I arrived to the San Diego Circus Center hot, sweaty, and brimming with anticipation. A little boy in a red t-shirt zoomed past me in a parking lot, shouting with glee as a hoard of children and an overwhelmed chaperone shuffled behind him. Peering toward where the little humans came from, I saw my first glimpse of what was the magic of AYCOFest 2019. Already a well-oiled machine; there were tables set up for check-ins, swag, questions, and a well-guarded tech rehearsal happening inside the circus school doors. The quick paces, fast answers and picking up of heavy objects felt like home. The Festival hadn’t truly begun yet, but the excitement of four days of non-stop circus was certainly in the air.
AYCO (The American Youth Circus Organization) began in 1998 with Kevin O’Keefe putting out a call to the national youth circus community of The United States. Since then, AYCO has put in 21 years of work toward their mission of “promoting the participation of youth in circus arts and supporting circus educators.” In 2001, AYCO hosted its first biennial youth festival in Sarasota, Florida. This first festival had seventy-five participants, nine youth troupes, twenty-five workshops, one youth gala and one professional show. This year from August 14th – August 18th, the 10th biennial AYCOFest was held in San Diego, California, at the San Diego Circus Centre. This iteration of the Festival had a record-breaking 373 attendees including: 20 staff, 14 work-study helpers, 66 chaperones / adult attendees, 213 youth participants and 73 workshop leaders. Over a period of four days this made for 214 workshops and 3 showcases (including 131 youth performers!)
The AYCOFest 2019 host, San Diego Circus Center (SDCC), is nestled away on the industrial and modern Hancock Street. The school has everything a circus artist could want : a comfy lounge, a dance studio, a trampoline, a foam pit, high ceilings, and what feels like a million rigging points. Jean-Luc Martin is the owner of the SDCC and was the primary host for AYCOFest 2019. I had the privilege of sitting down with Martin to hear his own circus story. From rock-climbing, to attending École Nationale du Cirque (ENC) in Montreal, to a lucrative career with Cirque du Soleil, to acting and then producing in Hollywood, to becoming an insurance broker and then (finally) founding SDCC in 2011, Martin’s life story is an adventure. In hearing all of the facets of his story and in asking him about his experience with AYCO, one thing became clear: Jean-Luc Martin believes in systems, “ The world is a system. Teaching is a system, life is a system…you have to embrace the systems,” said Martin. AYCOFest was no exception for him. Martin had effectively put his systems into place to ensure that SDCC and the Festival ran smoothly and successfully. “I’m in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing,” said Martin.
During the festival, it was announced that Tara Jacob would officially be taking over the role of Executive Director for AYCO. Jacob has been operating as the interim director since Amy Cohen stepped down from the role at the end of 2018. After a series of interviews and discussions amongst board members, it was decided that Jacob would be given the full role of Executive Director. When I asked Jacob what she envisioned for the future of AYCO, she said, “[AYCO is going to] do what we have been doing, even better, even stronger.”
2019 AYCOFest Director, Natasha Shatzkin, said “This is the biggest festival ever… We actually had to turn people away.” The high volume of attendees is a good sign for AYCO, but it meant that SDCC and AYCO had to get creative to accommodate all the workshops. In one and a half hour chunks, up to fifteen workshops happened simultaneously. The workshops happened in either the SDCC, the Cali Coast Elite cheerleading gym, or in a labyrinth of dance and yoga studios.
I was fortunate enough to teach one of and attend 11 of the 214 workshops over this four day period. These workshops came in all shapes and sizes. From physical, to discussion, to lecture based, there was something for every attendee.
On behalf of CircusTalk and CSAW, I taught a workshop entitled “Auditioning for Professional Circus Schools : Where to Look, Who to Ask and Finding the Path Right For You.” Thirteen attendees huddled around my PowerPoint to learn about and discuss the issues around finding information about circus schools internationally, how best to apply for them and what to do to prepare for auditions. The workshop included parents, kids, and school owners. Those in attendance were incredibly supportive of my initiative to make information more accessible and to connect circus students around the world. A few days after the workshop, I even had one of the teenage circus youth come up to me and say “I was on the fence about circus school, but after your workshop I decided that I am going to do it!” It was a grounding and wonderful experience.
