Interview with Jesse AlFord: AYCO Board President

By Carleigh Saberton

Jesse Alford is the Board president of AYCO, instructor at Suspend, lighting designer for many different events including Big Apple Circus, Circus Flora and Louisville Ballet and also the head coach at My Nose Turns Red Youth Circus. 

Jesse started circus at 6 years old at the Great Y Circus in Redlands, California and continued all the way through high school. He started coaching at about 16 and still coaches today! Jesse’s favorite circus discipline is unicycle and his favorite skills are any partner acrobatic work on a unicycle. “I think adding a second person to a unicycle just serves to exponentially highlight the skill that unicycle takes and opens up so many creative pathways to new tricks.” One of his favorite circus disciplines outside of his wide range of skills is Russian Bar! “Russian Bar exemplifies so many critical elements of circus and is just wildly impressive.” 

I’ve gotten to have Jesse as my coach since I started unicycling 5 years ago! He coaches us mostly in unicycle, juggling and partner acro but he also teaches us and works with us on other important skills like teamwork, act development and how to coach. Huge thanks to Jesse for the interview!

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My favorite picture! We have no idea what we were talking about before our performance but pictures like this show that Jesse is always there to motivate us!

How did you get involved with AYCO?

I attended my first AYCO festival in 2005, in San Francisco. It was a world-opening experience for me. Logically, I knew that there were kids all over the country doing circus but getting a chance to meet them in person (and to do circus with them), kind of exploded my understanding of what the circus community was. 

In 2008, I took a semester off of college, to do as much circus as possible. My main goal was really to figure out if I wanted to continue to pursue circus, and if so, in what capacity. One of the many things I did in that time was to intern for AYCO, basically helping David Hunt (the Board Chair at the time) put on the 2008 Educators Conference. Pretty quickly I was then the Programming Director for the 2009 AYCO Festival, and then joined the Board of Directors in 2010. 

What circus-y things have you been doing in quarantine?

I’ve been mainly trying to keep up with my own fitness in ways that I don’t always have time for. So more running and weight training, and less unicycling. But I’ve been watching a lot of fun circus and am enjoying the evolution of livestream variety entertainment.  

What were some of your favorite quarantraining tricks of the day you did on Instagram?

 Ha! Yes, I did 50 days in a row of silly #quarantraining tricks on my Instagram stories. The goal was to keep them appropriately dumb and silly, and yet be challenging enough to be impressive. My favorite by far was the sandwich flip, where I had all the ingredients of a sandwich laid out on a tray, and then flipped them up in the air and caught them all on the tray as an assembled sandwich. I’m currently taking a break from those, but I’m sure they’ll reappear soon. 

How do you see circus in the future after all of this clears up? Do you think it will go back to normal or will it be different? 

This is a big question! I think it will be a very long time before we get back to “normal.” We will definitely see a modification of circus as we know it, and it will certainly affect the skills and disciplines that we train. We are all separated from our apparatus, coach, gym, or some other component, and those things will not all come back at the same time. For example, we might all be able to go back to our circus gyms well before it’s safe to have a spotter close enough to be teaching you a new skill on trapeze. I hope that the silver lining of this situation is that we all find (or invent) a new skill that we had otherwise overlooked. It’s incredibly valuable in circus to be multidisciplinary, and maybe this is the kick in the pants we all need to finally get good at diabolo, or rola bola, or any number of other skills. 

Circus overall will certainly survive, and this experience will only give us more stories to tell, reasons to tell them, and a chance to stop and think about what we love about circus, and why we want circus as a part of our lives. 

Do you have any advice for circusers out there struggling in quarantine? 

It’s important to take care of yourself as a human first. It is very easy to focus too much energy on the things we feel we are losing right now, such as your pull-ups, splits, progress with a juggling or acro partner, and so many other examples. Your pull-ups will come back, you can regain your splits, and your juggling and acro partners will still be there, ready as ever. 

So use this time to build and maintain the things you can, and the things that keep you happy and healthy. Go for a bike ride, do some yoga, walk the dog, and don’t worry about how those things relate to your circus. Do the things that keep you happy and healthy. I know for many of us, circus was that outlet for physical health and happiness, so it may mean that you’re trying something different, such as trying to skateboard for the first time in 20 years, and making a fool of yourself (yep, that’s me), and that’s okay. 

It’s a hard time for everyone, so make sure that you’re staying in touch with your circus family. Go to the zoom classes, because your friends want to see you! Send each other snapchats about how you’re getting better at skateboarding, but you’re still hilariously bad. And get your quarantined family in on the circus! Teach someone how to juggle and teach someone else how to do a headstand. Our circus community is not something that we need to lose during quarantine. The pull-ups may be missing at the moment, but we still have each other, and we have so many different ways to be in touch. 

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