A hush falls over the entire audience. All 200 eyes are staring up at the ceiling as the performer prepares to do a big fall. Or there’s scattered sharp intakes of breath when the aerialist does something seemingly impossible, like catching the bar with their toes. It’s the beauty and glory of the circus.
Circus is what I most look forward to when I am comfortable returning to in-person performances.
For the past 10+ years, I’ve been immersed in Chicago’s circus scene. We’re really fortunate that Chicago has a rather robust circus community. There are several circus schools, several circus troupes, and lots of big shows making their way around our metro. Before the pandemic, we used to see two or three shows a month. It was glorious.
Throughout the USA, there’s incredible circus to be seen if you just know where to look for it. Most people think of Ringling Brothers (now closed) with all the animals, or the over-the-top Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas. But a lot of smaller groups are bringing their uniquely stylized circusy magic everywhere. Cirque Mechanics’ bicycle/steampunk-themed PEDALpUNK! is one option; literature obsessed Yes Ma’am Circus is another. (Full disclosure: My husband is a Yes Ma’am Circus performer.)
Like all live performances, the pandemic closed circuses around the world. Theaters and tents went dark. But it was inspiring to see how some groups persevered, presenting live streaming or prerecorded shows to willing audiences.
My favorite was Aloft Circus, where my husband used to take classes pre-pandemic. Somehow, Aloft was able to maintain a schedule of semi-monthly live shows. Shayna Swanson—owner and founder of the school—hosted from her basement and performers livestreamed their derring-do from their living rooms, backyards, parking lots or parks. One of my most treasured memories is a juggler who put the camera high up near the ceiling so we could see the balls get larger and smaller as he threw them. It’s a perspective you wouldn’t get in person (without some real interesting audience staging).
One of the things that makes Chicago pretty cool is that most of the circus seems dominated by women. Shayna Swanson isn’t the only circus-lover who runs her own school. Other groups founded and led by women include Raks Geek, The Drifter’s Collective and Yes Ma’am Circus.
As we inch closer to ideal vaccination rates, I am dreaming of going back to the circus again. Shows are starting to pick up, so I’m learning to reacquaint myself with people and spaces beyond my front door. But in the interim, I gave birth, so I am most keen to introduce this incredible world to my infant daughter (and vice versa).
I can’t wait for her to make the magic and beauty of the circus a regular part of her own world.
© Elisa Shoenberger (5/25/21) – Special for FF2 Media®
Top Photo: Kristi Taff as Countess Olivia in Twelfth Night. Photo by Peter Serocki courtesy of Yes Ma’am Circus. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Bottom Photo Elisa Shoenberger with her husband Scott Montgomery Priz. Photo by Angelique Grandone courtesy of Elisa Shoenberger. Used with permission. All rights reserved.