Thursday, May 16, 2013

Circus schools of New York

I tried to visit as many circus schools in New York City as I could.  I was able to get to 4 of them.  (as with everything in New York, it seems impossible to cover all bases.)  But the ones I did visit were fascinating. 

First of all, an overview. 

New York City does not have one single major circus school.  Instead there are a half-dozen facilities around the metropolitan area, offering a variety of training opportunities.  Class prices are notably steep ($30-$55, for a slot in a group class), like everything in New York.  And there are virtually no "session" classes, where you pay for 8 or 12 weeks of once-a-week lessons.  The studios here operate on drop-in bases, class-card systems, or, in one or two cases, memberships and intensive programming.  

Elizabeth Streb is a well-known modern dance choreographer, famous for bringing elements of stunt work, circus, and physics into her work.  In the 2003, she partnered with circus artists, to include acrobatic training in her facility in Brooklyn.  The space is now shared, and on the afternoon we visited, we were able to see group aerial fabric classes, kids' "Pop Action" classes, and Streb dancers experimenting with the "Whizzing Gizmo" (a single Wheel of Death).  It's a busy, lively space.  

Director Bobby Hedglin-Taylor writes, "STREB LAB FOR ACTION MECHANICS is "an action laboratory" - Since 2003 we've introduced Williamsburg to the world of extreme action. By way of flying trapeze, trampoline, German wheel, parkour, circus arts, and Elizabeth Streb's own signature style of movement "POP ACTION". Pop Action is a combination of Modern Dance, gymnastics and circus arts. We serve the local community and offer 26 kid classes per week and 30 adult classes per week, and we have approximately 500 students per week pass through our door. The Flying Espana Brothers, Noe and Ivan Espana, helped build and open the Espana Streb Trapeze Academy in 2004. They are a regular presence in our space and their influence permeates our teaching style. I'm especially proud of how our school has grown leaps and bounds over the years and we've become a "3rd place" for families of all shapes and sizes."

The facility was originally developed into a circus-arts training space under a different organization, NY Circus Arts Academy, which closed in 2010. Now a new business under the same roof is run by co-founders Suzi Winson, Michelle Arvin, and Gino Farfan.  They concentrate on their intensive professional program, training the next generation of circus pros, but also offer open classes for athletic practitioners who love the various circus arts. 

Now Circus Warehouse has a roster of dazzlingly-credentialed teachers, a huge space with lots of great aerial height, and a community of serious-minded artists studying, training and teaching there.  The school suffered a huge amount of damage during Hurricane Sandy, but they seem to be coming back stronger than ever.  

In 2002, Trapeze School New York established its groundbreaking flying trapeze school in Manhattan.  For many years they had an indoor facility along the banks of the Hudson River.  When that facility had to close, they shifted to an outdoor-rig only operation.  During their indoor years, founding Aerial Arts teachers Kristin Olness, Joshua Dean, and Kristin Young had cultivated many students who trained static aerial skills, and this community was adrift with the closing of the space.  So the trio of coaches partnered up to found Aerial Arts NYC in September 2012, in a basement gymnasium in midtown Manhattan. It's a shared space with other programs.  Aerial Arts NYC is now running 43 classes a week there.

Kristin Young gave me the following additional information about the school:

Aerial Arts NYC has 13 regular instructors who are working professionals, having performed with Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Productions, Cirque Le Masque, Circus Circus, and on Broadway.  These instructors offer a wide range of classes and private lessons including Silks, Static Trapeze, Rope, Lyra, Hammock, Straps, & Spanish Web, Acrobatics, Juggling, Stretch & Flexibility, and Tumbling & Handstands.  They also offer Youth Circus classes.

Aerial Arts NYC will offer aerial classes for Pace University's dance department starting in Fall 2013.  And Kristin says, "We’re proud of the fun, friendly community that has grown with us over the years and now provides a supportive learning environment for aspiring professionals, recreational students, and first-time beginners of all ages."

In the middle an industrial block of Brooklyn, there is a nondescript brick building that needs closer examination.  It's 342 Maujer Street, and at first I thought I was in the wrong place.  There is no signage.  But as I studied the exterior a bit, other details became apparent - the pedicab and old piano on the curb, the shiny mannequin visible in an upper window.  I tentatively tried the door, which was open.

This is Sky Box.  You enter a corridor, filled with random prop and costume pieces and red-velvet chairs, with a kitchen to one side.  The walls are papered with comic book pages.  And then suddenly, the back of the space opens up, into an amazing tower of a space.  It's 30' high, set up with trusses, and all kinds of aerial equipment and lighting.

One of Sky Box's founders, Anya Sapozhnikova, told me the following, about the organization's past and present.

"House of Yes originally was located  few subway stops deeper into Bushwick.  It was more of a collective/live/work/party space. A month shy of its one year anniversary, it burned down to the ground due to a kitchen fire. 

"We scrambled for a new space, and this was the first one we came across.  we fell in love and secured the lease.

"Althought it was more of a collective in the beginning, it grew into more of a business, with Kae Burke and myself as the co-owners.  We are in the process of becomign a 501c3 non profit organization, with Elena Delgado as the 3rd board member. 

"What makes our space unique is our emphasis on performance aspects of aerial acrobatics. Although a lot of our students  are here for fitness, fun, and a plethora of other reasons, we make a heavy emphasis on being New York's only dedicated aerial theater.  We constantly have performance opportunities for aerialists of all levels.  The Monthly Aerial and Variety Show  is a platform for professional level performers show new works, while the Emerging Aerialist Showcase is an event for  budding performers  to perform for the very first time.  We also have a big student show every year which envolves roughly 30 students, is choreographed and conceived by all the willing teachers who teach here  and runs for a whole weekend. Its a chance for aerialists of all levels to he a part of a full on cirque-style production,  learning not just an aerial routine but also getting experience with costume changes, cues, unusual entrances and everything else that make circus-theater so magical and unexpected."


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