Author: aycohupsquad

The Intersections Between Circus and Other Art Forms

By Maia Castro-Santos

Art is typically divided into different categories and mediums, but often the skills from one art form overlap with others. Circus is no exception. Experience in other artistic mediums will help circus performers of all levels and ages.  

Music:

Music and circus have always gone hand in hand. Songs enhance the energy and tone of an act and are much more than just a backing track. How well the choreography works with the music can make the difference between a mediocre act and one that receives a standing ovation. A circus act that is well timed with the crescendos and percussive drops of the music will always have a greater lasting impact on the audience. Circus artists with a musical background are likely able to identify and describe more subtle musical cues and timing when working with other artists or a composer. Not to mention, if you write music, you can compose for your own act to get the perfect sound!

Sewing:

Sewing is a ubiquitous and important life skill — one that I do not have. Despite how much I personally dislike sewing, I have come to appreciate its value in the circus community. Sewing skills can save you in the moment if a costume loses a button backstage and needs a quick fix. They can also be extremely useful in the longterm for costume creation and adjustment. Finding the perfect costume for your act is not only a difficult and tedious task, but also an expensive one. You might spend all day looking for costumes (on Amazon, dance wear stores, or independent sellers of circus-specific costumes) and still not find what you’re envisioning. And whatever you CAN find might be way out of your budget. Any freelance artist knows that independence and autonomy are just as important as cooperation and community. While it is great to perform with a costumer on hand, that is often not an option. Being proficient in sewing will help any circus performer in the long run.

Visual art:

Art is often divided into two forms: performance art and visual art. But really if you think about it, most performance art is also visual, since the audience is looking at the performer. Experienced visual artists have a better understanding of how to harmonize different colors — which can be useful for making decisions in lighting and costuming for an act. Additionally, an eye for balance and an understanding of graphic design helps with promotional work like making posters to advertise a gig.

Film:

Most circus is performed live in front of an audience: on stage or in the ring. However, with the rapid growth of social media, youtube, and other video sharing platforms, many performance art forms have adapted to be compatible with these services as well. Not to mention that over the past several months — with social distancing regulations in place — most live performances have been out of the question. Combining circus and video is more important now than ever before, and film is certainly a medium with advantages and limitations. On the one hand, a camera can never offer the same energy as a live audience which makes it harder to be engaging and connect with the viewer. Without applause, it can be challenging to maintain pacing and stamina. On the other hand, film can provide unique perspectives and angles of circus acts that are not traditionally seen. Cropping, scaling, and changing the speeds of clips can offer countless creative opportunities not available to live performance. Not to mention, if you mess up a trick, you can just try again.

There are countless other art forms that intersect and overlap with circus, and these are just a few examples. Hopefully this blog post has provided some recognition to artists of all types in the circus community, or maybe it has inspired you to pick up a new artistic hobby. Or maybe it’s had absolutely no impact on you, but you’ve read this far, so I hope that you moderately enjoyed it. Keep training and keep creating!

This is an act I performed and edited for the Circus Smirkus online season premiere at the beginning of the summer. I was very disappointed to not tour this summer, but I appreciated this opportunity to combine my interest for videography with act creation. Music: Tristan Moore

Book Review: Juggling: What It Is and How to Do It by Thom Wall

Book Stack

Pre-order your copy here! (anticipated release date 8/31/20)

Reviewer: Emily Fulton

Rating: AAA+++ I would definitely recommend this book!

Thom Wall’s latest book Juggling: What It Is and How to Do It is definitely a must-read for any aspiring juggler. Beginners and seasoned jugglers alike can all benefit from reading this comprehensive guide to the all-too-much-forgotten art of ball juggling.  

Here are a few different reasons that I think you will become obsessed with this book from the second you turn the first page:

The Why Factor

Whenever I am learning a new skill, I will often be asked to perform some minor change in form.  I often counter this with a “why”.  I know that I will be 10 x more likely to do this change every time if I know what will happen if I don’t.  One of the great things about this book is that it explains “why” you should do something, which is an area I find many similar books often fall short.

