Circus stars see ordinary day as exotic

March 21, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus stars Vivien Larible and Dessi Espana are young European beauties with regal carriage and self-assurance that comes from defying death before thousands of people around the world.

"You either have class and charisma or you don't have it," says Ms. Larible. "You can buy nice clothes, but you can't buy that."

But catch a glimpse of their palms and you'll see the marks of construction workers, farm hands and acrobats: hard callouses, raised and yellow.

Ms. Larible, 26, earned her stripes on the trapeze. Ms. Espana, 22, made the Guinness Book of World Records two years ago by twirling 97 hoops around her torso at the same time. In 1992, before a circus audience of 10,000 at the Houston Astrodome, she was married to Ivan Espana of "The Incredible Espanas."

Raised in circus families that go back generations, the women are best friends in an exotic, three-ring world of constant travel and long days.

But when they aren't performing in the Greatest Show on Earth -- Ms. Larible high on a trapeze bar, juggling a ball with her feet while perched on her head; Ms. Espana braving speeding dirt bikes in the "Globe of Death" -- they like to go shopping.

If you're on foot in downtown Baltimore, that means Harborplace and the Gallery.

The other day, after a morning performance at the Baltimore Arena, they set out in search of a birthday present for little Lorenzo del Moral, a youngster who performs with his mother in a horse act.

Approaching the green-roofed pavilions of Harborplace, Ms. Larible asks: "Paris is known for fashion and perfume. What is Baltimore known for?"

The short answer: crabs.

But since the big jimmies that bring honor and fame to the Jewel on the Patapsco won't be running for a few months, the circus women decide to eat Chinese.

Sitting down at the Bamboo House, Ms. Espana gestures out the plate glass window to the Constellation and the National Aquarium and says: "We know this area from being here before. This area right here is what we like."

"You go where it's the easiest," says Ms. Larible.

They speak to each other in English, which they call the universal circus language.

Ms. Larible's mother, Lucina, is a retired equestrian acrobat traveling with her husband and children. At home on the train, she favors fresh seafood cooked the Italian way.

When the circus rolled into town a week ago, the family visited Lexington Market for fresh fish, squid and sea scallops.

At the Bamboo House, Ms. Espana and Ms. Larible order spicy chicken dishes and Ms. Espana uses a napkin to soak the grease off the fried noodles.

She explains: "It's good to eat healthy, even if you're not a performer."

After lunch, they cross Pratt Street to the Gallery to find something nice for young Lorenzo, who winds up with a double-bell Mickey Mouse "Fantasia" alarm clock from the Disney Store.

Along the way, they look in shop windows, admire clothes and jewelry and Betty Boop souvenirs and, as they stroll, describe a life that includes an off-stage priest that travels with the troupe.

At home aboard the circus train, they enjoy gourmet coffee, big top movies like "Trapeze" starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and private time with their families, much of it spent sewing costumes and doing chores.

"We have the same childhood," says the Bulgarian-born Ms. Espana. "You grow up watching your parents perform and you want to be what they are.

"Other kids play with Barbies or trucks, but a circus kid grows up putting on make-up and cracking whips, pretending to be the tiger trainer," she says. "You can't wait for that spotlight to hit you. We were adults at age 7."

While the circus employs hundreds of people from many countries and different faiths, "We all believe in the same God to look out for us when we go to work," Ms. Larible says.

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