By Calista Faragalli
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
By Bronyn Mazlo
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
Jenna Lowery, Circus Runaway Photography
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!
JH- You too!
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.”
While growing up as a circus kid, many look to their coaches not only for advancing their skills and getting advice about their acts, but also learning about life. Carlo Pellegrini is one of my circus coaches, and he has many bits of advice as a coach, a businessman, and as a professional clown and ringmaster.
Carlo was first exposed to circus when he was six years old and had a recurring dream that he was a juggler in the 12th century, entertaining people as they traveled down a road. When he was about nine, he would stay up past his bedtime peering through a crack in his door to watch The Ed Sullivan Show and memorize the acrobat and juggling routines. He would practice these routines extensively in his backyard. Carlo failed a lot, but kept at it every week.
The first piece of advice from Carlo is to keep practicing. If you want to get really good, one hour per week will not be enough. Ten hours a week is a good start. Even though you fail, you must keep practicing.
Later in his life, Carlo was in college striving to be the accounting major that his father wanted him to be, but as Carlo dabbled in acting and philosophy classes he learned 1) that he was terrible at math, and 2) that he really wanted to be a dancer and join a circus.
At his Catholic college, Carlo met a Jesuit priest, Nick Weber, who had his own one-man circus show, The Royal Lichtenstein ¼-Ring Sidewalk Circus. Later, after rejecting the advice of his father to major in accounting, his father said he should at least pursue a legitimate theater career. That’s when Carlo “ran away to join the circus.” He joined the first national touring company of The Royal Lichtenstein Circus. At this point, he regrets he didn’t give his father’s advice more credence, but life is funny: he did have to learn how to use accounting as a producer and executive director of circuses. Proving the point that in the circus you have to learn to do everything!
Carlo’s second piece of advice is to follow your dream, and make it into something with which you can support yourself. Even though he didn’t finish college, he balances his “follow your dream” advice with this advice: complete your college degree. Of course, circus arts learning improves a student’s ability to succeed academically, so completing a degree should easy.
Years later, after having moved on to performing with the Nikolais Dance Company and working in TV commercials, Carlo met a man on a New York City subway who was carrying a trapeze over his shoulder. Carlo asked this circus-stranger where he was working and received an invite to come to Battery Park City to check out the Big Apple Circus. Carlo sought a job there, and was offered the position of Ringmaster. Later, the owner asked him to perform as a clown. During his season with the Big Apple Circus, Carlo was always working on perfecting his skills. Between shows, he knew he had access to world-class performers, and he asked them to teach him more acrobatics as well as the trapeze.
Carlo’s third piece of advice is to learn everything you can. Part of that general advice is that Carlo believes an aspiring circus performer should master a ground skill and an aerial skill, and that an aspiring circus coach should be able to teach the basics of every circus skill.
Carlo realized he couldn’t support his family on the then seasonal business of the Big Apple Circus, and so he took a job in advertising. Circus was never far from his day-to-day work however, and he taught all his clients how to juggle. Ultimately, he developed a motivational speaking program based on juggling called ‘The Juggling MATRIX’!
While working as a motivational speaker, Carlo led his church’s youth programs. As a result of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, many families in his hometown of Nyack, New York, had been personally affected by losses of loved ones. During counseling sessions with his teen youth group, they asked Carlo to help them put together a fundraising circus show for their community. The teens named it after their church, and called themselves THE AMAZING GRACE CIRCUS!
Carlo and his AGC co-founder Janet Hayes agreed to help them put together a show. After the show, the kids wanted to continue to work and perform together and the AGC! Teen Troupe was born. Today AGC! runs circus arts programs in schools with their signature family fun night fundraisers and community events. Over the past 15 years they have performed for and trained over 70,000 children and teens.
Carlo has always worked with students with a wide range of abilities and personalities. He studies constantly, reading books and attending educational seminars on human behavior and child development. Fundamental to his work is understanding how people learn to learn. Carlo says that he can study a kid for a few minutes and determine his/her learning style. He has learned what approach works with different learning styles. Carlo classifies learners into the following categories: action-oriented learners, analytically-oriented learners, adaptive-oriented learners, and intuitive/creatively‐oriented learners.
Click here to see The AGC Pedagogical Model!
I asked Carlo what he hopes for in the students he teaches. He responded that he hopes his circus students 1) are hungry to learn; 2) are open to learning a full breadth of skills; 3) are willing to put in the time to learn; 4) have a sense of humor, understanding that the basis of circus is improv and Vaudeville; and 5) look at their coaches as a source of extensive experience for students to tap and a resource for contacts and networking.
I also asked Carlo his favorite part of being a coach. He responded that he loves “seeing students get the look of understanding in their eyes.” He loves to see that “look of understanding translated to their bodies in a trick, routine or piece.” He is fulfilled knowing he has “gotten through and now they have a bridge of communication.” His goal is student independence, but for them to always have “an island of security to come back to – to the circus.”
Click here to see Carlo’s Circus Philosophy!
Carlo has been a great coach to me. In addition to teaching me skills and providing me performing opportunities through AGC!, he offers constant encouragement. He helps me balance my passion for circus with a rigorous high school academic schedule. He has provided me leadership opportunities helping to choreograph for the junior troupe and guiding new Teen Troupe members through their first performance. Carlo and AGC! have provided me many opportunities to give back to our community through performing at events like the YMCA Family Fair and volunteering at the AGC! summer camp. Like Carlo, I love to see the excited look in a child’s eyes when he/she accomplishes a new skill!
I have performed as various characters–some named Otto or Bouk, but mostly, I believe clown is about telling the truth. So, I’m Brian.
