Program Notes: A Big Mess Of Circus, Physical Theatre, And Dance

thanks for coming to the show. 

i have spent the last nine months training at the circus school in montreal, and am lucky enough to be back this summer to perform for all of you.  in writing the show, our primary focus was to combine circus skills and theatrical presentation to tell a story or three. 

this proved to be a difficult task. 

the theme of the show is time, or, more specifically, what it means to have all the time in the world or to realize that within the finite boundaries of every human life writhe an infinite number of could-be-experienced experiences. 

it might have been easier write a raucously rollicking hijinks-filled love narrative. 

but we chose time, and dove right in.

we brought the show from concept to stage in about 5 months, only the last 4 weeks of which were spend in the same place as the other.  the creative process included free writings, experimentation, and analysis of other literary works. 

along the way, we were fortunate enough to receive help and guidance from a number of people in the audience tonight who helped us stage this piece. 

The greatest challenge was balancing a message with entertainment without getting crushed by heavy-handed presentation.  sometimes it was hard.  heavy hands are heavy.

please enjoy the show, and tell us what you think about it afterwards.  it was quite a journey, but we learned so much by taking it.

what are we looking at, exactly?

We’ve incorporated many circus disciplines into this show. 


in coming up with a short acrobatics act for this years show, i tried to avoid the repertoire of purely gymnastics skills and to instead present flowing, eccentric, elements. 


hand-to-hand is usually a duo act that requires a high level of concentration and strength, and can be an exhibition of static poses, a series of dynamic throws and catches, or any mixture thereof.  we tried to present simple hand-to-hand figures in interesting ways to set up a distinctive mood of disconnectedness. 


circus school exposes you to a wide variety of clowning styles, may of which we tried to include in this show in search of common ground between slapstick, buffoon, and realistic clowns.   


straps is traditionally performed with a high ceiling and with a team of riggers on a pulley line that help to change the height of the performer above the stage.  we had none of this at our disposal.  as a result, we focused on what we could do at lower heights while still creating an illusion of height and flight. 


handbalancing is my major at the school, and pursuing it is a bit like trying to scale a steep mountain.  the rewards are few and far between and you never get anywhere quite as fast as you think you will.  if you rest for a second, there is no guarantee that you will ever make it to the top. 

on the other hand, even if you hike relentlessly you may never make it either.  there is a definite physical component to handbalancing, but the mental side of the discipline is what will make or break you.



predator and prey are archetypes.  i think.  in our play there is a fly and there is a spider.  the spider wants to eat, and the fly wants to live.  the spider also does some acrobatics.  spiders and flies have been locked in their microcosmic struggle since they were invented — so what effect does an eons-long conflict have on the combatants?


travelers are archetypes.  not much as bugs, but bugs set up a hard act to follow in the archetype department.  the central idea is that life is an infinitely number series of moments along a journey –  so what happens if you get lost?  can you get lost in there is no end to your journey to begin with?  well at least you can connect with people along the way.


two people living in downtown apartments just outside of time who never meet but can somehow affect each other through an imperceptible emotional ether are archetypes.  located just between bugs and travelers.  i think.  two characters living their lives on different time scales like sloths versus hummingbirds.  are hummingbirds able to see a sloth’s movements?  can sloths appreciate the movement of a hummingbird’s wings?  

Circus artist doing a one-armed handstand in the desert

Comfort and Habituation

One of the upperclassmen fell on her head today and people were really worried about her.  The EMT’s came but at the end of the day she seemed fine.  Just one of those moments unique to circus school that reminds you that it’s dangerous and that we’re mortal but that you have to keep going. 

Movement today was good, I got an A for my evaluation which he said he gives out very rarely and that I seem to have a knack for it.  It’s fun doing well in something and getting appreciation for it even though this was not a class that I thought I would enjoy.  Did the stick exercise today where you have the ends of a stick held between the fingertips of two partners.  We also did a giant round robin at the end because both classes were together.  Good trip hop music and enjoyed playing with some breaking-style movements. 

I also got to be a flyer in hand to hand because we were joined by The Frenchman and another first-year guy who could port me.  Also was able to work with The Clown and we’re starting to have a good rapport. 

Alex just got back from Belgium so he wasn’t in ITA today and two of his students won three gold medals at the Piste d’Espoirs Festival which is great news for them and The Contortionist’s boyfriend won silver.

Today I intentionally didn’t do any supplementary strength since so many teachers have been telling me that work outside of class isn’t good for my body and might make me sick, etc. etc. so I’m taking a couple of days with no extra strength but I did do a heck of a good flexibility workout today: my splits were better than they have ever been in my life, or at least since doing gymnastics at MIT.

