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Fourteen-year-old Angela McInnis is artistry in motion at Calgary Circus Studio.

Photograph by:
Ted Rhodes,
Calgary Herald, Calgary Herald

Big Top Dreams

By Kathleen Rene, Calgary Herald, January 20, 2011

When Cirque du Soleil’s most recent Calgary offering – Kooza – packed up its purple and yellow tents and left its temporary home on the Stampede grounds last fall, the circus quickly became a distant memory for most of us.

That is, expect for a small group of youth and adults who get together a few times each week to practice the circus arts in the Lantern Community Church in Inglewood. For many of them, the circus remains not only on their minds, but holds with it a dream for the future.

The church has been home to the Calgary Circus Studio (formerly known as Velocity Motion Werks) for three years.  Blue mats cover the church’s gymnasium floor, and a variety of circus apparatus hangs from the ceiling, including a large hoop, a trapeze bar and a couple of colourful silks that span the distance from roof to floor.

When I drop in on a teen aerials class one evening, several youth are milling around, catching up on the weekend’s gossip and hanging around – literally – on the equipment. Studio operators Cary Lam and Chelsea Christie say they have about 40 students enrolled in the classes they offer ranging from aerial arts to acrobalance to contortion.

Many of the kids in this class, like Spencer Craig, 17, have circus stars in their eyes and hope to have careers as circus artists.

“It (the circus) is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” says Craig, who’s been taking classes at the Calgary Circus Studio for nine years.

Craig wants to move to Montreal, Canada’s circus centre, for more access to training. He’s also considering attending the National Circus School.

“I want to see how far I can go with this,” he says, adding that, while his parents support his circus interests, “they’re not going to love it unless I can make a successful living at it.”

Justin Buss, 17, has also been bitten by the circus bug. He decided to try it after seeing a friend perform a circus-related act at a school talent show. “She held the audience spellbound: they shut up for the first time.” He recalls. While the roué cyr – basically, a huge hula hoop that a performer stands in – is his favourite piece of circus equipment, he also enjoys doing aerials and acrobalance. He balances his circus training with tumbling and trampoline, as well as fire spinning.

Like Craig, Buss has his sights set on the National Circus School and a career in circus.

Not all the students consider the circus their career path, however. Petite 12-year-old Meah Lenet, for example, wants to “work with pets” or be an engineer, even though she’s been taking classes at the Studio for four years.

In today’s class, Christie and Lam are teaching the students a couple new moves using the trapeze bar and the silks.

Lam demonstrates one of them for the students: she pulls herself up on the bar, then balances on her hips while stretching her legs out behind her, keeping her arms out to her sides as though she is flying.

Suddenly, in one quick, flowing movement, Lam falls forward and down, catching herself by hooking her knees on the ropes from which the bar is suspended.

Several of the students follow suit, some more timidly than others.

“There are some kids who are a little nervous, but with practice they get braver.” Says Christie, adding that for those who are more hesitant, she and Lam work at a slower pace.

Craig, meanwhile, is practicing some walkovers in one corner of the gym. He then follows that up with a handstand, lowering his legs into a split position above his head.

To me, this move screams gymnastics, but Chelsea says a person doesn’t need to have a dance or gymnastic background in order to be successful in the circus arts, though she admits such training can help with strength and balance.

“It’s not too hard to learn circus. Just being physically fit is important and, generally, you need a good attitude.” She says.

Christie and Lam took over the running of the circus school last September after its founder, Peter Van Thiel, left to pursue other ventures. “We wanted to keep circus alive in Calgary.” Christie explains, who is also pursuing a degree in psychology.

Christie, herself, has been studying circus skills for the past six years. She took most of her training with Van Thiel.

Lam spent four years travelling the world, and it was during that journey she started learning the circus arts.

“We teach them the basics,” Lam explains, “but, in circus, the focus is more on creativity.”

Lest anyone think the Calgary Circus Studio is just for youth, Christie and Lam say they actually have more adult students than children and teens.

“We want to make aerials so everyone can do it.” Says Lam, noting that one of their adult students even has arthritis in her wrist.

“A lot of women do it for the fitness,” Christie says, “It’s a lot more fun than going to the gym.” She adds.

And as for that old argument, “I’m not flexible enough,” Christie would like to put that to rest. “That’s a pretty common misconception. A lot of it is training your muscles, just like anything else,” she adds.

“I think Calgary is slowly growing to be a much more artistic place. We’ve seen growth within our school, and circus is getting more popular.” Christie observes, crediting Cirque du Soleil as being instrumental in helping the general public to see circus as a legitimate theatrical undertaking.

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