Get to know American Youth Circus Organization board member, Lyra Gray! As a member of the board, Lyra hopes to share her passion for circus with not only her community, but also the country as a whole. Gray holds a seat on three committees, dealing with development, finance, and insurance and deals with releases and policies for the circus community. Gray spoke on how the cohesive board has some exciting things coming up, and with dealing with the pandemic, the team has been working hard to provide a circus-filled year to the organizational members. You may have heard of one of Gray’s first projects, as she is the former owner of Aerotique, one of the only aerial studios in Columbus, Ohio. Due to covid, Gray has since moved on to focus on her involvement with the board, however was able to pass on the torch, and left her mark on the studio. Gray began her circus career in her adult years, and was able to build off her gymnastics background to improve her skills. Gray’s “strong desire to see the circus community grow” allows for her to share her passion in a meaningful way, as the AYCO board gives members the opportunity to be involved with the circus community in a different light. Gray described her circus career as “creative,” and when asked about her proudest moment, Gray responded that she loves that she was able to allow access to circus in her community.
When we left off, Terry and I had just finished discussing circus in Costa Rica! You can go back to part one on the Hup Squad blog here and read the first half. Now, onto our final questions…
PART 2: J: Okay, so let’s see. What is your biggest joy of being a circus artist? T: Um, that’s a hard one to narrow down because I really like I guess, you know, there’s really two sides to it. I really enjoy the process of creating circus. The collaborative process of getting ideas from everyone and that kind of like — those moments of kind of Eureka! When everybody feels like they are bought in to the same idea. J: Oh. T: Then, also like the hard conversations too. Like that feeling a level of engagement from everybody is really satisfying to me, and then also drives me crazy sometimes (both chuckle). Um, so I really enjoy the process side of it. That, like, really charges my battery. And then I would also say that I really enjoy the kind of product side of it as well. Of, a, like doing a show. Like being on stage. Kind of like that, that moment of really being in my body. Of not having to think about what I’m doing. Um, and feeling like the audience is really connecting with me. Um, and then, yeah, I just that feeling of instant feedback for my own kind of state of like, of my own mind/body togetherness. Like, do I, do I do a trick and the audience responds well to that or do I, you know, do I trip and then, and then, um, sort of embrace that and like the audience, you know, laughs at it is such a kind of intimate relationship. So that, that part feels really special to me too. J: Oh yeah, totally! Awesome. Yeah, those points all definitely make sense. Yeah, circus is just – it’s super cool. There’s so much that you can do with it. T: Yeah. How about you? How ‘bout you, Julaine? Like what’s the most significant or the most joyful part of making circus for you? J: Oh, huh, probably the, let’s see. I really like getting out and like, going out and just like training really hard and— T: Yeah. J: Then stumbling upon something. And sort of like taking a break from like, so, I’ll be training something and sort of make a mistake and then I’ll say, like that was actually sort of cool. So, then, I’ll go back and refine it — T: Yeah. J: And then maybe I’ll have a new skill or a new sequence or maybe it’s just like stepping up to the pole in a different way but it — T: Oh, yeah. J: A different way to display how you feel.
