Back Pocket is an international start-up circus company with big plans. They want to create their show and do the world festival circuit in hopes that they have something unique to offer the industry and a way to make a living while doing what they love. They have specific goals too–they want to make an impact on US circus, and to be part of the growing group of professionals determined to help contemporary circus gain more of a foothold in American cultural institutions. But somewhere in between the lines as we spoke this summer at a cafe in Chicago, it became clear that what they want most of all is just a chance to create their own work. They are in a unique place and time in history, where being an entrepreneurial start-up circus company has many successful precedents, but no blueprint or manual on how to proceed, so they are diving in, full of vim and vigor, well-equipped with talent, sound training and good contacts, but still to some extent, making it up as they go.
Nowadays, 4 of the groups 5 members (Devin Henderson, Maya Kesselman, Dominic Cruz & Michael Hottier) are on tour with the Cirque du Soleil show Luzia. Their fifth member Aurelien Oudot is currently working in Europe. Working for a big company has given them insight in to the industry, clocked them tons of performance experience, and helped them to pay their dues as young performers, but the genesis of Back Pocket began long before they were touring the world–it started with grade school friends in an after school circus program at Circus Center in San Francisco and solidified into a dynamic group of hoop tumblers. In the years between graduation from professional circus school and the present, though their high skill level has served them well, fetching them gigs at the best circuses, they have longed for free reign on a project. At Cirque du Soleil, they were fortunate to be part of the creation process for their stunning act (tropical birds jumping through hoops on a treadmill) and it gave them a taste for more ownership of the process.
Maya explained how the experience with Luzia has helped her become a stronger performer, “It’s kind of the reality check of work. It’s a very consistent job. It’s the most consistent and longest job I have ever had. You are in it for the long haul. Which has been an enormous learning experience.”
Being young artists experiencing the routine of a long run has been motivational for them in many ways, not just pointing out how they might need to create a sustainable act for show after show, but also showing them what matters to audiences. Dominic says they see how deeply connected people feel to the brand. “We had a guy in Denver who saw the show 11 times and we have this (Luzia) program with the picture of the girl on it. He got it tattooed on his forearm, that’s how much he loved the show.”
As they forge out on their own with Back Pocket, they will have some adjusting to do, as running a small company requires much more than just the creative side, and that makes them even more acutely aware of the benefits they get from being in a big production, Maya explained “There have been over 1 million people to see the show. That is so much exposure, and we are performing everyday.” They recognize some other perks to being a Cirque du Soleil employee too. Dominic described how non-circus people finally take what you do seriously, “Our family and friends–when we tell them we are circus artists they say ‘Yeah, whatever.’ But when we tell them we work at Cirque du Soliel, they say “Oh my god! That’s incredible! Can you bring me back stage?!”
In so many ways, Back Pocket is a cohesive group, but they have their differences. For example, they are divided on the usefulness of professional circus training, with Maya recognizing the practicalities of networking as one of the main perks. She studied abroad at L’Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque (ESAC) in Belgium and she described the influence it had on her perspective, “Circus school (other than preparing us physically and mentally and opening our eyes to a lot of ways of working) gave me a network of people. Every year, we would go to the Cirque du Demain Festival. We would go to the circus school in Stockholm (DOCH). There is this huge network of people and it feels like everybody in Europe does circus.”
But Dominic feels that this network has its limitations, “Sometimes you can be so focused on your bubble that you don’t see that bigger picture. A lot of the times I noticed I didn’t go see shows that I would have seen if I wasn’t doing circus school. Of course, I had a great time and met a lot of people. It’s just good to know that sometimes you can get the same sort of circus education by just going to see things, going to be a part of festivals, to be a part of different shows, and training with different people.”
Devin agrees, “You can get to the same level as anyone who went to the school by just doing it. I have a lot of friends who didn’t make it into ENC but they stayed in Montreal, they trained, and watched videos. They put the in same amount or even more than I did because I had the opportunity to be pushed. They are just as successful.”
Devin even finds that his degree in circus arts didn’t prepare them for the business-side of their current endeavor, “In regards to starting a company and going to circus school, I feel that there was no pressure or inspiration to start your own circus company. The school focuses on you becoming an interpreter of someone else’s ideas and maybe creating for yourself, but not creating a circus company. Everything that we are doing, we are learning as we go.”
A Company of Their Own–What’s in a Name?
Creating their own company has been more challenging than coming up with a good name. But the naming part was significant to them.
“You often have circus that is trying to be more than human. We thought that it would be cool to have a circus that you could fit in your back pocket. It’s every man circus. We are just people who like it enough that we trained hard enough to do it,” explained Dominic.
It also delves in to this new aesthetic that circus is more than just the trick–that there is so much work that goes on behind the scenes, and acknowledging the risk and the failure is as important as embracing the successes.
