As Seattle becomes a hotbed of American circus, local performers are transforming their spectacular craft into modern art
On a dark, bare stage, a woman in a maroon sports bra and black shorts stands in a pool of light, breathless, arms bent at the elbows, eyes on her upturned palms. Suddenly her knees dip and she flings herself backward, revolving once and landing back on her feet. And again. And again. She moves through the space as though lost, supine bodies scattered on the stage around her, then bends slowly, impossibly from a handstand into a ring, feet near her cheekbones. The scene feels melancholy, lonely, beautiful, quiet. And I’m watching it at the circus.
More specifically, I’m watching Love and Gravity, an original work by Acrobatic Conundrum, a contemporary circus company based in Seattle. At various points during the show, performers cluster at a microphone, sharing snippets about their love lives. A woman and man, high in the air on side-by-side ropes, simultaneously extend an arm and a leg, as through reaching toward someone or something. One performer clings to another, koala-like, as they spin inside a giant metal hoop. And all throughout, the black box stage is largely bare, not a sparkle or spangle in sight.
This is the essence of modern circus: intimate and personal, a combination of impressive physical skills and emotional storytelling. It’s visceral like modern dance and clever like avant-garde theatre—and a far cry from the ideas of circus that still prevail in America.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which recently announced that they’re closing up shop in May after 146 years, effectively froze our country’s understanding of circus around 1920: lion tamers and ringmasters in red tailcoats and top hats, fire-breathers and elephants, clowns piling out of tiny cars and daring women on a flying trapeze. Striped tents full of pure spectacle are designed to drop the jaws of children, their tongues stained blue by cotton candy, before the whole operation ships off into the night. It’s wild and romantic—and “running away with the circus” is still shorthand for abdicating one’s life and responsibilities for a life of itinerant adventure.
And then, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Cirque du Soleil with its staggering production values and fantastical sensibility.
Contemporary circus today is so much more. “For a circus act to really succeed, it has to be an extension of the performer’s self or soul,” says Terry Crane, an aerial rope artist and the cofounder and artistic director of Acrobatic Conundrum. Good circus, he says, isn’t just about feats of incredible strength and flexibility, it’s about saying something true, and making work that only you can make.
As opposed to traditional circus, which strings together discrete acts of spectacle, contemporary circus uses traditional circus skills—and no animals—to tell a story or express a theme. Like their predecessors, modern circus artists are world-class technicians, but they apply their athleticism and their disciplines to convey personal, poignant artistry. Elegant acts play out on corde lisse, as performers swing and climb the thick rope, their bodies somehow freed from gravity. The hypnotic, fluid motion of a Cyr wheel artist is as powerful an image as da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Poetic acrobatic duets play with shifts of weight and balance, investigating the vulnerability of placing yourself entirely in someone else’s hands. Much like music, circus can short-circuit a word-laden brain and tap into wells of joy, fear, sadness. Watching someone tumble down a rope only to catch themselves just short of the floor, your heart aches even as your adrenaline spikes.
Like any art, circus is a living thing, evolving and malleable, and many of its practitioners are expanding its storytelling possibilities while honoring the traditional forms on which it’s built. More and more of those envelope-pushing artists work in Seattle, where a growing community of professionals is redefining the circus for today.
The foundation of all circus, explains Susie Williams, a former flying trapeze artist and the managing director of Acrobatic Conundrum, is tumbling. At the world’s major circus schools, which operate largely like traditional universities, the curriculum for an aspiring professional is demanding and comprehensive. There’s acrobatics and aerials, basic manipulation (juggling) and clowning. The more specialized skills—teeterboard, hoop diving, Chinese pole—seem endless. Performers also learn acting and dance. “These aren’t people who just do flips,” Williams says.
The paths artists take after graduating are uncertain. In major hubs like France, Belgium and Montreal, graduates of professional circus training programs have a finished act in their chosen discipline and a built-in pipeline to show producers. (Montreal’s prestigious École Nationale de Cirque [ENC] is across the street from Cirque du Soleil HQ.) These practitioners also benefit from government support for the form.
