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Ring masters: artists build a circus scene in New Orleans

Up in the air with aerialists, acrobats and jugglers

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Elizabeth Rose - PHOTO BY CRISTIAN BUITRON
  • Photo by Cristian Buitron
  • Elizabeth Rose

It's not hard to spot Elizabeth Rose's Fly Circus Space on North Claiborne Avenue in Treme. There's no marquee, but the weathered building looks like one of New Orleans' many old neighborhood movie theaters. Rene Brunet Sr. opened it as the Harlequin in 1910, and it later became the Clabon Theatre (and even later a disco and a church). There's a colorful seahorse mural on the Ursulines Avenue side, but the gym sits on a strip of scruffy buildings across from the I-10 overpass.

  Inside the airy raw space, trapeze bars, ropes and aerialists' silks hang from the rafters. Thick black crash mats lie on the theater's sloping cement floor. Four unicycles lean against the exposed brick wall. Boxes of juggling pins and balancing stands line another wall. Here, Rose teaches acrobatics and aerialist skills both to hobbyists and aspiring performers.

  Aerialist classes are becoming more common and specialized gyms are opening across the country, but Rose is not focused on an exotic exercise trend. Since moving to New Orleans in late 2013, she's been working on building a circus scene in the city.

  "I want to make a circus community in New Orleans of artists that are creating work — doing their own devised work — and who are working for other circus companies around the world," Rose says.

Elizabeth Rose - PHOTO BY CRISTIAN BUITRON
  • Photo by Cristian Buitron
  • Elizabeth Rose

New Orleans is full of performers, from French Quarter and Frenchmen Street buskers to those who focus on convention and corporate events. While sideshow stunts, aerial acts, magic and burlesque often are bundled together in variety shows, circus performance has its own well-established traditions, skills and lingo. A handful of circus artists are working on their solo careers and appearing around town. In recent years, the revival of burlesque has drawn many new performers to local stages. And the standup comedy scene has both launched local comics and drawn performers here. Could a circus scene be next?

  Rose has performed with professional companies including Teatro ZinZanni in Seattle, the all-female Aerialistas troupe during stints in Spain and Germany, and she choreographed and performed in The Way Out for Acrobatic Conundrum, a contemporary circus group in Seattle. She spent the first two weeks of August in Spain at the International Rope Meeting, an event for 100 aerialists from around the globe. This week, she's in Trenton, New Jersey, serving as program director for the American Youth Circus Festival.

  When Rose moved to New Orleans, she worked out of a gym in the Lower Garden District called La Motion, which had been opened by movie stuntmen.

  "I didn't think there would be no collaborators," Rose says. "I thought there had to be someone here who was doing circus at a professional level. I never lived in a city where there wasn't. ... I was like, 'OK, I am just going to do this.' I am going to grow the circus community here. I am going to teach, make community, make space and we'll have artists around making shows. It'll be great."

  Last year though, the stuntmen moved to Atlanta, along with many movie industry professionals and projects that were lured by Georgia's film tax credits. La Motion's lease expired and the gym closed.

Morgan Tsu-Raun and Nathan Kepner of Crescent Circus. - PHOTO BY CRISTIAN BUITRON
  • Photo by Cristian Buitron
  • Morgan Tsu-Raun and Nathan Kepner of Crescent Circus.

  A frantic search for a new space — and home for her community-building efforts — landed Rose at the building at 1031 N. Claiborne Ave., not far from her Treme home. Since opening Fly Circus Space in January, Rose has taught classes in various types of acrobatics and aerial work. Other performers teach trapeze classes and there's a juggling club session on Sundays.

  "The studio is a mechanism to make work," she says. "All of this is only to make work and create that community here."

  The juggling club is run by other performers who moved to New Orleans, though they are following a different path than Rose.

  Nathan Kepner and Morgan Tsu-Raun are married and perform as a duo under the name Crescent Circus. Kepner is a magician and juggler and Tsu-Raun does balancing acts. They use a circus theme to tie together their act and have appeared on The Tonight Show. Kepner believes circus arts are becoming more popular.

  "There's no such thing as a famous juggler," Kepner says. "No one knows Anthony Gatto (who holds several world records in juggling). But with the internet, people are starting to appreciate (circus arts) in a deeper way."

