Everything is upside down and visible only in momentary glimpses as they whirl around in a blur. Breathing is controlled and steady as the body prepares for another strength-based move. The audience erupts with applause at the endurance it takes to make that shape in the air, and then hold it.
“Smile and freeze! Hold, hold, hold,” says Bay Area circus artist and aerialist, Kylie Ireland. “If I don’t remind myself, then I want to rush through each trick. Performing is an adrenaline rush kinda like being on a rollercoaster.”
Ireland, who originally hails from Southern California, moved to Santa Cruz mid-pandemic to pursue circus arts professionally. But, once studios began opening up again, quickly learned that the beach town wasn’t conducive for stable gigs and so relocated over the hill, where the circus scene is more thriving.
“The population of performing artists is much higher in the city, and there are more artists teaching and performing professionally versus recreationally,” Ireland says.
Amind crawling out of the pandemic hole and through generational changes—including shifts away from animal performers and a more frugal spending climate—the circus performance industry continues to find vibrant expression all throughout the South Bay.
Another aerialist who performs regularly in the San Jose and South Bay regions, Cailin Lackey, agrees that there are many great opportunities available to performance artists locally.
“There are so many incredible venues to ‘hang’ in,” Lackey jokes (Lackey’s own family runs the Santa Cruz-based aerial studio Cirque.Tumble.Cheer). “I love how many people and communities I’ve gotten to know because of my work as a performance artist.”
Although aerial arts bring extra pizazz to the circus scene, there’s a lot more going on behind the curtains.
“We’ve seen a growing interest in athletic sport arts—aerial yoga, pole, silks—within the circus community,” says Rion FIsh, a variety entertainer, content creator and event producer. “Jugglers and object manipulation people often find their way in through play or raves, whereas aerial arts is a different way to attract people.”
Fish mentions that the circus arts industry, especially in the live entertainment area, is currently fluctuating post-pandemic.
“Despite this, we have the lovely 7-Fingers circus at Club Fugazi in the City, which was intended to be a 3-month show and it’s still going on over one year later. They’re amazing,” Fish says with hope.
The circus scene, according to Fish, ebbs and flows within the greater central coast region, spanning from Monterey to San Francisco.
“There are little patchworks of themes that inspire each other,” says Fish. “There are a lot of smaller communities embedded within larger communities who don’t even really consider themselves circus.”
Fish, who directs and produces the Flow Arts Show in San Francisco and sits on the board at the Flow Arts Institute, mentions that he’s noticing a trend in struggling festivals.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were producing seven events per year, and now it’s three,” he says. “It’s hard to produce right now. A lot of us saw writing on the wall late last year.”
For the first time ever, Burning Man—the fabricated and very circus-friendly Black Rock City that erects every August in Nevada—is seeing people scramble to try and resell their Burning Man tickets, which is taking place Aug 27 through Sept 4. In fact, there’s currently a meme in circulation stating: “Be careful out there, I had two Burning Man tickets in my car and someone broke in and left four more.”
“This year, [Burning Man] tickets were not in high demand,” wrote techie and nine-time veteran of the festival, Michael Morgenstern, in an Aug 15 Facebook post. “Other festival attendance has been down, and now we are in a situation where [Burning Man] has made their money and camp leaders are at the tail end of information asymmetry, scrambling to sell their tickets.”
“The burner community overlaps with the aerial community,” says Fish. “I don’t think people really consider flow arts when they think about circus, however.”
There’s a chart circulating on social media called Modern Circus that does a good job of illustrating the overlap of the many sub-apparatus and skills that are all considered circus. It goes into detail about the intricacies of what is considered circus, from breaking down the many aerial and fixed apparatus to the characteristics of clowning, the chart examines how everything intersects.
“Many recreational circus artists (like me) did not grow up in dance or gymnastics, so we are learning these circus skills as adults, which can be challenging,” says creator of the Circus Taxonomy chart (imaged here) titled, “Modern Circus.” Amanda Gatewood, who has a PhD in public health, says, “I started researching and found an enormous amount of information about modern circus apparatus and disciplines.”
Gatewood trains and teaches at Madison Circus Space in Madison, Wisconsin, and hopes that this organizational system will help other circus artists discover new skills. “[Recreational circus artists] are often unaware of circus culture, circus history and the diverse array of circus disciplines that are out there,” she says.
An example of one performance category that is often misunderstood or unclear by audiences is acrobatic pole, which also makes a cameo in Gatewood’s chart. Acrobatic pole is very different from what might be seen in a “gentleman’s club.”
“One of the challenges [of performing], is being treated as something not quite human,” says pole acrobatic performer and teacher, Jody Ryker. “I think audience members sometimes are so impressed by seemingly ‘superhuman’ athletic feats that they forget there is a real person with feelings and regular needs just like them.”
Ryker has faced discrimination in the past being a pole performer, but despite this, loves what they do.
“There are always new challenges, new venues, new coworkers and new experiences. Nothing quite compares to being onstage with a cheering crowd, or the come-down after a big gig.”
Another wow-factor category of circus is fire dancing, which Gatewood classifies under both daredevil juggling and flow arts.
“Fire Dancing is a very niche and highly specialized form of entertainment that requires years of performing to really become ‘stage ready,’” says owner of Elevate Fire Dancing, Angela Alessio. “There are so many complex aspects to performing with fire that require safety, skill, split-second timing, musicality and grace, especially when dancers are performing with larger props such as fire hula hoops—and multiple fire hoops—fire breathing, fire eating, fire dragon and fire umbrellas.”
Alessio also mentions that fire performers need to be especially aware of their surroundings because costumes and elaborate headpieces add to the demanding physicality.
“To find professional and experienced performers, even in the highly talented Bay Area, has been a challenge,” says Alessio, whose company is located in Santa Cruz. “I think there are more variety of events that happen on a regular basis in the San Jose area, therefore, the opportunity pool is much bigger.”
It would be a disservice not to mention the circus conglomerate, Cirque du Soleil, and how they’ve helped pave the way for regional circus communities. It is that company aerialists reference when they try to explain what they do to layman audience members with blank faces. And of course, said audiences understand exactly what aerial is after that.
“After filing for bankruptcy protection in 2020, Cirque decided it had to be more than just a circus,” wrote a New York Times article by Emma Goldberg published July 20. “It wanted to be a brand, something that could sell perfumes, sunglasses, tote bags and video games.”
Cirque du Soleil is yet another live entertainment company not immune to the havoc that Covid created in the events and entertainment industry. “We have to embrace the Cirque of the modern era,” the company’s chief growth officer, Nickole Tara, told Goldberg. “We are going to try so many new things.”
Overall, the state of circus arts seems to be malleable, constantly evolving and adapting to stay relevant in a post-pandemic world. Regardless of the industry as a whole, the scrappy Bay Area circus scene continues to entertain audiences and seek out opportunities, supporting each other along the way.
“I’ve learned to always have a backup plan if something is different than expected,” says pole and aerial hoop artist Ryker. “[Performing] is quite a unique experience.”
How and where to run away with the circus
Menlo Park, CA
Youth summer camp
176 Asbury Steet, San Jose
Youth summer camp
2092 Concourse Drive, #87, San Jose
Adult aerial and pole classes
1641 W. San Carlos Street, San Jose
Youth aerial and gymnastics classes and camps
1825 Houret Court, Milpitas
Adult aerial and pole classes
6148 Bollinger Road, San Jose
Youth circus classes
1465 Mission Road, South San Francisco
Youth and adult circus classes, camps and equipment