“Around the world, circus is as established as dance or theatre,” says aerial rope artist Carey Cramer. Many of the artists I talked to for this story have toured Europe in traditional, tent-style circuses. The appetite for the form is much greater there, where it originated.
In the 1700s, a British soldier who’d fought in the Seven Years’ War returned home with badass trick-riding skills, and wanted to make money showing them off. (Equestrian origins explain the circus’s traditional ring shape.) Clowns and tumblers, jugglers and musicians were hired to broaden the show’s appeal, and the circus as we know it was born.
“In Germany, I can tell someone that I’m a trapeze artist and no one is surprised that that’s a real job, which is very different from here,” says Rachel Nehmer, who, with her husband Ben Wendel, makes up Seattle-based trapeze duo and Teatro ZinZanni regulars Duo Madrona.
Circus in America began very differently. In the early 20th century, not everyone had easy access to theatres, so circus became portable. “Because they had people traveling by train, they could do the same act over and over again and they didn’t need innovation,” Williams says. “It stopped being about creating sophisticated art and became about spectacle. It was, what can we get up in a day and repeat endlessly without killing ourselves?”
After a heyday that stretched into the 1940s, circus on both sides of the Atlantic went fallow as radio and film sated the public’s appetite for entertainment. Circus families guarded their skills closely, preventing interested outsiders from learning.
That changed in the ’70s, when circus scions Annie Fratellini and Alexis Gruss, Jr. founded the first two Western circus schools in Paris, reinvigorating France’s appetite for the languishing form. Major schools opened in Europe, Australia and Canada. In 1974, the grassroots Pickle Family Circus formed in San Francisco, introducing modern circus to America and leading to the formation of the Circus Center, which remains one of the nation’s preeminent training grounds. Club Med, of all places, started offering trapeze classes in the ’80s and recreational trapeze exploded in popularity. Formed in 1984, Cirque du Soleil ramped up the spectacle to capitalize on the language barrier-free appeal of circus; 1990s TV broadcasts made it an international phenomenon. In 2015, nearly 150 million people saw a Cirque show.
More and more, circus is entering the mainstream. The 2013 Broadway revival of Pippin reinvigorated a dusty property with help from Montreal circus company Le 7 Doigts de la Main, with Tony-winning results. Venerable dance-theatre company Pilobolus regularly incorporates circus elements into their popular work. In 2014, an aerial silk artist got a standing ovation on America’s Got Talent.
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Walking into the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts in Georgetown, I can’t believe there was a time when Americans didn’t care about this kind of performance. Each week, some 800 students filter through the cozily cavernous facility, ranging in age from 2 to 72, studying a staggering array of skills at all levels of performance. The massive space—25,000-square-feet in total, which includes the adjacent flying trapeze space—smells like chalk and sweat. The low buzz of chatter is punctuated by the dull thump of feet on springy, carpeted floors. A pewter-haired woman glides past me on a unicycle, while to my right Ben Wendel coaches two young women on a trapeze. Far across the room, Carey Cramer is juggling tennis balls off the floor.
Jo Montgomery founded SANCA with Chuck Johnson 13 years ago, after falling in love with circus arts through Johnson’s adult gymnastics class. “He got my head connected to my body again,” Montgomery says as we walk past vast swaths of squishy matting in primary colors. Many of the other students in the class were members of Circus Contraption, a company founded by local performers Lara Paxton and David Crellin in 1998, the same year dinner-circus extravaganza Teatro ZinZanni first unfurled its Speigeltent and began presenting vivid, over-the-top contemporary circus full of top-tier talent.