T: Oh man, yeah. J: Yeah, and what’s funny– T: Yeah, the happy accidents. J: Yeah. T: That’s totally magical. J: Yeah, happy accidents. It’s definitely. That’s the perfect way to describe it. (Both chuckle) Nice. T: That’s how Bob Ross talks about it, the painter. J: Oh yeah, the little trees. Uh. Funny stuff. (Both chuckle) Yeah, we’re all just circus artists, and Bob Ross is just a circus artist with a paint brush. T: Exactly, exactly. (Both chuckle) J: That’s funny. J: Okay, so this one is –what is the hardest thing or the biggest struggle to being a circus artist? T: Okay, okay. Um, let’s see. Let’s see, let’s see, let’s see. The hardest thing about being a circus artist is: Well, I would say that, I mean obviously, money can be a struggle. Collaboration can be very difficult. Finding work can be really difficult. But, I would have to say that one of the most difficult things in my opinion is traveling can be really hard. Um, to like create community and personal relationships with people sometimes because, because. For whatever reason most of the world, um, is really, really set on being sedentary and like having one address. Um, but when you’re a performer, generally it makes the most sense to travel a lot ‘cuz you’re always chasing the audience, right? J: Oh yeah. T: You can’t just stay in one city because everybody’s gonna see your show and then you got no more audience. In theory. That’s the theory, I guess. J: Oh, yeah. T: Unless you have a model like Teatro Zinzanni, where you’re really pulling in the audiences forever. J: Yeah. T: Um, but, yeah, and I mean it’s one of the most fun things too, I really like touring. Um, but then when you are kind of constantly, you always have like, a little bit of like a timeline. Um, you know for me I’m in Seattle, generally. Right now it’s an exception because we’re in the pandemic. But, I’m usually like yeah, uh, in a month or two I’m gonna have to leave, um, so (clears throat), so like relationships and friendships kind of have to be put on hold or become, you know, kind of long distance. Um, so, I don’t know, yeah, that’s, that I think has been my experience if I’m really honest about it. J: Yeah. T: Yeah.
J: For sure. Yeah, traveling seems like it would be the hardest part. ‘Cuz I feel like all the other stuff is or when you know society builds up a, um, like a sort of, you know, and you kind of have to go against the grain in order to keep the work coming in you know, it might be challenging, it might be discouraging seeing society just be able to stay and do this stuff but then, oh, but I have to move to get my job. You know what I mean? T: Yeah. J: Yeah. T: Yeah exactly. J: (interrupts) – but it might mean T: yeah – society is just not set up that way, unfortunately. J: Yeah. T: What were you gonna say? J: Oh, I was just gonna say that it probably makes it way more rewarding though sometimes too. T: Totally. Yeah, really fun – to go lots of different places. J: Yeah, for sure. Awesome. Let’s see. Okay, this one should be fun. What do you have more fun as – the student or the teacher? T: Hmm. Uh, both, I really like both. Although, um, I don’t know, I think probably teacher, right now. Um, I just really like the sound of my own voice. J: (Laughs) T: (Laughs) No, um, really like, um, helping someone unlock a skill like that moment of, um, of kind of going from not being able to do a thing, like I cannot do a thing, and then at some point somebody can do it. And, being able to be a part of that process is so fun! J: Nice. Yeah that makes sense. That’s super cool. I feel like there are lots of times when you know that could fluctuate. Like maybe take a lesson from someone and they’re super good and you’re like, oh my gosh this is awesome, and then they leave and you have to try to learn stuff on your own and then you’re like, now being a student isn’t so much fun. And, then you find someone you can teach and then you’re like, yes, being a teacher is fun! And then that person leaves and you find another coach and then you’re like being the student is fun. And so on it goes. T: Yeah, totally. Being a student is also so fun because I don’t know, I really like that phase in the beginning of learning when you, when you acquire skills quickly. It’s the 80/20 thing. You know, you acquire 80% of the skills in 20% of the time. So, it’s so satisfying in the beginning when you know, it’s like, when things come really easily. J: Oh yeah. T: Yeah, love that.
