size, within a certain small range, allowing to them pursue quarry such as foxes into underground burrows.

The cats train the trainer.
Credit Steve Truesdell

The couple added house cats a few years ago. The cat component is reserved for groups smaller than a big-top full of people. Although this is speculative on my part, the reason (as any cat fancier knows) may be that cats spook easily, and the rambunctiousness of a circus audience just might result in the feline artists making a hasty exit into parts unknown.

In any event, Bilobrov and Panfilova are eloquent ambassadors of circuses and circus life. Both are veterans of the Moscow State Circus, a major artistic enterprise in Russia, housed in 40 permanent buildings in the capital. They noted that in Europe, the circus is given much greater respect and prestige than in the U.S., where – no matter how complex and serious a particular circus may be in terms of philosophy – the art form remains stuck as simply entertainment, rather than a nuanced and profound expression of ideas and of the human condition. They feel at home personally and professionally with Circus Flora.

The couple embraces classical values in their performances, eschewing foolishness, even where Jack Russell terriers and house cats are involved, and embracing dignified demeanors and expressions of respect and affection for their feline and canine colleagues. “It is a classical training of animals” and not clownish stuff.


York PA Fair show proves it - you CAN train cats

MOLLIE DURKIN / The York Dispatch
505-5432 / @ydhealth

Updated:   09/13/2013 12:22:02 PM EDT

Who says you can't train a housecat?

Clearly not the Panfilov Circus Family, which brought its troupe of performing cats to the York Fair this year.

Under the direction and smile of trainer Mayya Panfilova, the cats walk - some upside down - across a suspended tightrope, roll across two ropes on a plush ball and climb up a pole several feet in the air before plunging back down.

The act is part of the free Royal Hanneford Circus held at Memorial Hall each day of the fair, with five shows daily and four shows on Saturdays.

Trained cats? Although many cat owners might suggest that it's near impossible to train felines, it can clearly be done. Just ask Panfilova's husband, Andriy Bilobrov.

"It's a lot of patience,

Miss Mayya Panfilova and her clowder of cats shows York Fair fans cats can be trained. (Bil Bowden photo)
it's a lot of time, and it's a lot of practice," he said. "Of most things, it's patience - and love. We love our pets."

The duo begins to train its cats at two months, but it's fun for them, Bilobrov said.

"Just like play - it's not like exercise," he said.

Certain cats are more adept at certain things - some are better at jumping, some are better at the upside-down stunts, he said. And the act uses two "teams" of cats to give each cat the rest he or she needs.

The team was last at the York Fair in 2009 and is glad to be back, Bilobrov said, noting the couple loves the fall weather in Pennsylvania.

"We're very happy when we get offered to come here," he said.

The husband and wife, both 40, came to the United States from Russia about eight years ago and have been in the circus business for around 15 years, Bilobrov said.

They have 12 cats, which even have their own special room in the family's home in Atlanta, he said.

"It's (a) lovely animal," he said. "It's like my family."

The self-described circus family has been traveling with Hanneford for two years, he said. Its daughter, Alisa Panfilova, 22, is even a professional hula hooper.

"It's (the) best thing. it's a very fun time," he said.

Cute and clever: After watching how the cats literally and willingly jumped through hoops for their owners, spectator Jennifer Rosenberry, 22, of York City said she couldn't train her own pets like that.

"Not my cats," she said. "I think cats are harder to train - way harder than dogs."

Rosenberry also correctly imagined that it would take a lot of time and patience to do so.

"I think it would take more treats. They must've had to start them when they were little," she said.

Rosenberry's sister Rebecca, 19, of Lewisberry also liked the show, although she said she's more of a dog person. The sisters even remarked how that one of the cats, a particularly stoic gray one, resembles the Internet-famous "Grumpy Cat."

"The cats were so cute," Rebecca said.

-Reach Mollie Durkin at

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