  During their first year in New Orleans, Kepner taught chemistry at a local school and the duo busked in the French Quarter. Then they quit their day jobs. In a few years, they built a reliable schedule of corporate events (mostly outside of New Orleans), college performances and occasional theater shows, and they still busk a couple times a week in the French Quarter.

  Busking is one way to get started in circus and sideshow performance. Arianna Pelullo, who performs as LadyBEAST, got established locally by breathing fire and doing other pyrotechnics tricks on Frenchmen Street. As she developed the act, it grew to four people performing on the empty lot where Dat Dog now stands at the corner of Chartres Street.

Top: Kaeti Frady balances on a table in her acrobatic - living room set. Photo by Elsie Smith - Bottom l-r: Kristine Oines takes an aerial class at Fly Circus Space, and Elizabeth Rose practices. - PHOTOS BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photos by Cheryl Gerber
  • Top: Kaeti Frady balances on a table in her acrobaticliving room set. Photo by Elsie SmithBottom l-r: Kristine Oines takes an aerial class at Fly Circus Space, and Elizabeth Rose practices.

  LadyBEAST grew up in Philadelphia and was training to be a track and field athlete like her father, who had competed in the Olympics. In her early 20s, she switched gears and moved to London, where she worked as a visual artist.

  "You can't do both," she says. "Once I discovered circus, I was like, 'I can be an athlete and an artist at once.' Those two things are married. We train four hours a day for things people will see."

  As she became more focused on circus arts, she trained with Vaughn Avery to do escape acts and taught herself the classic balancing trick of walking on the tops of bottles, she says. She's also done aerial performances, including a three-woman trapeze act on a frame resembling a chandelier.

  LadyBEAST has combined circus and other types of performance in shows such as YardBaret, a speakeasy-style cabaret held at private spaces in Bywater. It has included aerialists, fire-breathers, knife-throwers and performances by Guglielmo, who looks like a mustachioed sideshow strongman and sings opera while dancing on broken glass or having a nipple pierced. LadyBEAST also presented versions of the variety show at One Eyed Jacks and incorporated burlesque dancers.

  Along with Clay Mazing, LadyBEAST created Vaude d'Gras, a show with a dystopic theatrical narrative that incorporates many of the same players and their acts. The show went on a West Coast tour in LadyBEAST's truck in midsummer, and she has spent August in Bellingham, Washington at the Lookout Arts Quarry, a collective space for artists in many disciplines, including circus, sideshow, clowning and more.

  The San Francisco-based Vau de Vire Society, a circus group that performs on stages and in immersive events that are melded with the city's dance scene, hired LadyBEAST to do her bottle-walking and other acts at the Eclipse Festival in Oregon Aug. 18-23. Ladybeast also is preparing to attempt to set a record for a straitjacket escape performed in the air, while hanging from a hot air balloon at the Burning Man festival next summer.

Elizabeth Rose performs on a rope. - PHOTO BY CRISTIAN BUITRON
  • Photo by Cristian Buitron
  • Elizabeth Rose performs on a rope.

Developing a unique act is the way circus artists used to get hired by circuses. Performers still can get contracts to do their act in circuses across Europe, which has many more professional opportunities, Rose says. In North America, there are fewer circuses, and some hire performers and have choreographers create the show, Rose says.

  In May, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its final performance after 150 years. Ticket sales plummeted after it removed elephants from its shows, and its owners decided to fold.

  There are other traditional circuses, such as New York's clown-heavy Big Apple Circus, UniverSoul Circus based in Atlanta and Circus Flora and Circus Harmony, both in St. Louis, Missouri, but they aren't as big as Ringling Bros. was. There also are contemporary circus groups such as Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco and Seattle and California's Flynn Creek Circus.

  In 33 years, Cirque du Soleil has grown from a collection of street performers in Montreal, Canada to a global entertainment company. For years, its shows focused on core circus skills: acrobatics, balancing, object manipulation and clowning. In recent years, it has sought to broaden its appeal with shows built around the music of The Beatles and Michael Jackson and the movie Avatar.

  Montreal also is a hub of circus training and creativity. It's home to the Ecole nationale de cirque and many contemporary circus companies, including the influential 7 Doigts, or Seven Fingers, and Cirque Eloize.

  Notable American training programs include the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), founded by former Cirque du Soleil performers and twin sisters, Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion.