J: Yeah, it’s so – like the crash after is very disappointing. T: Yeah. J: Like for me, when I started pole when I was like 11, right. T: Yeah. J: And, at 13 I felt very stationary in my skills. T: Yeah. J: And I was like, well, this is a bummer. Then I started rope and I was like, yeah! Skills! T: Yeah. J: Then, I went to Smirkus and lost all my pole skills and had to gain them all back. T: Uh huh. Yeah. J: And, I was kind of like, I’m kind of at the same spot with both of these. And then I started straps and I was like, yeah! T: Yeah, totally J: So, it’s just like moving all the time. T: Yeah, I know, so fun before you get to the plateau, then it’s just like floggin’ through it. But, I guess that can be satisfying in a different way, I s’pose. J: True. Yeah, just not as like, boom, boom – the skills. T: Yeah. J: Yeah, awesome. And, I was gonna say, I think I know the answer to this question but maybe not. Do you find more joy in working alone or with others? T: Um, I guess, it depends. I would say that for the most part I really enjoy working with others. Um, um, like training with other people is really satisfying. Um, especially when it comes to aerial, I find, because I kind of don’t really want to climb up a thing and do something really hard if no one else is going to witness it. (Both chuckle). I find. Um, but. But, then, sometimes sometimes, you know there’s nothing like putting on music and getting into your own little world and uh, being able to have your own little dance party and not worry about whatever anybody else is, you know, thinking. Sometimes that can be really nice too. You know I have been doing slack rope a little bit in my house actually. And, that’s been really fun to kind of get into that and blast my music and, and do my own thing. J: Yeah, yeah ‘cuz it’s even more secluded then you know training at the park because it’s just your place.
J: Oh, let’s see. Darn it. I really shouldn’t have done this out of order. Aww, there we go, So – What do you think that circus artists have or can contribute to society that Muggles don’t or can’t? T: Wow! Are you gonna say Muggles in this interview? J: (Chuckles) Uh, Muggles, yeah. T: Right on. (Laughs) Cool. This is gonna be controversial, Julaine. I can’t wait to read this. J: Sweet. T: What do we have to contribute to society? OMG, so many things. I think that, um, inspiration, obviously. I think that people see what we do and they get inspired and they say, I can do that or do something. It’s, it’s kind of an antidote to despair, perhaps, seeing ordinary humans do extraordinary things – physically and maybe sort of inspiring them on a metaphorical level too. J: Yeah. T: So, I like that. I also think it’s also important that people remember that they have bodies and that it’s joyful to use their bodies in non-competitive, athletic ways. Um, expressive ways. Um, because I think that, you know, we are becoming a very knowledge-based society and the ways that we do use our bodies tend to be, you know, sports and um, very quantitative things and circus is not that. That is an important thing. And, then one more…I could go on and on about this. But, one more is that we live in a world where, even before the pandemic, live theater attendance was kind of diminishing. And, circus has a very unique thing to bring to live performance which is that aspect of risk – physical risk and you know, that risk of failure in a certain kind of way, you know and I think that is kind of electrifying for audiences. And, I think that it really makes them want to come and all gather in one room. Um, which is a really important thing for all humans to do. You know, Netflix and all that digital entertainment will only get us so far. I think we gotta, we gotta come together as a community, to you know, to really remember what it is to be a human being too. J: Totally. Wow, that was really, really well-said. Nice! T: (Chuckles) Wow, thanks. J: Well, of course, we are doubly isolated because of Covid. But — T: Yeah. J: But the isolation of, um, like people. If you just think about the ‘60’s and now, like neighbors would be like, “how’s it goin’ man?” They’d talk all the time. And they’d talk all the time and now it’s like “hey, t’s up?” Maybe once a week, if anything. T: Yeah, yeah. Totally. Yeah, that makes me think of like a neighbor leaning over the fence and chattin’ to his neighbor. Yeah, it’s really sad, you know, people just not hangin’ out as much. So, yeah. Circus has got that going for it. In a lot of ways too. You know, like in training we have to come together and in performing. J: Yeah. To make circus happen it’s a lot of really hard tasks. T: Exactly.