The Appendices

Another great feature of this book is the appendices.  They include some great information and really help you dive deeper into certain subjects.  For instance, if you want to learn about all different kinds of juggling balls, just head on over to Appendix C.  This lets you choose when you want to learn more about a specific topic which leads to you thoroughly enjoying your juggling practice.

Circademics

Circademics (circus-academics), a term coined by Jackie Leigh Davis, is the study of circus in development and science.  Thom frequently features studies about juggling in this book, which is great!  He even gives you free access to the short book he wrote all about circademics, called What Scientists Have to Say About Juggling.  This way if you’re really into it you can continue to study the research he briefly touches on in this book.

A Few Extra Things That Make This Book So Special:

Jay Gilligan & Fritz Grobe

Two amazing jugglers and writers, Jay Gilligan & Fritz Grobe, each write a chapter in this book.  Fritz Grobe gives you a few of his inside tips on How to Juggle In Front of an Audience.  While Jay Gilligan teaches you 10 Ways to Make A Trick.  These writers add an extra element that you just can’t find anywhere else!

An In-depth Siteswap Explanation

Siteswap is often one of those things you’ll never really learn as a beginner or hobby juggler.  You might have been taught a few different siteswap patterns and maybe even what the patterns were called.  But chances are you didn’t and won’t learn how these patterns were developed, many using a numerical system that is the foundation of many intricate patterns.  Siteswap is almost definitely not what you heard from your friend who’s brother knew someone who watched a YouTube video from some guy who didn’t really know what he was talking about.  This book explains siteswap in great detail, teaching you the science of siteswap.  

Great Diagrams and Photos

One of my favorite parts of the book is the great charts and photos that really enhance your juggling experience.  There are long-exposure photos, taken with LED juggling balls, that actually illustrate how your juggling balls will travel.  If you’re a mathy person or like numbers, this book has you covered, with number charts that will tell you how and when to throw and catch a certain ball.  But if not, don’t worry!  Thom also included some very simple, easy to understand, diagrams just for you!

The Icing On Top……It’s Not Boring At All!

By now, maybe you’re thinking, “with all this information, isn’t this just a big, boring textbook?”  Well think again!  Thom writes this book like he’s in the room with you, teaching you the ins and outs of juggling.  He’ll give you inside tips on technique and presentation, so it honestly feels like you’re having one of his top-notch private lessons.  It’s really great to have a super-amazing juggling Cirque Du Soleil performer write a book in such a personable, down-to-earth way.

In short, I truly wish I had this book when I was first learning to juggle.  Excellent information is presented in an eye catching, easy going fashion to support you on your journey to ball-juggling mastery.

Reviewer: Rachel Ostrow

Juggling: What It Is and How to Do It is an absolutely spectacular book written by expert jugglers that compiles everything there is to know about juggling technique, history, progressions, performing, and more. It especially focuses on being creative and building a good juggling foundation that can be added on to. I mean three ball tricks, four ball tricks, 5 ball tricks, balancing – this book teaches you the easiest way to do them, what you could be doing wrong, and what you never knew you were doing wrong. It has perfectly selected diagrams for the visual learners, and even mathematics to understand conceptually. I also found it fascinating how many of the tips could also be applied to training and performing for people who are professional circus artists or those who have no prior experience whatsoever. Wall eloquently explains the steps for creating an act, including how to avoid stealing sequences, which can and should be used by every performer. It was so evident that everyone writing, especially Wall, is so passionate and carry such expertise in all aspects of juggling, such that it was a complete pleasure to read.

But the true test, did this book really help with juggling? It totally did! This book is honestly such an amazing source of learning and inspiration that could get anyone excited about juggling, and the tips are so extensive and useful, anyone with a bit of motivation (which this book certainly gives you) can up their juggling skills exponentially!