I have this new technique for working flexibility now.  I have my oversplits so I do one with correct form as a warmup and then do one with overextension for one minute each, and then I do “comfort” or “habituation” training where you sit in a medium position of a split for 2 minutes.  I’m doing that right now for splits and pancake and center split but not center split pancake.  I think it will be useful for stalter on highbar and presses on equilibre.

I got to hang out with people while working on standing backs and standing 1 1/2’s again.  I also pulled around a couple of standing double twists to my face in the pit – not beautiful, but fun.

Byamba wasn’t here again today so I worked with The Clown again on some juggling.


Group act in the animation before the National Circus School annual show

Grumpiness And Burnout At Circus School

Slept in again, missing my equilibre major class but with no Byamba, I am not too worried.

Started with ITA where I stayed at the cradle the whole time.  I ported for over half the class.  Alexander is giving me good advice.  He said that he would buy me a huge bag of peanuts at Costco when he goes next.  I almost finished the ones he said I could take from him yesterday right before I almost got a migraine before trampo.

I worked with The Clown in juggling on our number that we have to prepare for the end of the year.  It will be a hat number.  It is funny that it is the two of us and then the rest of the class, most of whom worked with us in the evaluation concept.

We presented to them and I think thought it looked pretty good.  Main a main was ok too, but I was sick of the girls, who would sit in a spot that they repeatedly were almost run into as others of them fell from the barre russe.  Dumb!  People really seem to be getting on my nerves lately.

In movement I got to do my first contact impro class with The Contortionist.  Have to admit it was a little more fun that my second time with one of the first year guys.  Anyways, the technique is making more sense, now.

Then I did a little Byamba equilibre.  I also talked with The Trapezist about Russian teachers and things like that.  We obviously have differing opinions on the matter.  Now I’m tired and not looking forward to dance.


Flying acrobat killing a Thunder Bird in rehearsal for Kosmogonia


Had my evaluation today:

  • Work too hard, making me tired.
  • Need better flexibility and toe point.
  • Need to speak French.
  • Have good potential.
  • Am a true artist.
  • The evaluation concept lacked technique, but was ambitious with all the characters.
  • We needed to go farther.
  • The men overpowered the women.
  • Some looked like they did not offer up ideas.

I passed everything!  There is speculation that some in the first year did not get a good evaluation at all.  ITA was fun, but hard on the body.  I am really starting to get the hang of juggling with clubs and with juggling with four balls.  The Flyer looks good, having come back from Panama with her hair all in braids.  Main a main was a pain with my legs all bent out of shape and having The Dreamer as my partner for the first shoulder mounted handstands.  I also lost my job teaching on Fridays, but supposedly because they need someone who can teach fil de fer.  Movement was fun; we watched our evaluation tape, and then watched some partnering contact improv.  Tried to work extra, but was just too damn tired.  Talked with Alex at length.  He talked about a stair-like workout program with light, medium, intense, and then break day sequence.  He will have me talk with a student of his who understands his program better.  Alex will also talk with me later about the Moscow school to help me make up my mind.  Byamba is still not back.  My wrist is a little better I think.  My article from the technology review got here.  Interesting read, but they got a few facts wrong.  Some Alex quotes: “circus is not all fun.”  “I see your determination and effort, but without direction you are blind.”

Circus acrobat holding a one-armed handstand at the National Circus School of Montreal


Last day of assessments!  Kicked off with flexi, in which Isabelle clearly was trying to make up for our lacking front split improvements in the evaluations by working it into us in spades today.  The Acrobat was my partner again (finally) and we had a good time.  He says: “I hate you.”  Split work was fantastic!

Dance!  The remaining assessment of our barre work.  Wow.  We were basically tested on everything that we have done in the class up until this point.  It was rough.  There were three groups, and each group started one of the 6 exercises we had to show while the others got to practice.  Still didn’t change that if you were in the middle of the barre your job was much easier.  Still, I got through it without any major mess ups.  After the assessment, almost everyone had to leave for their meningitis injections, but The Contortionist, The Trapezist, me, and three others stayed, so we got to work on a lot of things that we were having trouble with, namely, glissade, assamble, pirrouete, changement, changement, and triplets, and sisson, assamble.  After that remedial work, we were shown some cool dancer exercises, like holding hands with one arm and pulling back while relaxing so that you are supporting each other to loosen the muscles in the arm.  Then we did a variation in which you sit and pull up and let go, regrasp and repeat.  Suspension!  Then we held hands and one partner ran around the other to spin them, and they started with their leg behind them, brought it into a sitting position, and then stood straight.  It took practice but I got it eventually.  It was really fun seeing a looser side of dance and Martine. 

Larissa gave us free practice time too, so of course I did ooska roochka.  I also need to work on my presses and reverse presses.  “flexibility and your shoulders problem.”  Larissa also told me that her back is hurting her.  I like when she talks to me, but feel bad that she can’t understand all of my jokes.  I hope she does not think they are at her expense.  We exchanged some Japanese phrases.  She worked in Japan for six months.