J: And you kind of need a lot of people’s help to make it work. T: Yeah. J: Like, can I hang on this? Oh, I should consult somebody. And, that person you’re collaborating with and once you figure out you can hang on it, “Great, I’m gonna train.” Uh, I don’t feel motivated. Hey, let’s get a training buddy. T: Yeah. Exactly. J: Then you’re like, Wanna make a show? T: Yeah, yeah. Totally It’s a —must be present to win– kind of thing. J: Totally. Awesome. I was gonna ask, do you have anything else that you want the — the audience for this article is AYCO members. So, yeah, if you have anything in particular that you think that audience should know, this is a very good time to share. T: Hmm. One thing that I would say is that I think that it is very important for anyone who wants to be an artistic creator, like an artistic director, or an artistic creator of their own expressive work, I think it is really important for them to see as much of their art and live art in general as possible. Because, um, your case is going to grow and you’re going to be aware of what’s out there and what’s possible and what kinds of things you can imitate or improve upon, or respond to. So, I think if you can go and see contemporary dance, if you can see theater, if you can see spectacle. Um, if you can see circus shows. And, also, you know read, like actual books (both chuckles), you know. Really important and, you know, experience art in whatever form is available to you because all of that is going to, I think, influence what you do, make it richer. J: Totally, awesome. T: It’s a lot. J: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Nice. T: Cool. J: Yeah, that was super awesome. I really appreciate it! T: You’re super awesome. J: Thanks. Well, you’re super awesome! T: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to, you know, feel like I’ve got something to share. J: Well, you definitely do! (Both laugh) T: Awesome, well, I think I’m going to go to the beach and see if I can do some slack rope between two trees. J: Heck yeah, sounds like fun! T: (Chuckles) Cool.
J: Yeah, I’m going to go out and train a little more Pole. Circus beings going out and doing more circus. T: Nice. Awesome! Well, um, I hope that you don’t get too cold and that you’re still up for some more Pole. You’ve got some pretty amazing endurance. J: Thank you. I appreciate it. T: (Chuckles) Alright. Cool, Julaine! I’ll see you soon. J: Sounds good. See you later! T: Alright. Bye. J: Bye. Phone hangs up. J: (Whispers) Terry is so cool!
In this exciting blog post, I had the privilege to interview the famous Terry Crane! He is a Seattle native, a performer known the world over, founder and artistic director of Acrobatic Conundrum, and a kind person! Over phone I was able to ask him lots of questions about his life of circus and creativity. His adventures and opinions are very inspiring. We talked so long this article is a two-parter! Stay tuned for the second half coming out shortly. Without further ado… Interview with Terry Crane, part one!
J: What is your main discipline? T: My main discipline is climbin’ ropes! J: Sick! And, how long have you been doing circus? T: Um, I began doing circus in 1999, no that’s not true, it was 2000. It was 2000. J: Nice, cool, cool! And what was the first circus thing that you did and how old were you when you tried it. T: Well, I thing officially, I started juggling when I was like 13. But basically the first aerial thing I tried in the aerial world was static trapeze. J: Nice. T: Yeah, and I really liked it but I really wanted to get into rope. J: Groovy, okay, cool, cool! What made you attracted to rope? T: Oh man, there was something kind of magical about it and I couldn’t figure out how the person doing it was, um, was doing all these different wraps. There was something quite mysterious about it and I just really wanted to wrap my head around it. And, actually the first time I saw rope was in a circus show at my college, Oberlin College, and someone was performing and I saw this act with this kind of puzzle-like quality to it and I thought , OMG, I just need to figure out how to do that.
J: Nice, oh sweet, Let’s see what was the first circus school/and or company and or circus group that you were affiliated with? T: Um, good question and what do you mean by that? Like that I was hired by as a professional or as a -(speaking over – indistinct) J: I just mean who you trained under or worked for, basically what group did you start in? T: Well, what group did you start in? J: I guess I’d say I started in 1-Ders (the youngest performing group, ages 5-8, at my circus school, SANCA). J: Nice, okay, cool, cool, cool. What other groups have you been a part of? T: Word. Umm. Wow, okay. Fairly long list. J: Yeah. T: When I was at ENC I collaborated with 7 Fingers a little bit. J: Sweet. T: And then when I finished ENC I was part of a collaboration called Honolulu Punch. J: Oh, cool. T: That was all other ENC grads. And then after that got a contract with Circus Starlight in Switzerland. Um, oh then, I came back and I worked with Kevin O’Connor on a show called the Sunlight Zone. J: Oh, nice.
