Growing CircusWest reaches for the stars with Blue Sky Circus

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      It’s fitting that CircusWest’s new outer-space spectacle is called Blue Sky Circus, because the company has been doing a lot of blue-sky thinking lately.

      Artistic director Jay Nunns is sitting in the PNE Garden Auditorium, surveying rehearsals before the company premieres its new show. For the production, the venue will be transformed into a cosmic realm, with the Earth at one end of the room and the moon at the other; in between, “constellations” of performers in LED–twinkling suits will hurtle through the “sky”, acrobats will balance on giant telescopes, and zodiac characters will guide a group of stargazers through the galaxy. But right now, dozens of CircusWest students stretch on the stage and acrobats practise diabolo juggling in the centre of the auditorium. In a practice space beneath the stadium seating, CircusWest’s youngest elementary-school-age students are gathering for a class.

      The 28-year-old training program (once known as Cirkids School of Circus Arts) is starting to outgrow the atmospheric home it’s had since 2003. The organization’s dream—its blue-sky idea—is to expand into a new building next door, and become a sort of circus superhub, where it could expand its programming and collaborate with everyone from theatre and music groups to multimedia artists. Nunns says the idea would fit well with the PNE’s own master plan, which seeks to transform Hastings Park into a greener, year-round destination and a hub for culture, festivals, and sports.

      “We’re nearing capacity. We’re kind of maxing out our space, and the PNE is perfect for us: it’s a fairground, it’s a nexus of all transportation routes, and it wants to become this cultural centre,” Nunns says, surveying coaches and youths in Spandex gear spreading through the hall. CircusWest trains about 2,000 people in classes, workshops, and camps, ranging from these kids up to adults doing recreational programs. “For this show, I liked the idea of stargazers dreaming about what’s next—the idea of looking into possibilities.…It’d be easy not to grow, too, but that’s not really circus: circus is about ‘Why don’t we push it a little?’ ”

      Pushing a little is also what the students are planning to do with their big annual performance, Blue Sky Circus. This year, true to its theme, the piece will defy gravity, with a lot of trapeze work and performances on aerial silk, or tissu—which find artists wrapping, twisting, and dangling from long fabric ribbons that hang from the ceiling. “Everybody has their thing,” Nunns says of the students. “You have to expose them to a lot of things, and it takes a while.”

      For 15-year-old Eloise Aguilar-Saurina, her “thing” is tumbling—and in the show, she plays Halley’s comet. “My job is to pretty much destroy stuff as I come down a tumble track,” she says on a break from training, adding she prefers circus tumbling to gymnastics tumbling because it’s not competitive and more artistic.

      For 15-year-old fellow circus artist Claire Hopson, the ultimate wheel—a bizarre twist on a unicycle that has no seat, only pedals and a wheel—is where it’s at. Nunns believes she’s the only person in town who can balance and ride on one; even her coach can’t do it. “I kind of taught myself; I would watch unicycle acts and tried to do it with this,” she says, referring to the wheel. Then she pulls up her pant legs to show her battle scars and bruises. “Since you’re not sitting on it the wheel wobbles back and forth and runs against your leg. But I don’t mind it. It’s fun!”

      Talk to the members of CircusWest and you start to understand why they keep at it so long; Aguilar-Saurina has been doing it since she was five. “I always loved it—just the physicality of it. And it’s a family here,” she explains.

      Hopson seconds that notion, adding that the family aspect of the company builds up through trust. As well as the ultimate wheel, she performs double trapeze in Blue Sky Circus—an act where you rely squarely on your partner. “If you don’t trust them, it doesn’t work at all.”

      Fifteen-year-old Travis Paterson, whose specialty is “object manipulation”—in the show he’ll balance rings and make them look like they’re floating—spends 12 hours a week here training. Like some of his classmates, he dreams of making it into the National Circus School, as other grads have. In these days of megashows by Cirque du Soleil and Cavalia, and other troupes like Montreal’s Cirque Eloize and Seattle’s Teatro ZinZanni, running away with the circus can be a viable career for those talented and driven enough to succeed.

      “We’re a little East Van program with a lot of heart. We’re having growth problems, which is good,” explains Nunns. “People are staying because circus is in vogue, but also, it’s a different and neat way to express yourself. It’s this hybrid of dance, voice, acrobatics, and now it’s multimedia. For kids to flirt with that and play with that is amazing.”

      For now, though, Nunns’s dreams of expanding that work are at the blue-sky stage: CircusWest is writing up an application for a grant to do a study on a capital campaign and has looked at the feasibility of expansion at the PNE. At the same time, the company is staging its first circus festival, working with people on the Downtown Eastside, this June.

      A lot is in the works, nothing more so than, at the moment, building a Garden Auditorium–size circus spectacle with 37 performers.

      “It’s tough to do Cirque du Soleil on a shoestring,” Nunns says with a laugh, pointing out that in Las Vegas recently, Cirque spent $220 million to stage Robert Lepage’s spectacle Kà at the MGM Grand. “Circus is this interesting area between sports and art. You’re highlighting your physical prowess but doing it in a meaningful way. So money’s always an issue, but there’s also a huge place for creativity, too.”

      CircusWest’s Blue Sky Circus runs at the PNE Garden Auditorium from next Thursday (May 10) to May 13 at 12:30 and 7 p.m. daily.