.Beyond the Big Top

The East Bay is home to a thriving circus arts scene that provides exercise, community-building, and a unique form of creative expression.

On 7th Street in West Oakland, just across from Interstate 880, the yellow and green Kinetic Arts Center building stands out from its spartan surroundings. Inside, eight- and nine-year-old boys and girls are practicing the basics of parkour, a sport that involves moving efficiently around obstacles, often in an urban environment. The students scramble across the top of a giant padded cube, the mats on the floor below presenting a more forgiving learning environment than brick and asphalt.   

In the aerial portion of the studio, two ten-year-old girls dangle from ropes suspended from the rafters overhead, their legs twined, hands extended, spinning gracefully as an instructor below offers guidance. Just behind them, a woman grips a trapeze and hoists herself up.  

Within the 5,000-square-foot facility, the business at hand is top-flight instruction in circus arts — and business is good. Kinetic Arts Center offered forty classes a week when it opened its doors in 2009. Just three years later, this figure has nearly doubled to seventy classes a week. The children’s troupe, once numbering 9 students, has grown to 29.  

As impressive as its growth is, Kinetic Arts Center is just one slice of a thriving East Bay circus arts scene. The Athletic Playground in Emeryville offers instruction in “monkey conditioning,” an exercise that involves “cultivating adaptable strength for everyday life”; acro-yoga, a kind of yoga/acrobatics hybrid; parkour; aerial arts; acrobatics; partner flips; flexibility; and acrobalance, which involves lifting a partner and doing acrobatic moves using one’s hands and arms. On 9th Street in Oakland, Trapeze Arts offers world-class instruction on the flying trapeze. The renowned Pi: The Physical Comedy Troupe now calls the East Bay home. And just down the street from the Fruitvale BART Station, fire-spinners and contact jugglers have made the Vulcan Lofts the center of the nation’s nascent “flow arts” scene.    

San Francisco has long been the epicenter for circus arts in the United States, due in large part to the lasting influence of circus institutions like the Pickle Family Circus and Teatro ZinZanni. But in the last four years, the East Bay has emerged as the new mecca for circus, drawing world-class talent and attracting cadres of neophytes.

Thanks to affordable rental prices, the Burning Man community, and the availability of industrial warehouses that can accommodate trapezes, the East Bay appears to be the perfect setting for this movement — which is helping to redefine what the circus is and who can participate in it. No longer relegated to eccentrics or those with long lineages in the Big Top, the circus arts now include kids, busy professionals, artists, and anyone else interested in this creative form of exercise, self-expression, and theater.

For circus professionals, the East Bay scene offers a place to hone their skills. For everyone else, the classes and training centers represent an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a fitness trend on the precipice of exploding. Circus classes provide great exercise, a sense of community, and a bit of whimsy to boot — sort of like yoga, but replacing a sweaty mat for a trapeze suspended twenty feet in the air.  

Circus has long been perceived as a spectator activity for the average citizen. When the circus came to town, families filed into their seats, enjoyed a bit of juggling and clowning, and then went home. Circus wasn’t something everyday people did. It was an insular, even strange, world. Acrobats came from family lines of acrobats, probably from somewhere halfway around the world.

Over the years, circus became a bit of a dirty word, especially in the progressive-minded Bay Area. The omnipresence of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus model translated to an association with tortured elephants and cheap magic tricks.  

But that all changed in the Seventies. Members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Pickle Family Jugglers came together to establish the Pickle Family Circus in 1974, performing their first show at the John O’Connell School in San Francisco in 1975. Group members made decisions collectively, received equal pay, and, in the beginning, held day jobs. The Pickle Family Circus represented a drastic departure from what most Americans had come to expect at the circus: no elephants (or any animals for that matter), only one ring, an emphasis on creative acrobatics and aerial work, and a spotlight on the work of three world-class clowns — Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, and Larry Pisoni.  

“The circus used to be trick, smile, next trick,” said Jaron Hollander, artistic director of the Kinetic Arts Center. “New circus is something that is theatricalized, non-animal …. The performance work is character-oriented, it incorporates a lot of expression, and brings in a lot more theater elements. There ends up being more of a narrative in the event.”  

In the late Seventies, the Pickle Family Circus started touring the country, focusing primarily on Northern California and Oregon. Eventually, the destinations broadened to include international cities like London. Co-founder Pisoni urged audience members to spread the word with his famous advice: “Go call everyone you know, and then call everyone you don’t know.”

Audience members came to love the company’s innovative clown work, the “Mr. Sniffles” character created by Hoyle, the acrobatics, and the stories told without words. A giant white balloon might emerge at various points throughout the show, only to be popped at the end, showering the audience in confetti. At every finale, the “Big Juggle” was a massive display of juggling that involved nearly every member of the troupe.     

In 1984, members of the Pickle Family Circus established the Circus Center San Francisco in an old church in Potrero Hill, originally intended as its training grounds. But the center soon became the preeminent circus-training destination on the West Coast, and its cachet grew in 1990, when master instructor Lu Yi came on board to create the most comprehensive Chinese acrobatics program ever attempted in the United States.   Though the Pickle Family Circus closed, the Circus Center San Francisco is widely credited with setting the foundation for the growth of the Bay Area circus scene. The Bay Area’s early circus pioneers probably never anticipated how expansive the scene would become.   