T: It was another very collaborative, kind of grass roots thing. J: Cool. T: And, after that, oh my gosh, I don’t know. I went to China and I studied at the Beijing International Arts School. Um, doing more acrobatics. J: Oh, sick! T: And, I worked a little bit in Thailand as well. Um, Then I got a job, uh, working for a circus in Finland. Um, I might need to spell this for you. Um, It was called “talvisirkus huurjaruuth” J: (Laughs) T: Yeah. Um, and, then I worked for Circus Flora in St. Louis. Then I went and worked for Teatro Zinzanni a few times. I was in like 6 different shows at Zinzanni. 4 kids shows and 2 main shows. J: Nice. T: Yeah, that, like took a long time for me to kind of break into that, um, little mold there at Teatro Zinzanni. J: Most of the time when you look up “Terry Crane” on the internet what you’ll find is your Teatro Zinzanni act where you do it to Paper Planes and you have the glasses and the collared shirt. It’s so funny! T: Oh yeah, man, I did that act for so long, for some many years! Um, let’s see. Oh yeah, that reminds me that I performed at Moisture Festival for like 6 or 7 years. And then I also did another Swiss circus, I was at Circus Monti. J: Oh yeah. T: And, um, I’ve done lots of corporate events. And, then yeah, I formed my own company, Acrobatic Conundrum. And, that’s all the stuff I can think of right now. J: Awesome! Well, that’s super cool. J: This one here is kind of deep. What five or so most meaningful projects have you been a part of? T: It was the second show that I did with Circus Syzygy with Ben Wendel, Rachel Nehmer, Marieve Dicaire, Giulio Lanzafame, and Mick Holsbeck, all those guys. J: Oh, yeah. T: When we went to France. We were all living in trailers around this one friend’s circus space called “la grainerie” and we — and it was so good and, like, because we were all the time we were talking about our ideas. And we actually took this contract with Circus Monti before we did this show and for the whole year, you know we probably did 300 shows for Circus Monti and all 6 of us were there and we’d have these meetings where we would just talk and talk about our ideas. And, we also just got to know each other really well too, over the course of that year. J: Oh, nice.
T: And, then we, when we were in France we were working really hard on it. We had this theater like 24/7, like for 2 months. Then we finally performed it. And so it was really good! It was also really difficult because we didn’t have a director. J: Oh. T: So, we were like, all the director, in a way. And we were constantly trying to get our own way. And, um, so that was really hard. And, in some ways I think that that made it so we had to take a break from working together, because we were all kind of wrapped up in our own view points and it had just been such a difficult process. Um, and that we kind of had to—well, I’ll just speak for myself. For me personally, I was like, okay I gotta take a little break from this. J: Oh yeah, I gotcha. Makes sense. T: Yeah. J: Yeah, cool, cool. Thank you. T: Wait, you said top 5, right. J: Yeah, top 5. If you can’t like narrow it down to one, then like top 5 or so. T: Okay, let me give you a couple of more meaningful experiences. J: Sweet. T: Um, I have really enjoyed making my own work with Acrobatic Conundrum. J: Oh yeah! T: Um, performing “Love and Gravity” has been really — was really meaningful and getting to tour that to different circus communities. And, something that I love about that show was the way that we got to interact with the audience. And in some ways we got to kind of make them be part of the show. That was always really fun for me. And, then another really meaningful one was, shoot, drawing a blank. Well, I’ve done some pretty meaningful street shows. Um, which I think have been really fun because it’s pretty magical to perform for someone who was not really expecting to see a show. J: Oh, yeah. T: Um, yeah, so working with like Melissa Knowles and doing some street shows has been super fun. Oh yeah, and so I have also traveled to Costa Rica and done some collaborations with the Costa Rican circus community there. J: Oh, yeah. T: And that has been really meaningful for me too to be able to like share um, kind of like my flavor of circus and represent you know, North American circus, and also to, to get to see what they do and also to merge that on some different collaborations. J: Nice. That’s super cool. T: Yeah.