Their every man concept runs deep, as is evidenced by their recent Instagram campaign that takes epic fail to the circus realm, full of hilarious pratfalls and some shocking wipeouts. They managed to coin a hashtag that can only grow in popularity #notsoacrobats. The interesting thing about this hashtag is how it’s taking the new Instagram trend of showing your tender training struggles and amping it up to show not just struggles, but actual faceplants! It’s not just clever marketing though, it’s living up to their name and mission, to show a bit of the humanity and struggle of being part of the circus world. It also delves in to this new aesthetic that circus is more than just the trick–that there is so much work that goes on behind the scenes, and acknowledging the risk and the failure is as important as embracing the successes. Its circus realism at its best, and Back Pocket is all about that, says Dominic, “Circus is always evolving. I think maybe back in the day traditional circus was about the big show and how big you can do it. Now circus has evolved into something a lot more sensual, something a bit more on our level as a human beings. I think that is what the smaller circuses are moving towards. I think even as a small company we have to keep knowledge of where the world is at, where the people are at. Not to just get lost in your own ideas.”
Devin agrees with Dominic and he even thinks small circus companies are important to the health of the industry and the growth of American circus in particular, “A lot of little circuses mean there is a lot more diversity and opportunity. There is also a lot more collaboration and excitement. The more small circuses that gets started in the US, the more diversity there is, and the better it is for the community in general. ”
Although they have been fortunate to have a residency at their home circus school, Circus Center, there is little infrastructure to help a young company grow in the US, so Back Pocket will be headed to Belgium for the creation phase of their show. Michael described their hoped for trajectory: “We have all the residencies we wanted for the creation. They are starting next April. Then we are going to premier in September in Belgium. Then we are going to tour for four months in France, Belgium and Italy. With the help of Les Halles de Schaerbeek of Brussels, the theater that is our main partner who helps not only to program our show and provide a residency, but also helps with the administration and production. How it works in Europe is that you create a show and you do festivals and perform as much as you can the first year, and then people see you and they buy your show for the next year. So we are hoping our big start will be in 2019.”
Once they have participated in the festivals and tasted the touring life, they plan to bring the show back to the US to pay things forward, which they hope to do by creating an American contemporary circus festival. Dominic described their reasoning, “It’s really interesting because there are a lot of festivals in San Francisco. I grew up going to a hip hop dance fest every year. I was just thinking if the hip hop dance crew can get enough support to get a hip hop festival together, they why can’t we get a circus festival together? We are trying to be based out of there because it’s our hometown. A circus fest would be just the thing to get things going.”
Maya chimed in, “Even now, we know so many people who do circus all over the world, so we can invite our friends from France to perform. An ultimate goal would be to expose people to what is actually going on in the world of circus.”
Back Pocket’s vision for the future of their company is well-defined and sweeping at the same time. Of course, the work remains ahead of them at this exciting juncture in their careers. But their hard work, their tight group dynamic, their talent and drive leaves them well-positioned at this moment in history– and they just might stick their landing. Devin best expresses what might well end up being Back Pocket’s secret ingredient for success, “I feel like circus is evolving and it’s becoming an art form on par with physical theater and dance and acting, but it’s not the same. There are so many things specific to circus that make it different enough that for it to evolve, so you have to push circus in the circus realm.” It is that kind of thinking that will keep circus a thriving art form on every continent and while it’s evolving, we can count on Back Pocket to keep it human.
Dominic Cruz is a circus artist hailing from San Francisco Bay Area, CA. He was a part of the youth circus at the SF Circus Center for 10 years, and after graduating from ENC in Montreal, he went on to perform professionally with companies such as Cirque du Soleil, Midnight Circus and The 7 Fingers. Now he is a co-founder of the new circus company Back Pocket.
Devin Henderson began circus with his siblings in San Francisco, under master trainer Lu Yi, after graduating from L’Ecole National du Cirque de Montreal he performed for 4 years with the 7 Fingers and now is a part of the Cirque du Soleil show Luzia. He is excited to take the next step and begin working with his new team and company Back Pocket an American/Belgian based company.
Michael Hottier began circus at the age of 10 in Paris France. He proceeded to attend the L’Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque where he met and teamed up with Maya and another partner to create Trio Anneaux a hoop diving collective. Along with performing for Cirque du Soleil and circus Monti, Michael is also a proud winner of a gold medal for his act in Cirque du Demain. Micheal is now one of the co-founders of Back Pocket.
Maya Kesselman is a circus artist from San Francisco, CA. She was part of the SF Youth Circus for 8 years before moving to Europe where she graduated from ESAC in 2012, and since then has performed in many different circus companies and festivals worldwide with a hoop diving trio called Trio Anneaux. They perfromed at Circus Monti, Cirque du Demain, Young Stage, and the Nikulin Festival in Moscow to name a few. She then joined the creation of Cirque du Soleil’s Luzia and has been traveling with them for the past 2 years. Now she is a co-founder of the new circus company, Back Pocket.
Acrobat and contortionist, Aurelien Oudot studied acrodance at ESAC in Brussels. His will to quit the classical form and his approach to circus lead him to the dance world. He graduated in 2014, and has since then worked for different circus and dance companies (Cirque du Soleil, Strut&Fret, Cie DCA – Philippe Découflé, …). He’s working aside to create his own circus company, Back Pocket.
Featured image courtesy of Aleza D'Agostino