Contraption, which disbanded in 2009, was known for its dark, cabaret-flavored shows, and set the tone for the circus boom ahead: Emerald City Trapeze Arts runs another major training center, the annual Moisture Festival showcases local circus artists alongside touring acts from around the world, and aerialists like Tanya Brno and Bridget Gunning perform all over town. Meanwhile, theatre companies like UMO Ensemble create intensely physical theatre using circus forms, while groups like IMPulse create innovative, form-busting circus work and the Cabiri uses circus and aerial art forms to create mythical worlds.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the early 2000s, Montgomery recalls, Paxton’s professional-level aerial classes were the only local training opportunity available. Montgomery wanted to offer circus as recreation. In an 1,100-square foot space in a SoDo warehouse, she and Johnson opened SANCA with a few tumbling classes, a mini-trampoline, a tightwire and absolutely no idea how many people would be interested. Within 18 months they’d outgrown the space and moved into their current home.
Most students start on aerial silks, which Montgomery laughingly calls “the little black dress” of the circus world. The popularity of aerial work, which now includes aerial yoga and dance, is a big driver of engagement with circus arts. Versatile Arts in Greenwood and Apex Aerial Arts on Capitol Hill both offer classes for people of all skill levels.
“There’s an aerial school in most neighborhoods now, and you can go and connect with the culture of that place and those people,” says Bridget Gunning, founder of Apex and a veteran aerial performer. “It’s fun to hang onto a bar and run around in big circles and fly. Your hair is flipping around—it’s awesome.”
Community engagement is critical in building a thriving ecosystem for any art form. The more people have experience with circus, the more they appreciate what goes into a show, and the more likely they are to buy a ticket.
At SANCA, everyone over age six warms up together, whether you’re a touring pro from Cirque or a special needs child. Visibility is fundamental to Montgomery’s vision of the space. “People doing insanely good stuff and people trying insanely hard to do a thing,” she says. “It’s all good.”
The ecosystem of circus is like that of any high-level performing art: It’s hard to get paid, and talented people are often lured away by bigger cities with more performance and teaching opportunities. Corporate gigs pay well, but there are only so many, and only so many artists want them.
“As an actor or a dancer it’s also really hard to make a living, but when one show ends you can audition for another show,” Williams says. “That next show exists.” Circus lacks a middle ground, a range of employment somewhere between the poles of the lucrative but corporate jobs like Cirque and making your own weird shit with your friends for free. “That’s where groups like Conundrum come in,” she says.
When Terry Crane co-founded the Acrobatic Conundrum with fellow artist Joselynn Tokashiki Engstrom four years ago, the ENC-trained performer had been working around the world for more than a decade and was looking to bring his international experience to his native Pacific Northwest. “Based on what I had seen in other countries, I thought we could do things to surprise people and make them feel uncomfortable at times,” he says. “We could share our lives as circus artists and not just impress people.”
The nomadic nature of circus work is a difficult lifestyle, but it prevents staleness. Circus artists tour, work with touring artists passing through town and perform at international festivals. They’re making their own work, always in conversation with the wider community. “The work would get boring if there wasn’t that outside influence,” Crane says.
While there may be some grumbling between the contemporary and traditional circus communities, both have an established place in the pantheon. But what about the people who want to question the very nature of circus and challenge the definition of the form?
This is the newest splinter of circus to emerge, and Carey Cramer (who also trained at the ENC) wants to push her own work in a direction that centers people other than the white cis men who run much of the circus show. She wants to question assumptions about what circus looks like. After eight years teaching at SANCA and two-plus performing with Conundrum, Cramer is forming Trickster Rising, an all-female circus company, with aerialist and dancer Leah Jones. The company’s first show, due in September, focuses on gender, “a commentary about what it’s like to be female on stage, but also an exploration of the fluidity of gender across the board,” Cramer says. She’s also working on a still-nascent project with trapeze artist Shannon Gray, exploring social circus rooted in ideas of equity, feminism and social justice, as well as ideas of self-care—a radical act in a field that encourages artists to be so brutally hard on their bodies.
As American circus continues to explode in popularity, audiences will discover what style speaks to them. While working at a variety in Frankfurt, Nehmer was talking with a juggling historian, a “crusty old German guy” named Karl Heinz Ziethen, and she starts his quote with one of those indescribable throaty sounds unique to older Europeans: “‘Old circus, new circus, come on—there’s no such thing. There’s good acts and bad acts.’ And I thought, that’s true! There’s only art that touches you.”