In the years following the establishment of the Circus Center San Francisco, training centers multiplied. Circus performers, eager to supplement their income and share their passion, branched out and began offering instruction. The recession played a key role in the growth of training centers as well. A depressed real estate market meant that new circus centers were able to snatch up the large open spaces they needed for rock-bottom prices. The industrial spaces of the East Bay were prime targets for conversion into training centers.

The Bay Area has long valued freedom of expression, innovating in new forms like improvisational dance and contact improv. Once facilities became available, circus represented a new avenue to explore, complete with highly skilled instructors. Dancers looking for creative ways to move suddenly found opportunities in acrobatics and aerial arts. Actors looking to broaden their range discovered the ancient art of clowning.

“What’s helping circus grow is that the things that were already prominent in the Bay Area can merge really well with circus arts,” said Rain Anya, co-creator of The Paper Doll Militia aerial troupe and an aerial instructor. “Not just circus arts [are] growing, but growing in conjunction with exercise, creativity, and movement.”

“When I came to circus, I was looking for a place to find a new kind of movement, a way to train with less barriers,” said Emma Close, an eighteen-year-old student at Kinetic Arts Center. “Here, I’ve found new ways to move, to express myself, to grow.”

While the old circus was a novelty spectator sport with only a small number of practitioners, the new training centers springing up across the Bay Area did everything possible to make the tent as big as possible — for dancers, moms, and circus pros alike. For one thing, prices are reasonable. A ten-class package at the Kinetic Arts Center costs just $130. Drop-in classes are $16 each.

In addition, fostering a sense of community has been built into the mission of places like Kinetic Arts Center and Athletic Playground since their inception. “Over and over again, we get people who will walk in and say, ‘It feels good, it feels friendly,'” said Kinetic Art Center’s Hollander. “My experience is that if I walk into a place that didn’t feel friendly, I’d feel like it’s a waste of money. When it comes to community-building, it’s … about trying to get an environment that feels nice — everything from having color in the building to providing some sort of personalization when someone walks through the door.”    

Circus also offers a more social way to keep in shape. Learning trapeze, clowning, or acrobatics necessitates more social interaction than a twenty-minute jog on the treadmill. In fact, many of the skill sets are dependent upon group interaction. Acro-balance, for instance, consists of the strenuous art of balancing one human being atop another. To make it work, people have to get close.     

“Circus is such a good social tool,” said Anya. “Boundaries in real life are crossed. Actually touching each other creates a lot of different kinds of bonds. And the Bay Area is really receptive to that kind of thing.”

Though they may be fun and social, the circus arts are also a killer workout. Most students will burn anywhere from 200 to 500 calories an hour, or more, depending on the intensity of the exercise. My brief attempt at aerial work proved that just six or seven minutes was quite an intense workout. I can only imagine how grueling an hour of such activity would be.

Students build strength quickly, too. Aerial work might require supporting your whole body weight with one arm. Acro-balance might require supporting your body weight — and another person’s.             “The difference it makes in people physically is very noticeable,” said Hollander. “Aerial work, for example, provides one of the most well-rounded fitness experiences available — every muscle [used] in every direction. What’s more, the fitness benefit is easier to attain when you’re doing something you can also be passionate about, something you can have a great time doing. When the practice of what you do becomes the passion, you’ve got a real good recipe for success.”    

Dog Shit Park at the Vulcan Lofts consists of collapsed pianos, defiant plants, a patch of concrete, and plastic deck chairs. The experience is rounded out by the smell of fuel, cigarette smoke, and dogs.  

On a recent Tuesday evening, about thirty people were focused on Aileen Lawlor, who was spinning a flaming staff. Her movements created an orange contrail and a whooshing surge of heat. Thumping bass extruding from a van in the parking lot nearby acted as a metronome. She gracefully manipulated the burning stick, rolling it down her leg to her extended left foot, then back to her hands. She’s one of the top fire-spinners in the world, and she regularly practices at Dog Shit Park.  

Vulcan Lofts — a live/work community in East Oakland built in a former smelting plant — is the unofficial center of the “flow arts” movement, a broad term that encompasses staff-spinning, contact juggling, hula-hooping, and fire-spinning. Flow arts owes a debt of gratitude to Burning Man, the festival circuit, and the underground music community. The electronic music scene helped generate an interest in object manipulation as a means of personal expression and dance. Burning Man, naturally enough, drove an interest in using fire. Myriad influences, including martial arts and the Maori art of poi (fire-spinning), all converge in flow arts.    

“Flow arts is an umbrella term for a lot of different performance art — loosely defined as a mental state of being completely in the element with your prop, when you’re working so smoothly you don’t have to think about what’s happening next,” said Richard Hartnell, a contact juggler and a resident of Vulcan Lofts. “To flow [you can use] anything from devil sticks, juggling, to standing on a ball, even using a bicycle for flatland tricks. It’s about mastering an object to achieve mastery of yourself.”

