Following the Flock: An Emerging Artist Circus Debut with Aloft Circus Arts Graduates

Photo by Nancy Behall. Eight emerging circus artists debuted their show Flock at Aloft Circus Arts in Logan Square this weekend. It was apparent right from the clever opening number introducing us to the cast, that visiting director Emma Serjeant’s influence would neatly tie together this talented crew and the themes of the show as they demonstrated their various well-explored circus skills. Add to that a stylized set that centered on featuring the artists and creating a tone of togetherness, with environmental music soundscapes by Paul Schipper, and clever lighting design by Alex Avery, and the production value for Chicago circus shows just jumped up a notch. Photo by Nancy Behall. In the beginning number, sets of hands popped over the curtain, feet peeked out from below and soon the cast of eight performers were revealed, but not until a charming tightwire number transpired during which Sarah Tapper strolled, half obscured by a curtain so that her body floated above exposing  ‘feet’ far below. Playing around with illusion and perception in circus is classic, with roots in vaudeville and burlesque, but lately has become a part of the ‘new magic’ trend, and new magic is a perfect pairing with contemporary circus--breathing new life in to an art form even while paying homage to its roots. As an introductory act, it was a good segue into the type of ensemble work that would be seen throughout the show; coordinated dance, sophisticated aerial sequences, and acts that did clearly begin and end, but which featured nuanced transitions involving the group dynamic of support, a theme Serjeant was trying to emphasize after spending two months getting to know the students and staff at Aloft. The resulting ensemble work was often whimsical and heartening, which created a good counterbalance to the drama of the solos. Another perfect pairing was how Flock combined the novelty and innovation of the Australian style of circus-- a model of empowerment and strength, with Aloft's powerful feminist aesthetic. Aloft is known for their strong aerialists, and Flock was no exception, although this time the aerialists also spent some time on the ground showcasing their auxiliary circus talents such as acrobatics, dance and juggling. On the floor, women based women, and members carried each other when they needed carrying, focusing their energy on supporting one another--an apt analogy for the type of support that must occur behind the scenes during daily training with one another over the two-year pro-training program at Aloft. But Serjeant’s wasn’t the only influence on the development of the students' solo acts, as Aloft hosted seven guest coaches from around the country over the past year (including Cohdi Harrell, George Orange, Alessandra Ogren, Rain Anya, Joseph Pinzon, Lara Paxton and Keith Bindlestiff) all of whom lent some of their world view and influence to the work, in addition to the regular coaching staff's influence and input (including Zoe Sheppard, Amanda Crockett, Johanna Vargas, Natalie Abell, Brian P. Dailey, Julie Marshall and Destiny Vinley) Photo by Nancy Behall.

The Solos

It is clear that Valerie Arthur’s work as an architect informs her explorations on aerial hoop as she repurposed the lyra--elongating the single point by adding a long span set, she made a versatile apparatus that can act somewhat like straps and somewhat like lyra. As is often the case when a new apparatus is being explored, the result was both stunning and bewildering to the eye--as Arthur delved into the various twisting and spinning options, creating a fascinating vocabulary of motion. Arthur’s coach for the act was Shayna Swanson. Chicago-based Sydney Billings worked with coach Kasumi Kato to develop her main act in the show on silks. In this dark piece all music stopped, the only time in the show that it did, and the only sounds heard were those of Billings as she breathed, grappling with the silks, twisting, climbing rapidly as if to escape a terrifying power, only to have the silks lowered over and over so that she had to climb faster. This motion was a powerful and moving metaphor for struggle, augmented by the most dramatic and well-timed drop. Billings has finessed and deeply explored her own signature style, combining her powerhouse moves with the vulnerability of an artist beyond her years. Another Chicago artist, Christine Conroy performed an equally intense piece on tramp wall. Haunted by the sounds of people talking, babbling, critiquing, or perhaps by her own inner voice, Conroy was tossed about, buffeted by the chaos and perturbed. But in moments of stress, she found grace, and began to bounce higher, eventually landing on the top of the tramp wall where the real stunts began. Coached by Jon Snyder and Leah Leor, Conroy’s talent for combining the graceful poses of dance with the feats of tramp wall were outstanding and the result was something poetic to see. Ellen Davis, an aerial fabric artist, was a spirited and involved ensemble member who was unable to demonstrate a solo act due to an injury, but whose presence was an essential part of the flock nonetheless, as she lifted, danced and supported with the rest of them. What started out as a chilling routine on the single point trapeze slowly built in energy with Heather Dart betraying lightness while her form morphed shapes and her flexibility and balance became apparent as she demonstrated effortless transitions and grace in the air. Dart’s act was developed with the help of coach Rachel Karabenick. Charles Keidel relocated to Chicago from California to deepen his study of circus and to train with coach Molly Plunk. On tightwire Keidel has a unique style, straddling the world of rhythm and athleticism, he balanced both perfectly as he dashed forward and back, shuffled and spun around the wire, making its three-dimensional properties more apparent and showing a proclivity towards innovation with his research. Sara Tapper performed one of the more light-hearted acts on tightwire, combining dance techniques and balance while the cast danced along by the sidelines. Her coaches on wire were Molly Plunk and Patrick Tobin. Later, she performed a dynamic trapeze act (developed with coaches Shayna Swanson and Leah Leor) that illustrated her poise and confidence as well as her willingness to explore the boundaries of an apparatus. Mackenzie Toth’s work on straps combined the best of her gymnastics and dance background and the result was a fluid and powerful act, both sublime and graceful, sometimes flowing and spinning into a shape and other times swinging herself away from the forces of gravity and climbing upwards with sheer grit and muscle. Her coach Leah Leor helped her focus that energy in her solo. Photo by Nancy Behall. The evening ended with a short group number on tramp wall juxtaposed by a ground act, both of which could have been more deeply expanded upon for the finale, but which nonetheless summed up the essence of the cast. This young group of emerging artists had flocked together for two years to create an ensemble and a full show and were able to encourage one another, allowing each individual the freedom to showcase their own circus strengths.   To read more about the making of Flock and the director Emma Serjeant, visit Circus Talk to read Emma Serjeant, the Traveling Circus Director--A Trend in Cross-Pollinating Circus Concepts.    
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Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.