J: And, I’m going to ask a bit about the Costa Rican circus community you’ve been a part of. Is, um, when you say, like, represent North America. Do you do, is there, um, I know there is sort of like, uh, American, you know Everybody has the idea of American circus that’s like the ring circus, or like Trad circus in a way, you know. T: Yeah. J: Then there’s like the more European circus which is like, um, sometimes Trad but also sometimes more Contemporary, and much more, I don’t know, seems a bit more from the heart, you know. T: Mm-hmm. J: And so, what would you say is the Costa Rican circus vibe? T: Oh, okay, um. Well, I would say that Central America has a really strong contemporary dance theme. J: Nice. T: And, theater as well. And, I think circus is like relatively young there. Um, so I think that in some ways, um, they feel – well, and you also have the traditional circus, um, you know, thing going on there too. They have tented circuses there that travel there from Mexico and other places so there’s definitely that vibe. And, a lot of people would, I think, still associate circus with that kind of traditional format. But, then there is also kind of an up and coming kind of aerial dance scene and circus that is really influenced by contemporary dance and that is just more abstract and in some ways pretty dark too. But, always like very acrobatic, um, as well and super, super like intense, I would say. Yeah. Also a lot of heart. My experience working with, um, with like the aerial dance community which is mostly based around a school called “Danzaire.” J: Oh cool. T: Um, it’s been like, yeah, just like a lot of heart and soul there too. J: Nice. Sweet! Thank you. T: Yeah.
On that note, we will end the first half of this interview! Tune in for Terry’s opinion on what is the most rewarding and most difficult thing about being a circus artist, what young people wanting to be circus artists should be doing, and other burning questions!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
As a teenegaer, Tara Jacob first fell in love with the fun, creativity, and community she discovered in the circus at The Circus Space in London. Over the years, she founded the Circus Folk Unite! collective at Hampshire College, along with completing the 2012-2013 Professional Track program at the New England Center for the Circus Arts in Vermont. She is currently an instructor at SHOW Circus Studio in Easthampton, Massachusetts, instilling her love of circus in the youth of her community. Jacob now holds the exceptional role of Executive Director of AYCO (American Youth Circus Organization), but prior to her promotion she served on the AYCO Board of Directors and worked as AYCO’s Operations Manager.
The intention of the interview below is to introduce Jacob and to share her passion for her new role in the circus community. This interview was conducted by Bronyn Mazlo, a member of AYCO’s Hup Squad.
How did you discover circus and what has your journey been like?
I first discovered circus as a teenager when an outreach program came to my school and taught us stilt walking, juggling, and acrobatics. I was totally hooked – it was so much fun! I moved and there wasn’t a circus school near me, but I did as much circus as I could; gymnastics classes to learn acrobatics, flying trapeze classes, and self-taught juggling. When I got to college, I started a circus club there: Circus Folk Unite! at Hampshire College in MA. I realized I wanted to do everything I could to spread circus arts to others. After college, I did the ProTrack program at the New England Center for the Circus Arts (NECCA), and started teaching youth and adults at SHOW Circus Studio in Easthampton, MA. Then I began volunteering with AYCO/ACE, then served as a board member, and then came on as administrative staff. I am very excited to have been named executive director!
How has circus impacted your life?
Doing circus makes me happy! It has also become my career, through teaching circus to others as a coach and helping to advocate for, support, and grow circus arts through my involvement with AYCO/ACE. It’s a part of who I am and how I interact with the world. Circus has also led me to many human connections with new friends and colleagues, and taught me to be tenacious and flexible at the same time.
You became a part of the AYCO family in 2015. And you became the Operations Manager in 2017. How did those roles prepare you to be the executive director of AYCO?
I have really seen AYCO/ACE from all sides – as a member, event attendee, volunteer, board member, and staff person. I’m familiar with the work and history of the organization. This has given me a lot of insight, and being involved over several years, I’ve seen the organization evolve and grow. I’ve made strong connections with many of our community members and gotten an idea of the challenges we all face, and also know firsthand the passion and resilience of the circus education community.
As an executive director, what are your responsibilities?