Some of the workshops that I attended or observed included: “Creating Performance Material” taught by Juliana Neves (Circus Juventas), “Advanced Handstands” taught by Jean-Luc Martin, “All the Rolls on Static Trapeze” taught by Marissa Dorschner (Circus Juventas), “Directors Round Table” hosted by Shana Kennedy (Circadium), “Book Your Own Freaking Life! Creating a DIY Circus Touring Network and How to Take Your Show on The Road” led by Shayna Swanson (Aloft Circus Arts), “Let the Research Perform For Your Organization” led by Julie Kendig (Rise Research & Evaluation), “Lighting for Circus” with Jesse AlFord (Board President of AYCO, and the Head Coach with My Nose Turns Red Youth Circus), “Teeterboard: Korean Plank” with Jean-Luc Martin, “Critiquing Circus” led by Amy Cohen (Circus Culture), “Lyra : Transitions From Top to Bottom Bar” taught by Lora Kapelczak (SDCC) and “Discover Central America” with Max Barnaby (Circo Caribe). In this wide range of topics, I learned something from, and was engaged in each workshop. The wide array of things relevant to the American circus community of today can be daunting. But knowing that there are so many brilliant minds working toward the betterment of circus in America reassures me that we are ready for the next wave.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night of AYCOFest all included showcases hosted in the San Diego Circus Center. These included 119 performers from 17 youth circuses and with 9 solo performances.
The opening ceremony of the first night was a performance from the San Diego Circus Center Master Youth Intensive – a five week project which brought together high level teenage youth circus performers from across America in order to put together a show. The hour long experience was jam-packed with high energy aerial acts, one after another. Martin, was a modern “ringmaster” of sorts – announcing the start of the show and participating in a few clowning bits throughout. The young performers moved together, changed rigging, performed high level technique, held their performative state and changed costume like a group of well-seasoned professionals. Perhaps the most notable in the performance was an aerial rope piece that brought the house down. This act was appreciable for any audience, but especially for the circus peers in the crowd who could imagine just how physically exhausting it must have been. Check out some of the Master Youth performances:
Regarding the showcases, I interviewed Ava Kapelczak — a 15-year-old aerialist currently training at San Diego Circus Center. Kapelczak is a writer for AYCO Hup Squad, who participated in the San Diego Master Youth Intensive and Emceed the Youth Showcases. She is very involved in her circus community and was kind enough to review the second night of the showcase for CircusTalk:
AYCO Fest 2019 as a whole was a successful and positive event and the final Showcase was a great display of all those that traveled to be a part of the event. All of the performers were passionate and skilled, with varying degrees of experience in performing. The circus disciplines included in the show were Cyr wheel, aerial silks, roman ladder, contortion, arco, straps and many others that were exciting to watch. One that stood out to me was Linsey Billings’ Cyr wheel act which embodied the black swan. She was both intimidating and strong while being soft and subtle. Another gorgeous act was a dance trapeze piece by Thea LaSan. She was a beautiful performer who knew how to use her long lines to draw the audience in. Her act made you feel the emotion in your heart as you watched her perform.
Circus Harmony showcased an awe-inspiring acro routine that was high energy and super fun. This acro troupe contained many ages but ended up with an amazing cohesive piece and as Jahlah Baum displayed her incredible strength through her basing skills, everyone in the audience cheered from the edge of their seats!
The final act was The Great Y Circus and they filled the entire stage with their performers, apparatuses and many different levels of sound. There was a cube hanging center stage and a chair hanging to the right and left of it, unicycles in front of them, acrobats, contortionists and dancers in front of them and one of their performers played the violin over the Lindsey Stirling “Crystallize” piece of music. The stage was so full of action you almost didn’t know where to look. Between the tumblers, acrobats, aerialists, shiny costumes and live violinist, your senses were overwhelmed, and yet in one act they encompassed circus in all its entirety.
It was an amazing opportunity to be one of the three masters of ceremonies and I learned a lot about all the performers and performance troupes as I announced for them. I think AYCO is a great organization, especially for all of the young performers as they all get a chance to learn performance skills and to meet new people! It was such a great opportunity to network, and to learn alongside people from so many different walks of circus life.
Kapelczack says she’s been blessed to perform in a diverse range of venues and train a diverse number of aerial disciplines. She is very thankful to all of the instructors, coaches, mentors, family and friends that believe in her and continually push her to create her own circus style.
When asked about the showcases, ED Tara Jacob said, “Our team works hard to be sure that the performance as a whole is a representation of youth circus.” For me, the showcases were the most wholesome experience of the whole festival. A four high, a puppet show, roman ladder, clowning, passing acts, ensemble trapeze, those just starting and those who have been doing it for years… from traditional styles to more contemporary there is a lot happening in the youth circus community in America. The Youth Showcases, and AYCOFest as a whole, served as a reminder to the community of how empowering and fun circus is for these young people who are the future of circus in this country. It would appear to be a bright future indeed!
Related content:Festival Snapshot–1st Annual San Diego Circus Festival 2019
Feature photo courtesy of AYCO. Photo credit: Rob Riingen Photography