Pre-order your copy here! (anticipated release date 8/31/20)

Creative Block is the Worst

By Mags Farrell

I feel like Act Creation is one of the most important things about Circus. It’s a way to express yourself through your moves and motions, your music choice, your certain style. And there’s no such thing as a bad act. Everyone expresses themselves in a different way. Putting the moves together in an order that you like, picking music (or no music) to go along with the act, and your movement quality are all creative pieces used for act creation. Now I’d like you to imagine this: You’ve been asked to perform at a show happening in two weeks time, and the person asking would like you to create an act for the show. You’ve agreed, and immediately move into an act creating process to make an act. You start trying to get somewhere. And then… nothing. A block, cutting off all valid sources of creativity outlets. You’re unable to get anything done, and move nowhere with this process. You can stop imagining now. I imagine that felt pretty real for a lot of you right? I know it felt real for me. These moments have different names for different situations. 

Writers block, for example, applies to the creation of a written subject of some sort (I had a major case writing this article.) In situations like Circus, I’d call it a Creative Block. I guess the best way to imagine it is like a huge wall with you on one side, and all your creative ideas on the other side. It’s terrible. If I were to put down a list of all the times this has happened to me in a crucial moment, I don’t think I could. Too many occasions to count. But in a sense, it’s kind of a good thing how many times this has happened to me. Mainly because I’ve had time to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. I’m not here to tell you what doesn’t work though. That’s kind of pointless. If you’d allow me to cut this intro here, I’d love to share what did work for me.

Emotional Creation

I’d imagine emotion is a big part of your life. It’s human nature. And you can use that to your advantage. When you experience this creative block, try to take that emotion you have for it and use it to your advantage. For instance, I’m mainly a Static Trapeze Artist. Whenever I experience a Creative Block, 9 times out of 9 I feel anger towards this hideous monster known as Creative Block. So I take that anger and associate it with moves that fit well with that emotion. I guess I’ve taken towards a fast style of Trapeze Acts because of this. Then I’ll take a song that I can move at a fast pace with, such as Astrothunder by Travis Scott. The song goes fast enough where I can keep up with my moves I’ve chosen, and has a hard enough beat to express where the emotion is coming from. 

Say I felt a sort of sadness towards Creative Block. Same concept, different expressiveness. Something I would do is pick more slow moves as well as a lot of poses. A song I would pick to represent sadness would be something like How Close You Are by Mamoru Miyano. The song is slow enough for me to move at a reasonable pace with my moves, and has a lot of places for poses.

If I had felt happiness (for whatever insane reason) towards Creative Block, It would look something like a mix between the Angry and Sad expressions. A medium paced move set with poses wherever it fits. Now I don’t listen to a lot of “Happy Music” (I guess I’m just emo like that). If I had to choose something however, I’d probably choose a song like All My Friends by Owl City. It’s just fast enough to convey something that isn’t sadness, and just slow enough to convey something that isn’t anger. It’s got an optimistic tune behind it too.

And something I can’t stress enough is that this is just MY way of expressing emotions. Everyone does it differently. However you convey your emotions isn’t my place to decide, but yours.

Going with the flow

When I say this, I don’t imply free-styling. Nothing wrong with free-styling, I do it all the time. That’s just not what I’m talking about. I mean, like, letting something other than just YOUR ideas carry you. I feel like I should go ahead and say I’m not implying plagiarism. Often with this method, I’ll do one of two things: The first thing is a music method. Often with this, I’ll grab my speaker or headphones, blast my favorite playlist, and lay face down on my bed. My goal here is to find inspiration beyond the ideas I have on the other side of that imaginary wall. Finding something about the tune of the song, the tempo, the lyrics, something and/or anything. If I end up finding inspiration from a song, I’ll often use that song. Taking that inspiration from the song, I’ll also take moves fitted best with that inspiration (in a similar fashion to the Emotional Method.)