There’s always a lot to do! The executive director represents AYCO/ACE as a whole, balancing big picture visioning with micro tasks and planning. This means that among other responsibilities, I meet with the Board of Directors, do financial management like budgeting and reporting, manage staff members, supervise programs and communications, help produce events like AYCOfest, EdCon, and regional festivals, engage with board committees, and interface with our members, press and the public!
What do you find to be the greatest challenges?
Running a non-profit like AYCO/ACE means that there is always a balance of what you want to do and what you can do with limited resources. Our events, programs, and the connections we support are important to the community. Though we always have big dreams, we need to take small steps and raise the support to keep going and growing.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I love getting to talk to our members — the people and organizations all over the USA who are doing circus in so many different ways. It’s incredibly inspiring to hear about the variety and also the common threads through people’s experiences and the work they’re doing to spread circus arts.
What do you think makes AYCO unique?
AYCO and ACE’s success is because we are for and by the community. As a non-profit, we have always been motivated by our mission to “promote the participation of youth in circus arts and support circus educators”. It is the passion and creativity of our members that keeps us going – especially youth circus members like you!
The article was originally published at CircusTalk.com, the international online resource for circus professionals
It’s easy to take on different roles in different kinds of circus relationships. Some friends are more like mentors, some are like apprentices, and others are just sorta friends you hang out with. It all the depends on the circumstances where you meet.
Recently, Julaine Hall and Jordan Rempel-White, both Hup Squad members and students at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA), sat down together to talk about circus friendships – with each other and other people. Julaine and Jordan both took a straps class at SANCA not long ago and became closer through it. They also both performed solo straps acts at SANCA‘s annual spring showcase. How do circus relationships differ and how are they similar? Every circus relationship has a story.
Jordan Rempel-White (JR) – Hey, it’s great to see you!
Julaine Hall (JH) – You too!
JR – How’s training been? I see you have pole face all over your neck. (Pole face is when the rubber coating of a Chinese pole rubs on the skin near or on the face making you look like a chimney sweep.)
*We both start laughing and the conversation totally derails, a few minutes later we continue*
JH – Yeah! I’ve been trying to train pole more recently since I came back from the big top tour. I did a rope act there, so I didn’t get a lot of time to train pole. But now that I’m back I’ve been training it more to get ready for an audition.
JR – That’s awesome! Good luck!! How did your relationships with your friends at Smirkus differ from the ones you have at SANCA?
JH – My friendships at Smirkus were very durable. Because we spent so much time together traveling and working together we all had to get along really well. But since we were all striving for a common goal it made it really easy. I’d call every trooper a close friend. They’re like a second family! I think my friendships at SANCA are much more varied.
JR – Really? How so?
JH – Well I befriend lot of people in the younger performance groups and in other classes, but with Cirrus, the performance group I’m in, it feels like a little more business-like than at Smirkus. (Cirrus is the oldest performance group at SANCA (ages 12-18) Nimbus (ages 9 to 12) and Stratus (ages 5 to 9) are two younger performance groups also at SANCA. Julaine has been a member of all three and is a member currently of Cirrus.) But now it’s my turn to ask you! How the tables have turned!
*We collapse into giggles as Julaine accidentally throws a pencil across the room. Conversation continues several minutes later*
JH – Who do you think your first circus friend was?
JR – Yikes, that’s a tough one. I think my first close circus friend was in a couple aerial classes with me, and then a tumbling class, so we really were able to bond over all of our miraculous failings together.
JH – That’s definitely a good way to bond. It takes 1,000 tries to get a skill, and boy, do we know that. Training is a great way to get close with someone.
JR – Very true. That reminds me of our straps class.
JH – And all the bruises too, from all the failed star roll ups we did.
JR – Yeah, I remember after accidentally bending my arm one too many times during a roll up in class, I went home with massive bruises on my upper arms, but unfortunately forgot about them the next day when I went to go see a play with my school.
JH – Ooch, what happened?