Mastery doesn’t come easy, though. Hartnell estimates that it requires 10,000 hours to master a single object. To demonstrate, he rolls a clear plastic ball through his hands, up across his arm, and behind his shoulders; the movements fluid and precise. At one point, he manipulates the ball so skillfully that he creates the illusion that it’s floating. Later, he switches to tricks involving multiple balls, stacking them into a pyramid and rotating them, blurring the distinction between the balls and his body.  

With DNA from Burning Man and Eastern art forms, flow arts is also touted for providing grounding and mindfulness. Said Hartnell: “Over time, I started to develop almost a relationship with this state of mind that kept me coming back. I wanted to bring that feeling of being in tune with myself, and being able to appreciate every moment of the day a little bit more. It turned into a very meditative thing.”

Flow artists of every stripe are everywhere at the 63-unit Vulcan Lofts. Five or six fire-spinners might all live together, for example, as evidenced by the shopping cart full of fire extinguishers in unit 43. But not all of the residents are involved in circus — in fact, only roughly fifty of the two hundred residents are. But there is no better place in the Bay Area to get in on the growing flow arts scene. A weekly spin and fire jam draws top talent, and the open-door policies of most units mean shared practice time and idea-swapping is pretty much guaranteed. Open-air practice floors are littered with sticks, poi chains, and objects waiting to be flowed.         

“It’s really kind of a Zen thing,” said fire-spinner Anthony Moran. “Flow is about a state of mind.”

Before Héléne Turcotte and Luc Martin, the world of trapeze was a world of back and forth, of somersaults and swinging. That all changed when Turcotte and Martin introduced the world to “Mouvance.” Conceived as an aerial tango, the piece won numerous circus awards, including the prestigious gold medal at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris in 1989. The piece revolutionized the trapeze and made Turcotte and Martin stars.  

And if you want to learn trapeze (either professionally or casually) in the East Bay, Turcotte might very well be your teacher. The glut of local circus talent means that even beginners have the opportunity to work with true giants of the industry. Turcotte teaches at both Trapeze Arts and Kinetic Arts Center, and her classes are open to practitioners at all levels.         

“What is so interesting about the practice of trapeze is that you can start at any age — kids to late in life,” said Turcotte. “Then you can advance at your own level. Some students advance to professional quality very quickly.”  

Across the bay, the Circus Center San Francisco is stacked with circus talent: Lu Yi, Xiaohong Weng, and Kemin Xia, world-renowned acrobatics instructors from China with decades of individual experience; Russian aerial leader Elena Panova; and longtime clown Joe Dieffenbacher. The presence of these professionals is helping to make the United States more competitive when it comes to talent in the international circus scene.

“To be from the US in the circus world is to work uphill,” said Jeff Raz, the Bay Area casting partner for Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. “Those international schools have a really long tradition. They have 2,000 years in China, and at least a century in Russia. It used to be that to make it, if you come from the US, you really have your work cut out for you. That’s changing now.”

The opportunities for world-class professional development are legion. “The quality of instruction — it’s not just some of the best in the Bay Area, but some of the best in the world,” said Ayla Agarwal, executive director of the Circus Center San Francisco. “It doesn’t matter your interest or ability level, you’ll get the same level of instruction no matter what your goals.”

Raz ran the Circus Center San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory from 2000 to 2010. During that time, clowns under his tutelage received a well-rounded education in all things clown, including acrobatics, mime, dance, ballet, music, history, juggling, makeup, costume, and business — most clowns are independent contractors. Of his 140 or so graduates, 70 to 80 percent now work as professional performers, according to Raz.

Circus performers who’ve trained in the Bay Area have gone on to perform in major circus venues like Cirque du Soleil, Cavalia, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sweet Can, and Circus Vargas, and, locally, circus landmark Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco. They perform at conventions like WonderCon, at outdoor festivals like Art and Soul Oakland, and at private parties. Veronica Blair, a former student at the Kinetic Arts Center, went on to become a featured aerialist in AFRIKA! AFRIKA!, the most successful circus show in Germany. Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi, who took classes at the Circus Center San Francisco, ended up in Cirque du Soleil together — as a married couple.

The scene’s sheer volume of talented artists means that unique and cross-disciplinary forms are springing up all the time. Working together and sharing space creates what Richard Hartnell refers to as a “mutual inspiration conspiracy.”

“The main thing here is they synthesize, they cross boundaries,” said Raz. “Most circus performers from the Bay Area are experts at more than one thing. Most clowns are also professional actors and acrobats. Most acrobats are dancers. The creativity comes from mixing forms together, creating something new.”

Innovations in the Bay Area ripple out across the country, showing up in places like Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles. And cross-pollination means that circus elements are cropping in unexpected places, like in the fiery performances of The Crucible in West Oakland. 

Whether the circus arts will ever achieve the level of mainstream acceptance as yoga isn’t clear. But regardless of where the art form is headed, it’s clear that the worlds of dance, theater, and fitness will never be the same. 


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