Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bay Area circus schools

San Francisco must have the highest concentration of circus schools in the world. I visited FIVE of them. There is at least one more significant one, and numerous smaller programs (trapezes rigged in people's apartments, etc.) It's really quite astonishing. When I asked whether there is much interaction / communication between the schools, the answer was generally no. How does this whole system function, then? I was told that there are simply enough interested circus students in the region to support all of these different organizations.

We'll start with the big one: Circus Center. Certainly the most well-known and prestigious school in San Francisco, Circus Center has also probably seen the most tumultuous times of any of these schools, including having to shut down this past winter and completely re-organize their staff and financial systems. However, we had a very warm reception there from both the new Executive Director and the General Manager, both of whom are feeling very optimistic about the school's future. The school is a non-profit, and has been in existence for approximately 20 years.

They have the somewhat complicated gift of this incredible building. For $1 rent from the city of San Francisco, they reside in the old Polytechnic High School Boys' Gym. (the Girls Gym is the home of AcroSports, see pix below). It is a sprawling old space, with the big gymnasium in the first picture, plus numerous other smaller studio spaces, offices, and locker rooms. It has enabled them to draw the top performing artists in the region to train and coach here, and to develop professional track programs in aerial arts, acrobatics and clowning. (currently only the aerial program is running).

To take an Aerial class at Circus Center (90 mins), the Drop-In Rate is $35, and the Session is $360 for 10 weeks.

Next - AcroSports. It seems extraordinarily weird to have this alternative circus school a half-block down from Circus Center, in an almost-identical looking building from the outside. Look at the photos below - on the left is AcroSports, on the right is Circus Center.

On the inside, there are some similarities, especially in the main, big space. But the downstairs of AcroSports is a kids zone, to accommodate the dozens of children's classes that run there every week. AcroSports prides itself on youth programs and "urban" circus arts, which include parkour and breakdancing. They have an entirely separate program called City Circus, which is a "professional circus ensemble and training program of Urban Circus Arts". AcroSports has been in existence, as a non-profit, since 1993.

To take an Aerial class at AcroSports (90 mins), it is $38 for a drop-in class, or $396 for an 11-week session.

Today we drove over to Oakland, to explore the smaller, eclectic circus training facilities in the East Bay. Our first stop was the Athletic Playground, in Emeryville. Tucked into a corner of an industrial building, the space opens up into three nicely-appointed studios. Greg and I admired the exposed wooden beams and floors, and the wall murals.

They seem to focus on Conditioning classes (specialty - Monkey Conditioning!), Acrobatics, and Yoga, with a handful of aerial classes offered, and space offered for artists' training. There seems to be a lot of playfulness and creativity bouncing off the walls in here. The ceilings are not tremendously high for aerial work. But apparently the space is home to quite a few serious circus artists - in our few minutes there we bumped into Sam Luckey, and narrowly missed seeing Cohdi Harrell. Most of their programs are for adults, but they have recently begun offering kids' classes as well. As far as I can tell it is not a non-profit, and it opened 3 years ago.

To take an Aerial class at the Athletic Playground (60 mins), it is $20 for a drop-in class. They don't offer sessions - instead there are 1-month memberships, with unlimited classes, for $155. (there are only 1 or 2 aerial classes on the schedule each day).

Our next stop was only about a block away, the Head Over Heels Athletics Arts facility. Though the entrance is a bit hard to find, this is a mega gymnastics space, and the school itself has been around since 1977! With circus classes offered for about the last 10 years. My kids were dazzled with loads of pint-sized gymnastics equipment, and the space definitely had all the trappings of a long-established serious gym. (trophies, gymwear shop, teenaged staff, etc.) The circus equipment is stationed in the middle of the room, just a handful of silks, ropes, and static trapezes. They certainly have the height for it - Greg estimated about 30 feet. So, while you get the sense that circus is just a secondary program here, it's nice to see it so well-integrated and accepted into a mainstream gym. HOH is (to my surprise!) a non-profit organization.

To take an Aerial class at HOH, you have to sign up for a full session, which is a 90-minute class, $270 for 10 weeks.

Last stop on our tour: Kinetic Arts Center in Oakland. This LLC seems to be the newest school in the East Bay, it opened in November 2009. The exterior of the building is disturbingly ugly, corrugated-steel-industrial-yellow-no-windows. But inside it's warm and bright. There is a main class area, and a smaller studio in the back. They have a fairly comprehensive curriculum of aerials and acro, and a healthy number of kids classes and oddities like "Pre-Parkour" and "Contortion".
They have the well-known Helene Turcotte as an aerial instructor. Jaron Hollander is the owner and head coach of the school ... though I've never met him, his biography indicates that he trained at Circus Center, Make A Circus, Dell Arte and Circo Arts.

To take an Aerial class at Kinetic Arts Center (85 mins), it is $32 to drop in, or $255 for a 10-class package.

Phew. It was quite overwhelming seeing so many circus facilities at once; I'm not sure I've fully processed all of it, or figured out what a growing circus movement might look like in other parts of the country. But in the meantime, I've recorded these glimpses. All of it will help us envision the possibilities, as we keep moving forwards with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.


  1. San Francisco is so amazing..! What a wonderful city. Is PSCA not-for-profit? Why so many are like this??? xoxo

  2. Fun to read about the bay area schools in one place. =)

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  4. Don't forget about Cirque San Jose, too, in the south bay.

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