The second thing I’ll do is a visual inspiration. Something about the sunrise has never failed to give me inspiration for whatever it might be looking for. Something about experiencing the sky go from total darkness to being completely bright within a few hours is inspiring. Sunsets work equally as well. And it doesn’t have to be just those. Find someplace with a good view and try getting inspiration from that. Paint something, or draw a picture. Even cooking works. Something, anything, that you can see will work. From that abandoned house that your town has legends about, to a crack in the sidewalk. Or maybe you don’t have to see anything at all. Total darkness is a great variable for creative methods. I’ve used it multiple times. Darkness was once an inspiration for an act I did. I used as little light as the lighting crew would let me, and it turned out great. I actually had Creative Block that week.

Spitballing

I say spitballing with no reference to baseball whatsoever. Nor the thing that elementary schoolers do with paper and straws. I mean spitballing like throwing out random ideas. And it’s basically that. I do this whenever I get writer’s block, and essentially it’s exactly what it sounds like. I’ll start typing random words that come to my mind until one of them eventually strikes me with an idea. So with Circus, I’ll do pretty much the same thing, but with Circus Moves. I’ll do random moves out of a sequence (Circus moves lined up for a particular skill level) until I find a few I like, and I’ll go off of that. Picking a song off of random moves without a set emotion is difficult for me. How do I get past that? I shuffle my playlist and I do an act to the first song that comes up. I do actually do that, yes. I’m not kidding, no.

Those three methods are simply my ways of dealing with Creative Block. You don’t have to use them if you don’t want to, you’re not obligated. I just thought I’d share. I can’t stress this enough, but everyone expresses their emotion differently. Don’t feel obligated to use these methods exactly how I do, it might not work the same. Find emotions, songs, visual themes, and random words that fit you. The thing I want you to take away from this the most is that Creative Block is normal, and there are ways of getting over it. After all, a wall is a wall. There’s always a way to get over one, no matter how high. Oh, and Creative Block is the worst.

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. 

How has COVID-19 affected Circus schools?

By Tessa Wallington

During this crazy time each person is affected in a different way. Many aspects of daily life have changed and circus schools and performance troupes are no exception. By now, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected each person in some way or another. Circus schools have been challenged to keep their students engaged and in-shape while remaining safe and healthy at home, as most of the country remains in some level of quarantine. 

Stephan Cote, co-owner of Trapeze Las Vegas said, “Thanks to the amazing commitment of all the coaches and administration of TLV, we were able to quickly react and start an amazing offering of classes that we can put out on a daily basis.” 

Trapeze Las Vegas was shut down in accordance with the stay-at-home order in Nevada per Governor Steve Sisolak on March 15. The staff at Trapeze Las Vegas jumped into action and by the second week of quarantine were rolling out classes for their students online. TLV continues to offer classes every day through the online program Zoom and have even found new disciplines they weren’t previously offering such as musical theater, hip-hop and makeup tutorials. Recently, TLV has launched an outdoor, socially distant training program at their flying trapeze rig. Students remain socially distant, train with the same coach while wearing masks and follow guidelines to ensure the safety of all students and staff. 

The major transition to online and socially distant classes has been no easy task, however. Trapeze Las Vegas co-owner Lisa Cote said, “We have lost contact with some of our circus sisters through no fault of their own — internet access issues, finances, parents with more pressing survival needs, lack of structure to their day.” 

Although this switch poses many challenges, we have found some good in this stay-at-home order and attempted to find a bit of normalcy through these trying times. Unfortunately, many circus schools were unable to continue to connect with their students and ended up closing their doors. Another circus troupe, Le PeTiT CiRqUe located in Los Angeles, is also offering online sessions to keep their troupe members in shape and their spirits high. “We have persevered, SO FAR,” said CEO Nathalie Gaulthier. “Tremendous community support that I am just so moved by. People donated, people wrote things that I never knew.” 

Circus schools are hoping to get back to functioning normally as we continue to advance in the fight against the pandemic.

