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Beyond the Big Top

The East Bay is home to a thriving circus arts scene that provides exercise, community-building, and a unique form of creative expression.



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Vulcan Lofts — a live/work community in East Oakland built in a former smelting plant — is the unofficial center of the "flow arts" movement, a broad term that encompasses staff-spinning, contact juggling, hula-hooping, and fire-spinning. Flow arts owes a debt of gratitude to Burning Man, the festival circuit, and the underground music community. The electronic music scene helped generate an interest in object manipulation as a means of personal expression and dance. Burning Man, naturally enough, drove an interest in using fire. Myriad influences, including martial arts and the Maori art of poi (fire-spinning), all converge in flow arts.    

"Flow arts is an umbrella term for a lot of different performance art — loosely defined as a mental state of being completely in the element with your prop, when you're working so smoothly you don't have to think about what's happening next," said Richard Hartnell, a contact juggler and a resident of Vulcan Lofts. "To flow [you can use] anything from devil sticks, juggling, to standing on a ball, even using a bicycle for flatland tricks. It's about mastering an object to achieve mastery of yourself."

Mastery doesn't come easy, though. Hartnell estimates that it requires 10,000 hours to master a single object. To demonstrate, he rolls a clear plastic ball through his hands, up across his arm, and behind his shoulders; the movements fluid and precise. At one point, he manipulates the ball so skillfully that he creates the illusion that it's floating. Later, he switches to tricks involving multiple balls, stacking them into a pyramid and rotating them, blurring the distinction between the balls and his body.  

With DNA from Burning Man and Eastern art forms, flow arts is also touted for providing grounding and mindfulness. Said Hartnell: "Over time, I started to develop almost a relationship with this state of mind that kept me coming back. I wanted to bring that feeling of being in tune with myself, and being able to appreciate every moment of the day a little bit more. It turned into a very meditative thing."

Flow artists of every stripe are everywhere at the 63-unit Vulcan Lofts. Five or six fire-spinners might all live together, for example, as evidenced by the shopping cart full of fire extinguishers in unit 43. But not all of the residents are involved in circus — in fact, only roughly fifty of the two hundred residents are. But there is no better place in the Bay Area to get in on the growing flow arts scene. A weekly spin and fire jam draws top talent, and the open-door policies of most units mean shared practice time and idea-swapping is pretty much guaranteed. Open-air practice floors are littered with sticks, poi chains, and objects waiting to be flowed.         

"It's really kind of a Zen thing," said fire-spinner Anthony Moran. "Flow is about a state of mind."

Before Héléne Turcotte and Luc Martin, the world of trapeze was a world of back and forth, of somersaults and swinging. That all changed when Turcotte and Martin introduced the world to "Mouvance." Conceived as an aerial tango, the piece won numerous circus awards, including the prestigious gold medal at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris in 1989. The piece revolutionized the trapeze and made Turcotte and Martin stars.  

And if you want to learn trapeze (either professionally or casually) in the East Bay, Turcotte might very well be your teacher. The glut of local circus talent means that even beginners have the opportunity to work with true giants of the industry. Turcotte teaches at both Trapeze Arts and Kinetic Arts Center, and her classes are open to practitioners at all levels.         

"What is so interesting about the practice of trapeze is that you can start at any age — kids to late in life," said Turcotte. "Then you can advance at your own level. Some students advance to professional quality very quickly."  

Across the bay, the Circus Center San Francisco is stacked with circus talent: Lu Yi, Xiaohong Weng, and Kemin Xia, world-renowned acrobatics instructors from China with decades of individual experience; Russian aerial leader Elena Panova; and longtime clown Joe Dieffenbacher. The presence of these professionals is helping to make the United States more competitive when it comes to talent in the international circus scene.

"To be from the US in the circus world is to work uphill," said Jeff Raz, the Bay Area casting partner for Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. "Those international schools have a really long tradition. They have 2,000 years in China, and at least a century in Russia. It used to be that to make it, if you come from the US, you really have your work cut out for you. That's changing now."

The opportunities for world-class professional development are legion. "The quality of instruction — it's not just some of the best in the Bay Area, but some of the best in the world," said Ayla Agarwal, executive director of the Circus Center San Francisco. "It doesn't matter your interest or ability level, you'll get the same level of instruction no matter what your goals."

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