By Johanna Vargas
“Inspired to build new neural pathways”; that is precisely the mission with which I left Circus in Progress, The Actors Gymnasium’s annual fundraiser. The cabaret-style circus art showcase consisted of acts donated by internationally cherished, seasoned professional circus artists as well as fresh and bright newcomers.
Marc Sorenson’s crisp, evocative dance while suspended in span-set loops set to New Order’s 1985 “Elegia” combined not only strong acrobatic skill but communicative, expressive movement. Abbi Baran joined Sorenson later in a clever, popping chair acrobatic adagio that highlighted both artists’ dance and acrobatic capabilities.
The Actors Gym Teen Ensemble followed with an upbeat group juggling and dance number. Their ensemble work can be enjoyed at annual Actors Gym productions like the recent Quest, with Amanda Crockett and The Magical Exploding Boy, featuring Chicago clown and mime Dean Evans. These productions not only train youth in ensemble acting and circus skills but also yield highly enjoyable performances with wide appeal.
Contemporary circus’ reach into nebulous, as-of-yet undefined frontiers was explored by Kasey Foster’s Cantastoria. Foster’s performance escorted me through performance art, storytelling and live music with a bit of the absurd tossed in.
Jean Carlos Claudio’s adorable clown bride won the audience’s heart with his charming stage presence. Snagging not only an unsuspecting husband but also a wedding officiate from the audience, Claudio then proceeded to seal the deal with hubby through an impressive and comedic acrobatic dance that culminated in the most memorable garter toss I’ve ever witnessed.
Amanda Crockett’s comedy trapeze act proved to be a timeless classic, reminiscent of Lucille Ball and Buster Keaton’s best. Her lovable clown character fumbles her way up and onto the trapeze, losing her skirt and then her glasses before weaving hilarity and masterful trapeze work seamlessly into an act I have enjoyed numerous times. It never gets old. If you get a chance to see this act in this lifetime, do it!
Circus violin? Yes, you read that right. John MacGaffey got the audience stomping and clapping to his fiddling, and just when I thought, “Well maybe this is just a nice musical interlude, you know, to cleanse the circus palate before the next amazing act,“ he completely blew my mind with what can be accomplished by nothing but thousands of hours spent training the body to do beyond-ordinary things. I’m going to leave it at that; if you see this guy’s name on a bill, go check it out. You’ll wonder why you’re wasting your finite number of breaths on craft cocktails and Netflix, I promise.
Hayley Larson, an Oberlin and Aloft Circus Arts Full-Time Training Program graduate performed a dance upon aerial silks. Larson’s abstract, stylized motions embodied her unique approach to movement on the apparatus.
The next act began with a stark stage, inhabited only by a mannequin lower leg and diabolo. David Chervony then proceeded to forever adjust the way one views juggling, movement while manipulating objects, dance and sculpture with a clever, engaging choreography that entertains, engages and challenges. Keep your eyes peeled for Chervony’s future performances—you will be glad you did.
And in case the preceding acts didn’t astound us enough with what is possible by this conglomeration of 10 trillion cells that make up an adult human body, Justin Durham inspired awe with the fascinating shapes made possible by simply turning it upside down. Durham combined dance and handbalancing into an emotion-filled act that was uniquely his, and achievable only through countless hours of conditioning, training and practice. If you enjoyed his work in Midnight Circus this past summer, you may enjoy this act even more, as it was clearly an expression of his own energy.
The showcase was wrapped up beautifully by Javen Ulambayar and Rachel Karabenick in a lovely acrobatic adagio on aerial pole. Ulambayar makes ridiculously difficult techniques appear effortless and fluid, and when combined with Karabenick’s grace, strength and expressiveness, a captivating and dramatic dialogue between two bodies emerges.
Morphing through various formats since the show’s origins, which date as far back as 2011, Circus in Progress is an annual fundraiser for the Actors Gymnasium. They produce five to seven productions per year, providing youth with the skill set to work ensemble and solo acts that combine circus arts, dance and theater. And, as Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi puts it, “The community that any circus arts brings together is so important, especially now, in a time where we need to feel hopeful… [our productions strive to let folks know that] there is more out there that is hopeful, more so than what we’re seeing.” I agree; if each of us vowed to see just one live show per month instead of staying home and staring at the flat screen of our choice, we might collectively get better at practicing hope instead of the myriad other unbeneficial neurotransmitters in which we currently stew. If you get a chance to see and support Actors Gym via Circus in Progress or any of their other productions, you will not be disappointed. You might even leave inspired to go forge some new neural pathways yourself.
Guest author Johanna Vargas is a Chicago artist and a board-certified and licensed massage therapist with over a decade in private practice. She began studying circus arts recreationally in 2010, graduating from Aloft’s first full-time program in 2014, where she specialized in rope and object manipulation. She has been teaching body maintenance to circus students and clients ever since.