Circus and Social Media

By Maia Castro-Santos

Many of us are spending more time on social media lately, as it is now one of the only ways to communicate with people outside of our households. I thought now would be a good time to talk more broadly about the role of social media in the lives of circus artists — the benefits of sharing circus online, the harmful parts, and how COVID-19 has changed circus-related social media.

maia blog post

photo by Elsie Smith

The Good

Social media provides a very useful platform for professional circus artists to share their work and promote themselves to the public. Even for recreational circus artists, sharing performance photos and training videos online can serve as motivation to develop new skills and sequences. I film myself while training a lot. I find it useful because I can watch the videos back and notice parts of my sequence that look great and transitions that need work. Filming while training also helps motivate me to perfect a sequence enough to get a video of it that I feel good about posting on social media. I follow many circus Instagram accounts — from friends to coaches to professional artists that I have never met. I find inspiration from all of these accounts because watching other people discover new skills and tricks inspires me to do the same.

Additionally, receiving encouragement and affirmation on a post feels really good! If you work hard to achieve a new skill and you post a video which is met with enthusiastic comments from coaches and friends, you will likely feel even more proud of your accomplishment. Social media provides a platform for artists to support and encourage each other to continue to create and discover new skills.

The Bad

While social media can be great for circus artists, it can also become problematic. Most Instagram accounts are highly curated, and circus accounts are no exception. The majority of public posts are not ugly videos or fails (unless the account is @notsoacrobats). This can lead to feelings of inadequacy if you are having an off day and it feels like everyone you follow is more skilled and advanced. Obsessive comparison to others can slow personal artistic development while also degrading mental health.

Additionally, if you are always trying to take videos of impressive skills to post on Instagram, you might not spend as much time on conditioning or exploration. Sometimes you have to try several transitions or skills before you find the one that looks and feels good enough to perfect. The pressure to put out content on social media doesn’t often leave space for this part of the creative process.

Now? 

With most of us quarantined and studios closed, artists are hunting through old training footage to post. Besides posting throw-backs to when training space was readily available, many circus artists are creating at-home conditioning workouts and challenges. This can be a great way to stay motivated and active. However, there is a lot of pressure to condition constantly with the extra time the pandemic has provided. I know that I worry about losing my skills and getting out of shape while my training space is closed. This is a stressful time for everyone, and the last thing we need is anxiety about missing a daily core workout. Keep moving, get outside, and condition if you feel like it — but also know that this will not last forever and your abs will come back.

Bringing Circus to the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition

By Lacy Gragg

Earlier this year in February and March, my friend Eliot and I decided to compete in the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition performing a unicycle act. The Fox theater in St. Louis has presented this contest for 10 years. The competition has three rounds and finalists can win scholarships in multiple categories. The first two rounds are private with a panel of four judges. The final round will take place on stage at the Fabulous Fox theater open to the public. Eliot and I and made it all the way to the semi-finals. This year over 100 people participated in 85 acts. Semi-Finals were narrowed down to 42 acts and the finals will showcase 16 acts. My circus, Circus Harmony, initially entered six acts and has two acts with three performers in the final round, a juggler and a lyra/contortion act. Two Circus Harmony students have won in previous years. The majority of the other performers were dancers, singers, and musicians. It was really awesome to meet other people from different styles of performing. And to learn a little bit about dancing, singing, and performing music and how it contrasted to circus performing. 

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Circus Harmony students

Eliot and I created a Dirty Dancing themed unicycle act to the song, Time of my Life, by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. We tried to make our act more about the story instead of the tricks; some tricks can be harder to learn but less impressive to an audience. This is something that you have to consider since you are performing for people who do not have much circus experience. We had giraffe unicycles halfway through the act which you may know are rather similar to riding regular unicycles but because they are taller they are more impressive to an audience.