JR – I was in a rush leaving the house and forgot to wear long sleeves, so when I was using the bathroom during intermission, like 3 people came up to make and asked me if I was doing okay and my home life was safe for me. They then told me I could borrow their phones if I needed to call a hotline.
JH – Oh, no! What did you say to them?
JR – I tried explaining that it was all from circus, however I think the idea that I willingly let it happen to me via circus worried them more.
JH – Ack, I can feel their disapproving stares from here.
JR – *shivers*
JH – Straps are really nothing to worry about though. They just hurt.
JR – And give wicked bruises.
JH – True true. Well I have to get back to training, but it was awesome talking to you!
JR – You too! It was really fun to catch up. See you around!
Zoe circusing it up on a statue outside the Luxor in Las Vegas
Over my spring break, I had the awesome opportunity to travel to Las Vegas with my aunt to see some of the world’s most renowned Cirque du Soleil shows. I was there for four days, and managed to squeeze in four shows: The Beatles Love, Michael Jackson One, Mystere, and Ka. As always, I was astounded by the colors, set, stage, costumes, apparatuses and choreography which all made me daydream about performing with Cirque one day. But by far the best part of my trip was my chance to interview an artist. Beejay Joyer is in Michael Jackson One, a Michael Jackson tribute show described by Cirque du Soleil’s website as “An electrifying fusion of acrobatics, dance and visuals that reflects the dynamic showmanship of the King of Pop”. In the show, Beejay’s character is the thread which holds the acts together as he and his friends explore a Michael-Jackson-themed wonderland.
On a Thursday morning he picked my aunt and me up at our hotel on The Strip and brought us to a small restaurant near Fremont Street. Beejay offered to answer a few of my questions in exchange for some excellent breakfast, so I got out my notebook and started asking him about his history with circus.
Beejay’s first circus experience was when he was very young. His family took him to see the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. He began truly training circus in junior high, when he discovered juggling. When I asked him how he chose this discipline he simply said, “I’m not really sure… I just found it, and then it stuck.” After high school he attended the San Francisco Circus Center, where he trained for two years with an eye to a professional career in circus. All his training paid off when he joined Le Reve – The Dream, a show in Las Vegas produced by Franco Dragone. Beejay stayed with the show for seven years. After his run with Le Reve – The Dream, he auditioned for Cirque Du Soleil, and has been with the company for two years.
One of the burning questions I had for Beejay was about the audition process for Cirque du Soleil, and what advice he could give to younger artists who want to join one of the most prestigious circuses in the world. He was quick to answer: “Of course you have to train, but really what’s important is that you be on their minds. When the casting crew has an opening, it needs to be you that they think of first.” I was curious about how to “get on the minds” of casting directors, but Beejay said the answer was simple: Be kind. Reach out. And make an effort to KEEP AUDITIONING. Beejay mentioned, “Some of the best people I know in Cirque had to audition 10 or 12 times before they got in.” He reassuringly noted, “Not making it the first time shouldn’t scare you.”
One thing I began to realize about Beejay as we talked more was his emphasis on trying things more than once and trying everything you can, even if it scares you. In fact, when I asked Beejay what he would change about his pathway to professional circus, his one comment was, “I wish I had tried more of what scared me.” He pointed to one of his friends in Cirque du Soleil who always tries to go to dance classes, even though he isn’t a dancer. “He goes every week,” said Beejay, “which I couldn’t do because it would scare me, even though I know I should try more things.” He pointed out that the more you can do, the more likely you are to be accepted into a show. For instance, Beejay is a juggler, but in the show One he mostly does character acting, and wouldn’t have gotten the role if he didn’t feel comfortable with that skill.
The final question I asked Beejay was about the possibilities for circus artists after performing. He sat back in his chair for a moment before listing the various other options he could think of, such as going to school or learning more about things that interest you. “Or,” he said, “be part of another department, like rigging, in Cirque.” As we finished our eggs and got ready to leave, Beejay left me with a final thought that applied both to circus and to the rest of life: “You can’t know too much.”