Paramour is a story of a simple love triangle, but the activity around the story makes the show a spectacle. Not only are the music and dancing beautiful, but like any circus show, there is activity on every inch of the stage and from the ceiling to the floor! I had the same feeling I have at any circus production — wishing I had multiple sets of eyes so I could see everything at once and not miss one performer. Also, having tall people in front of me became a special challenge at Paramour because every inch of stage that’s obscured means missed action!
The show includes so many circus skills including juggling, acro, unicycle, mime, CYR wheel, pole, lyra, trapeze, clowning, contortion, Spanish web, and straps. The aerialists hanging from the chandeliers made me want to go home and find something in my house to hang from. During a dream sequence, a zombie came down from the ceiling over my head! The show also incorporated flying drones decorated like lampshades that “danced” around the actors as they were singing.
Paramour is set to close April 16, 2017, one year from its opening date, due to planned renovations in the Lyric Theater where it is playing. You have just a short time left to see it! I hope it will reopen in some form down the road so I can go see it again!
Thankfully, an AYCO board member helped me arrange an interview with one of the performers, juggler Kyle Driggs. Kyle was very generous with his time and not only answered all of my interview questions about Paramour and his career, but offered advice for me to share!
Kyle began juggling as a teen and was supported by the Philadelphia Juggler’s Club. He was also involved with AYCO member school, Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. By the time he was a high school freshman, he knew juggling was his future. He attributes his successful start in circus arts to the unwavering support of his parents.
In high school, Kyle mostly juggled juggling balls and clubs. In his senior year, he became interested in using rings because of the 1950s technique of rolling them around the body and over the back, coined by the Bramson Family. So when it was time for Kyle to audition for École Nationale de Cirque (ENC), the National Circus School in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, he auditioned with rings. For three years at ENC Kyle developed his skill base and routines. Kyle also minored in dance at ENC, which was evident in his beautiful Paramour acts.
Kyle took my family and me on a backstage tour and showed us small dressing rooms, halls lined with tons of costumes, and a wig room complete with wig drying machines, telling us, “The wigs are constantly washed and styled. They are all human hair.” He took us below the stage where eight musicians play multiple instruments each. Violinist (and mandolin player) Paul “Woody” Woodiel described how when fellow musician Seth Stachowski is unable to perform, his position must be covered by two replacements because he plays five instruments!
Kyle described working on Paramour as intense. After four months of rehearsals, the show opened with eight or nine performances per week. Usually Kyle has one day off per week and only had two weeks of vacation during the whole year.
At the end of our tour, Kyle led us to the stage and enthusiastically described his career path. Of course we wanted to know how Kyle started juggling with umbrellas — his signature object! The story is just how you might imagine: he was playing out in the rain one day with an umbrella, and he discovered he liked the “feeling it had”. Kyle describes himself as an object manipulator who looks to work with objects “with charisma and feeling”. He says that the story he is telling and the feeling he is portraying is more important than technique. Kyle described the many emails he receives from aspiring jugglers asking him what kind of umbrella he uses. He typically answers that he feels it’s a personal choice and that he had to break hundreds of umbrellas before he found what worked for him.
Kyle left me with a few interesting thoughts about ENC (Ecole Nationale de Cirque, in Canada). He described the audition phases which include physical tests (acrobatics, physical conditioning, and flexibility) and artistic tests (dance and acting). Kyle recommends making sure the physical tests are “easy for you” before you audition. I expressed my personal concern about attending a college with French-based communication when I have only studied Spanish in high school. He eased my fears, telling me that the instructors don’t only speak French to students and speaking French is not a requirement. He called ENC the best immersion program for learning French; however, and considers himself fairly fluent now. Kyle cautioned that his three years at ENC were very challenging and that he had to work very hard.
Kyle lives a life of an artist entrepreneur. He said, “It is hard to make a living as an artist in the US… in Europe, it’s different. In France, for example, the government pays artists. In the US, you have to constantly get gigs. And you have to pay for your own medical insurance and cover your own liability. As a freelancer, you have to have a lot of hustle.” He described that working for Cirque du Soleil is an entirely different experience similar to working for any big corporation: you have job security and perks such as very good healthcare, but that you surrender some creative control.
Kyle values his creative control and his ownership of his own routines. In fact, though currently employed by Cirque, he legally owns the material he performs in Paramour, a situation he describes as unusual and that required extra legal advice and negotiating on his part.
Once Paramour closes, Kyle will spend June with Circus Flora in St. Louis, Missouri. He is spending his free time applying for grants to fund his independent projects and working on his next big step in life – starting his own company to produce shows himself. He is working with a partner/theater owner in Philadelphia to bring that dream to fruition.
Advice from Kyle:
Network. You can’t do it alone. Reach out to people who might be able to help you.
Go for it. “Whole heartedly go for it!” For me as an aspiring aerialist, for example, he recommended reading and viewing on line everything there is on my tool of choice, silks. He told me to learn everything there is to know and to study it like I would a school subject that really intrigues me, above and beyond what is assigned.
Work hard. Working as a circus artist entrepreneur is hard work. Prepare yourself. Make yourself an expert at your skill, and work until the physical parts of the ENC audition are easy for you.
Circus is an opportunity: Circus is one of the few disciplines that is still “do it yourself”. With dance and acting, so much has already been done that it seems like you are defined (in one style) before you even go to school. You are pigeonholed. Circus is still undefined and open to more creative interpretation.
Final interesting tidbits:
1) The performers actually do say “hup” (softly) on stage – I wondered where it came from!
2) Kyle won the Paramour Blooper Award for once falling off the stage during a performance!
Thank you, Kyle, for spending so much time with me! Best wishes for the future! I hope to see you again down the road!