The biggest feedback we received was that our act did not have a big finish. It ended with Eliot and I leaving an empty stage. This can work fine in a show with multiple acts but for a single act that is supposed to stand alone it does not work as well; it left the act feeling incomplete. If you are putting together an act that is not part of a bigger show, make sure to have a strong finish. It was very interesting having judges who were not familiar judging circus and were not really aware of what was harder or easier in circus. When I messed up a unicycle mount, a judge told us that she was not sure if it was an intentional of part of the show. Your acting has a lot to do with what the audience thinks is happening when you are presenting a story. When you let your face fall someone will pick up on it but if you act like everything is going as planed its harder to tell something is amiss. 

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Eliot and Lacy

The finals have been postponed due to the pandemic, but I am excited to cheer on my friends! I learned some great lessons from this experience and made a lot of new friends. My big take-aways are what elements are needed in an act outside of a show, how to add acting to my unicycle act, and how to take feedback and adjust my act. This was a great experience and I think it made me a better performer.

Social Circus – Promoting Diversity in Circus Schools

By Mira Gurock

Circus Up Founder Leah Abel on Why She Chose a Career in Social Circus 

Leah Abel is the founder of Circus Up, a nonprofit organization in Boston, Mass. that focuses on making circus more inclusive, joyful, and accessible. To learn more, visit circusup.com.

Mira Gurock: How did you initially become interested in social circus?

Leah Abel: Growing up in Cambridge, Mass. in the 80s and 90s, people highly valued diversity and inclusion. These were issues that people openly discussed and debated, too. That experience and environment instilled many values in me that I eventually saw were missing in many circus communities. Social circus felt like a way of addressing social justice issues through an art form I already loved.

MG: In starting to imagine Circus Up, what were some of these personal values that inspired you?

LA: I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood both ethnically and socioeconomically, and I just thought that was the norm. I think this shaped a huge part of who I am, including my values. When I got to college and started doing circus, I saw that circus arts were moving away from being more of a family-owned business. Circus was becoming more recreational, very expensive, and exclusive. At least in New York, unlike the traditional circus families of the century before, circus was attracting a more homogeneous crowd. So the art form that I fell in love with didn’t at all look or act like the communities I grew up in. I wanted to change that for two reasons. First, thanks to my strong social justice background, I saw social inequities and just wanted to work to change them. And second, I didn’t totally feel like I belonged either. I didn’t feel comfortable in some of the circus communities I participated in. In other words, I wanted things to change so that selfishly, I could feel more at ease. Even though I looked the part, I didn’t fit the mold in terms of other social norms. 

MG: What do you think is the most effective way for small or large circus schools to promote diversity?

LA: I would say by dismantling the patriarchy, working on equal access, and elevating the amount of attention paid towards valuing creativity and joy. I think the first step for people is to start learning about issues of social justice, white supremacy, and equality/equity. I also think talking less and listening more is generally a good idea. Observe what works and what doesn’t work in other organizations doing social justice work (not necessarily even circus organizations) as you build an effective strategy for promoting social justice. Also, if you’re trying to do outreach to particular communities, it’s important to watch and learn from the leaders of those communities! People don’t want to be told what to do and likewise, people don’t ever want to be told what they need. Instead, listen to people when they tell you what they need, and build an organization or program around those needs. Telling another community what they need is paramount to telling another person what their gender appears to be, or should be. Listening is key and responding to the needs of the communities that you say you want to work WITH is the most effective and respectful thing you can do.

MG: Have any of your definitions of what it means to support diversity changed for you since you started Circus Up? 

LA: Yes, of course. In this work we should all be committed to continually learning and growing. That should mean our work grows and changes over time, too. If it doesn’t, that is an indicator that no growth is happening either.

MG: What aspect of social circus needs the most work at this time?

LA: Diversifying circus staff and maybe working on what is a general lack of funding for the arts.

MG: What do you think are some benefits of belonging to a diverse circus community?

