“Circus has always been about joy, triumph and laughter through strength, flexibility and balance,” says Circus Harmony’s Artistic/Executive Director Jessica Hentoff.
“We’ve always taught our students to be compassionate, creative and resilient,” she adds from St. Louis, Missouri, noting that now is when the spirit of the circus is really needed. Nevertheless, Circus Harmony has shuttered their doors for the time being and turned to creative measures to keep their members engaged, “Even though we are a circus school, we are not really risk takers!” says Hentoff about Circus Harmony’s complete closure.
Even though we are a circus school, we are not really risk takers!
As part of the social circus series, CircusTalk contacted leaders in the field to see how the educational performance art relying on physicality and human connection, which has “social” in the name during a time of social distancing, is reacting to the coronavirus pandemic.
In early March,Wise Fool New Mexico created a coronavirus cleaning checklist from CDC guidelines for new sanitization tasks, including cleaning equipment and air ducts with a sanitizing machine by a coach with previous professional experience. Like most of the world, they stopped all in-person contact and meetings at community facilities soon thereafter. Wise Fool’s co-executive director Kristen Woods also affirmed that people need circus now more than ever and is also exploring new ways of sharing that ethos at this time.
Camille Henry of the Caravan International Youth and Social Circus Network in Brussels says members are creating virtual tools to interact with students, partners and teams. “Being confined does not mean being alone,” she says. “Our staff is available for questions, and we are encouraging our network to share tips and ideas.” Caravan still plans to have an online assembly on May 4-5.
Australia’s Vulcana Women’s Circus initiated “Collective Capture,” a series of community video projects. Students, trainers, performers and circus lovers shoot short videos at home in cupboards, windows, refrigerators, wherever, to share what’s inspiring them during isolation. The clips will be edited together and shared around themes like Fierce and Strong, or Miniscule and Mighty.
These organizations have responded quickly to offer online classes to their current students, which Hentoff calls “quaran-training,” and/or the public-at-large for various ages, levels and abilities, and to stream recordings of previous performances and tutorials. The offerings require minimal to no equipment. Some materials are free, and some offer sliding scale options (Wise Fool classes, for example, are $15.) Like most new distance learning organizations, they have learned to vet participants to prevent “Zoom bombing.” Boston’s Commonwealth Circus Center is offering online classes too, and a link to write letters of support to their coaches.
The 7-day Instagram#HomeCircusChallenge launches April 29. Vulcana Women’s Circus will post a daily prompt that participants can use to create and post home circus photos to win a range of titles.
Many organizations are also using this unavoidable downtime to create content and prepare future curriculum, to “develop a more robust and equitable adult studio program,” says Wise Fool’s Woods, and to rethink what “AC,” After Coronavirus, circuses might entail, including the possible continuation of online programming. Fundraising strategies are also a priority, and all are welcoming donations to weather this uncertain period to continue paying teachers as long as possible and to be able to reopen the doors when it’s safe again.
Circus Harmony’s Hentoff has been reflecting on how the history of circus arts feeds into its future. “There are cave paintings in Crete of people doing somersaults over bulls, and Egyptian hieroglyphics of people juggling,” she says. “Circus is ever-evolving and adaptive, nimble and flexible like the people who practice it.”
“Circus artists should respond to social distancing and lead by example,” said Dan Roberts, Executive Director of Chicago’s CircEsteem. “So solo work, or work with close family members is encouraged.” One example of this is former Barnum and Bailey performer and science teacher Circus Greg who has been performing his “Cul-de-Sac Circus” for his neighbors in Maryland to promote science education.
Over at Wise Fool, Woods adds that “It’s OK to not train right now. It’s OK if your body changes during quarantine.” So social distancing for social circuses will likely be focused on the mind and spirit more than the body for the near term. Social circuses might now rely on social media to remember and reflect on the joy of motion in a time of limited movement.
CircusTalk is offering a COVID-19 special information resource page, and is listing COVID-19 temp jobs, which may or may not be performance-based, and encourages employers to post even the smallest opportunity as any job could be a lifesaver during the pandemic. CircusTalk is also compiling shows and classes from members on the website, as a way for artists to earn income now, and offering weekly online industry panel discussions. In addition, CircusTalk advocates that community members use home confinement as an opportunity to update website listings and show pages with the latest information, images and videos.
Feature photo was taken in “BC,” Before COVID, times, Vulcana Circus’s flashmob for “One Billion Rising,” is now a good reminder to wash your hands. Photo credit: Yonna Simon