  Trapeze and balancing artist Kaeti Frady graduated from NECCA in May. She had job offers in Portland, Oregon, Santa Fe, New Mexico and Austin, Texas, which has a small circus scene. But the jobs were teaching aerial skills in gyms where working on silks is an exotic workout (though some students may perform on an amateur level).

  Frady chose to move to New Orleans. She arrived in June with her rigging equipment and what she calls her "acrobatic living room set," a structurally reinforced armchair and a side table she uses for balancing tricks.

  "I was looking to integrate myself into a diverse artistic community with people doing different things than I do," Frady says. "The circus community is small here. It's fledgling."

  She's performed a couple of times at low-key events. She improvised a trapeze act at Fly Movement Salon, which Rose created two years ago as a sort of open mic for circus acts held the first Tuesday of every month at Cafe Istanbul (spectators are welcome). Frady also collaborated on a performance at Art Klub, an art and performance space in St. Roch that's open to interdisciplinary projects, particularly dance and performance art. Frady did contortion work while an artist draped paper and plastic over her and projected video onto that.

  But circus is a professional calling for Frady. She originally was interested in martial arts but became fascinated by trapeze work while pursing a cultural anthropology degree at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

  "The moment I first touched a piece of aerial equipment, I felt like, 'This is it,'" she says. "It freaked me out — not the thing I wanted to feel while about to graduate college. I fought it for a couple years, but it got to a point where I couldn't see myself doing anything else."

  After a couple of years working with AirDance New Mexico, an aerialist dance troupe in her home state, she pursued professional circus training at NECCA. For Frady, it was a sort of graduate school where she worked on performing and learned business and professional skills, such as how to properly rig and secure aerial equipment and develop safety practices.

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  Rose also switched her focus from another discipline. In the 2000s, she was dancing with companies out of Dance Space Center in lower Manhattan. Then she discovered flying acrobatics at the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus at its Palace of Variety on 42nd Street. She ended up trading lessons in dance technique for trapeze skills with a Russian trapeze artist who was trying to improve a duo act. She eventually replaced his performing partner in the act. Then she trained with Smith and Smith Forchion at acrobatic innovator Elizabeth Streb's SLAM (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) in Brooklyn. Rose specializes in rope work and performs on silks.

  "The point of circus is to inspire," Rose says. "It's all about what a human body can do in space. It's more than contemporary dance, which merely seeks to explore — and that's not a small thing. But the whole point of doing these things that are fantastic is to inspire. So when people see a circus artist fighting gravity — because that's what all circus is about — they might not connect with it on a visceral level. They may not know how it feels to flip upside down or walk on a wire. But they are connecting with it on an emotional level. They've had the feeling of facing fear and anxiety. (You have to) keep going. In our lives, we all have those challenges that seem insurmountable — and then we do them. You figure it out, and then you're like, 'Oh my God, I did that.'"

  At Fly Space, Rose has taught many new aerialists to do moves such as saltos or their first "drop" — any maneuver in which an acrobat lets go of the silk and falls or unravels in loops she's wrapped around herself to another fixed position.

  "What I have been trying to do is offer real quality instruction so that people will stop learning things off YouTube," Rose says. "It's like someone who learns how to do a cartwheel and a back walkover saying, 'I'm a gymnast.'"

  Rose and LadyBEAST are working to cultivate an audience for circus in New Orleans so they can do professional work here. Both carry their own insurance and bring their own rigging equipment.

  "People need to understand the value of your work," LadyBEAST says. "If they're not an artist, then how would they understand why you're charging what you do? The reason it's $500 is because I get on bottles every day. You're not paying for five minutes of me walking on bottles. You're paying me to live my life and train bottle walking so I can do that for that five minutes."

  At Fly Circus Space, Rose also teaches kids, both in summer camps and classes throughout the year. She has taught acrobatics to students at International School of Louisiana for three years. She'd like to see more kids from the neighborhood in her gym. She is becoming a sponsored artist of the New York nonprofit Fractured Atlas. It allows artists to seek grants under the guise of the umbrella organization.

  "I am getting fiscal sponsorship from them so I can start a nonprofit youth company for kids in the 6th Ward and 7th Ward," Rose says.

  Getting young people interested in circus offers multiple benefits.

  "In 10 years, I can have a circus in New Orleans." Rose says. "I want to be able to create work after I am not performing any more."

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