LA: To me, being a part of a truly diverse community is always more interesting. It also means that you’ll have your viewpoints challenged, which is a good thing. People have cultural norms that we often assign as correct “rules” of communication and interaction. But when you have a more diverse staff and student body, dominant cultural norms are challenged and we’re all encouraged to grow. When people learn to work and play with one another while truly creating space for diversity, we build empathy, respect, understanding, and connection. Moreover, we learn to understand cultural, political, social, and historical contexts for why the world is the way it is. This helps everyone avoid making stereotypes or from oversimplifying things.

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Mira Gurock and Leah Abel

Interview with Kerren McKeeman: Cirque Du Soleil Aerialist

By Emily Fulton

Kerren McKeeman is a professional aerialist who has performed with Cirque Du Soleil’s O, Varekai, and now KÀ, among many other circus shows.  She was a founding member of The Flying Gravity Circus in Wilton, New Hampshire of which I am currently a trouper. I had the honor of meeting and watching Kerren perform at The Flying Gravity Circus’s 2018 Starburst Gala.  She is a true inspiration to young performers and was happy to share her knowledge with me.

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How old were you when you started circus training?

I began learning how to unicycle and juggle at age 11 with Jackie Davis’ after school program and the Hilltop Circus at Pine Hill Waldorf School, in Wilton, NH. My first aerial training experience was with Circus Smirkus in 1998.

Did you do any cross training when you were a teen (dance, gymnastics, etc.)?

Yes, I began with gymnastics and ballet at age 6.  I began more intense circus training when my friends and I started the Flying Gravity Circus in 1999 when I was still in high school.

Did you attend a college or professional circus program? 

I chose not to go to professional circus school and did all my professional circus training with individual instructors in varying locations, from Montreal to Los Angeles. I attended Middlebury College in Vermont, and continued my athletic training there through dance while I was earning my BA.

What is your preferred circus discipline? 

My true love is trapeze, but anything that brings me into the air is a joy— I have most recently fallen in love with straps and have always loved partner acrobatics and hand-balancing.

How did performing with Cirque Du Soleil’s ‘O’, Varekai, and KÀ compare?

Great question. These are such dramatically different shows, all so beautiful in their own unique way! Performing at O took my breath away— it was my first Cirque du Soleil show, and if you’ve seen the show you remember the opening scene where the swimmers come out and chop up the water with that beautiful choreography along with the captivating opening song… and I got to see that from above backstage, sitting on my trapeze right before I started my act! Talk about a rush while you’re preparing to go on stage! Varekai was my dream come true— I fell in love with Varekai as a teenager because it was the first Cirque show in which the two main characters were acrobats! I felt, yes— we can tell the story too! Little did I know that I would eventually join Varekai and perform Triple Trapeze, then my solo single point trapeze act as the Huntress— a character created to further tell the story of Varekai— and finally I was given the role of backing up the main female character with my trapeze act during the end of the show’s run. Varekai completely stole my heart— the unique characters, bright costumes, the moving story, the vibrant love and conflict, transformation and hope, and the music that drives the soul of the entire show.  And KÀ is of course another journey and another story all together. At KÀ I perform Duo Straps with Pierre-Luc Sylvain, which is a coming-of-age and a love story called Duet.  It is such a gift to perform with a partner who is as much a partner onstage as he is a dear friend to me in real life.  He and I both feel at our freest in the air, so it is a dream come true to share the air with him! 

What is your favorite part of performing with Cirque Du Soleil?

Performing at Cirque du Soleil is rewarding for so many reasons— mostly it’s the collaboration— we are a large family who shares a deep love for something that we all pour our hearts into every night. We may not have language in common, or religion in common, or nationality, identity, culture, or really anything in common with fellow technicians, staff members, or artists, but we have passion in common— we have the common goal of putting on a live story, a living shared experience with immensely powerful moments from huge acrobatic stunts down to moments of minute but powerful detail— which all takes massive love and takes a team who can do anything we put our hearts and minds to.  

Out of all the shows you have been on, what was your favorite to perform with?

