Sunday, January 12, 2014

Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival

The first-ever American circus festival was launched this past week by a hardworking team in Chicago.  For those of you who are not sure what a circus festival entails - it was a collection of cutting-edge circus-theatre shows, brought in from all over North America and Europe.  During the days, there were master classes, workshops, panel discussions and open forums.  People came from all over the United States and Canada, and it was a truly excellent time.

I knew almost nothing about the Chicago circus scene (or the city itself) before arriving, and I was very impressed by everything they have there.  A good variety of teaching and performing companies, affordable and walkable neighborhoods, and the stellar facilities of the Aloft Loft and the Athenaeum.  (I did not have the opportunity to see the other facilities in Chicago, like the Actors Gymnasium or the Links Hall theater space - hopefully on a future trip)

Having said all this - the first couple of days of the festival were, for me, not as enjoyable.  Festival events had nominally started on Tuesday.  There was even a group of instructors who met the previous weekend for a teachers' gathering, and it was a shame that this couldn't overlap with the rest of the festival at all (though a few people just stuck it out for the 10 days or so, encompassing both).  I decided to come into town on Wednesday.  But on Wednesday and Thursday, festival offerings were sparse - only a couple of workshops, and a couple of evening performances on Thursday.  There were more master classes held at Aloft, so it's possible I just should have planned my time better (or included some Chicago sightseeing).  Regardless, by the end of Thursday evening I was feeling concerned.

BUT things picked up quickly on Friday.  On Friday and Saturday, workshops and panel discussions started early, and ran all day.  More people arrived in town, creating a critical mass for networking.  The AYCO Board retreat (scheduled for all-day Thursday and Friday) wrapped up, allowing me some face time with the directors and organizers that I had been seeking.  And the experience became much more rich.

The workshops / panels I attended:
Circus Intersections / Emerging Thought in the Academy
Lighting 101 for Circus Performers
Fail Better: Recent Developments in Contemporary Clowning
Creation to Presentation: Building Circus Work
Anatomy Basics for Circus Performers
Chicago Circus
Making the Jump (on transitioning from amateur to professional) - I was actually on this panel
US Circus Town Hall
Techniques for Circus Audition Preparation
Circus Now Brainstorming session

And these were just some of the excellent programs that were organized by Circus Now, our fledgling circus-advocacy organization. 

Let's talk about the performances!  I managed to see 5 shows:
Acrobatic Conundrum's The Way Out
Ilmatila's Mualla/Elsewhere
Ricochet's Smoke and Mirrors 
Flip FabriQue's Attrape-Moi
Of these, the two biggest standouts were Ricochet and Flip Fabrique.  Both of these shows had the audiences falling out of their seats, standing ovations, three curtain calls, etc.  Ilmatila was also a real gem, though a shorter production at around 20 minutes.  

Ricochet (Cohdi Harrell and Laura Stokes) became the darlings of the festival this weekend, because not only is their show exquisite, but they are Americans, not trained by any professional school, and doing truly original work.  Flip Fabrique is a group of 6 young French-Canadians, and I loved their show especially because it's terrifically fun, and the skill level is extremely high.  

Seeing these shows was a great way to wrap up the festival for me.  I was sorry not to be able to stick around for Sunday's AYCO Showcase and Closing Party.  But my hope is that this becomes an annual event!  I will definitely be there if so, and I think the rest of the American circus universe will gravitate to Chicago as well.