Wow, I have been lucky enough to have had incredible adventures with so many shows—Midnight Circus, Cirque Mechanics, Circus Smirkus, Flying Gravity Circus, Troupe Vertigo, Cirque du Soleil, Seven Fingers, Circus Couture…all such unique experiences created by brilliant people who know how to make art that gives more love and life back to their communities. It’s very humbling to look back on all that, especially now when we cannot have live performance in our lives. I don’t think I can pick a favorite— I’d need days to share all the amazing moments!!! But…I have to say that being a part of the wild machine that makes KÀ tick is incredible… there is nothing like watching the stages move in and out, knowing the automation technicians who make that happen, seeing the carpenters and riggers prepare the airbags and throw the nets, feeling the lights turn on at exactly the right moment, knowing the stage managers who make all the detailed calls, seeing the artists hear those calls on a mic in their inner ear and then plan their flips accordingly, and then stepping onto lift 5 and ascending into a cloud of falling yellow petals as our dear riggers lift up the straps and Pierre-Luc takes me up in his arms to begin our Duet… this show is an intricate machine that is truly like no other in the world!

Do you prefer performing with touring or resident shows?

Touring with Varekai in South America, with 7 Fingers in Asia, with Cirque Mechanics in Europe were some of the highlights of my life! Touring is an incredible experience that allows you to learn so much about the world— and yourself— if you let it!  Performing in a resident show is also a beautiful thing, and it is wonderful to come home to your own place every night. I learned so much from doing both, it depends on the stage of life you are in, and what you want to learn from your time spent not performing.

What is the most unique opportunity you have had as a circus artist?  

Telling so many stories onstage— I’ve lived and relived coming of age, falling in love, protecting and watching out for my sisters, transformation, bliss, joy, loss, redemption, and the feeling of rising above.

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted you? 

Certainly live performances cannot continue during this time. Most live performers are completely out of work, as I am and almost all Cirque du Soleil employees. Of course this is very challenging for all of us. During this time it’s important we social distance for the sake of everyone’s safety, and that we take all measures to continue training so that we are ready to come back as strong as ever when the situation improves.  Surely this time is showing us all just how much we miss sharing a live experience together, so it will be that much sweeter to see a live performance in the future. Everyone will forever remember the first show they see after the pandemic is over! 

What advice would you like to give young circus performers?

Learn! Learn as much as you can from experts and then… keep learning! And be yourself! The stage is not a competition, it’s your place to be the best you can be, and that means doing things that make you feel free and challenge you to be your best. If you love something that has never been done, it might be harder to begin because you have to forge your own way, but there is always the first person who did something. Do it! Also, in this day and age we draw lots of inspiration from online sources (things I didn’t have at my early stages of training— we had to wait months to see a certain move or skill because we had to see it live!). When you are in creation mode, I suggest you turn off the social media, and get into a zone with some music, and see what your body comes up with naturally. The skills that I learned this way have lasted my entire career because they came from a unique place of discovery and not a place of replicating something I had seen. 

If you did it all over again, would you have done anything differently?

Keep a circus journal! You can put pretty much anything in there– a trick you saw that inspired you, an idea you have for an act, something that made you smile, a show you want to be in… the next trick you want to master. I have always written things down but I could never find all the notebooks and pages now– I wish they were all in the same book! And the best advice I can give is stay true to your values—why and what you love about what you’re doing—and allow yourself time to reflect on what you’ve done and accomplished. Ask yourself– what did I learn from that? Sometimes life moves so fast we don’t have time to absorb the lessons we’ve already learned. Take that time, it’s worth it.

Do you have any ‘blue sky goals’ you still want to achieve?

Yes! I have many goals on straps and I am still taking my solo trapeze act to the next level. There are still things I’ve never done so that keeps me going. I also want to do a hand-to-hand press with my friend (and extremely talented world-Champion) Ayla Ahmadova…one day!  I also would love to share the stage with Shakira, Zoe Keating, Aurora, and Isabelle Dansereau-Corradi.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the youth circus community?

Keep going, friends. Keep moving and sharing what you love— you never know you who are inspiring!

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