The American was in this class, and she is pretty strong at press-like work.

Larissa gave me some new exercises “just for you”.  One is a walking up and down stairs drill, and the other is being on two blocks, doing a tempo, and pushing the blocks out from under me to land on the ground.  I want to do things like these in my act.  When we did crocodiles, she had me go first “James, show the ladies how to do.”  Not bad, but my left side is still for crap.

Acro is weird, I’ve noticed, because it is the only class I get bored in and I always seem to have low energy for it.  Nothing new, but working on layout step out out of cartwheels.

Column a trois is going okay, but I checked with Sylvain who said that I am progressing fine and that I should not worry about it.  One other first year and The Trapezist worked with us at least for today.  I do think that being the middle is probably the hardest Job, but of course The Trapezist can do it fine… she has more experience, though.

Trampo was interesting because Caroline let us choose what we wanted to do both on and off the trampoline, and The Contortionist and I both decided to do preparation physique.  The only ones who chose that, I think.  On the tramp, I wanted to work cool enchainements, so she gave me demi tour-ventre-dos-demi tour-dos-ventre-dos-demi tour de bou.  She also gave me vrei-dos-ventre-dos-demi tour-dos-assi-demi tour de bou.  Yow.  They were hard, but fun.  I guess I flapped my arms like a bird.  When she showed me what I looked like I asked ‘est-ce que tu malade ou est-ce que cest moi?’ and she couldn’t stop laughing.  ‘forget it, james.  You are not a bird.’  When I tried to do the routine again, I did it with straight arms, which means that I just made bigger circles.

Isabelle asked me to fill in for two days of the recreational program, which is cool because hopefully that means I can start working regularly for them next session or next year.  If I do well.

Then: equilibre with Byamba!  It was cool because it was just The Contortionist, The Trapezist and me and one older student since everyone else was out because of the injections.  Lots of one arm work because it was just really clicking today.  I could search pretty well and was able to see my handstand.  It was great.  After seeing The Trapezist hold hers pretty well, it sparked my competitive side a bit and I held one for 5 seconds!  A new record (for me).  Then he worked the straight-bodied one with me a bit which was great.  I declared vendredei unbrasdi from now on.  Great class.

Time for me to teach, now, so I got changed and stuff.  One of the kids is a real pain, but I just let her do what she wants after a little while.  The little ones were running all over, but I could maintain control pretty well.  The oldest group is great, though, and they joined together for a chorus of “on t’aime, Travelling Acrobat!’  that was cool, and when I was telling people to do two legged walkovers if their one-legged ones were easy, one of the kids said that his one leg ones were easy and so were his two legs (obvious lie from the joker), and I said ‘then maybe for you, you do sans jambe, and he almost fell over laughing, saying ‘Massachusetts is the land of the joke.’

I also talked with Sylvain and Caroline after the classes and they told me that over the vacation week, all the teacher get together and talk about all of the students individually and that it is really interesting because they get a much fuller view of the students.  It’s interesting to realize that all this time there have been eyes on us without us ever knowing.  After the session we all get talked to individually in each class to find out how we are doing.  What I hope they will say about me:

  • Always works hard.
  • Will do more than what you give him.
  • Perfectionist.
  • Maybe unfocused.
  • Good strength, bad flexibility.
  • Easy to work with.
  • Good humor.
  • Well liked.
  • Never gives up on something that is giving him trouble.
  • Helps people.
  • Patient, eager, willing. 

Let’s see how this compares to what they actually say!

Circus acrobats backstage at Paleo festival next to their costumes

Midterms 2

First meeting with the artistic counselor for our Evaluation Concept today.  We tried to set up some semblance of a schedule, and assigned characters.  In my mind it was perhaps a bit too premature, but on the other hand, what better time than now?  I am a little surprised at how hard a time some people have at creating a character.  I guess it’s one of the advantages of coming from a theatrical background.  I had to do an improv sketch in French, though, and it was only moderately successful.  I think part of it was that it was the first time I’d ever worked with the professor.  The Clown is really happy to have his direction because he is ‘really good’ at theater stuff and has ‘a lot of experience.’  Be that as it may, I am worried that the director is using this as an excuse to railroad his ideas.  It is a danger to impose your ideas in group work because you will eventually run out of those ideas and feel as though you are doing the same thing over and over.  I don’t like anyone’s opinion to override anyone else’s.

Trampo was good, and I started work on back layout today.  It’s hard because with correct trampo form it feels like you are arching like mad.

I have an evaluation in my trampo minor also!

ITA I learned the other form of cradle today and had my barre fixe assessment, which was a piece of cake.  I finally got the hang of the porting, though, which wasn’t bad.  You just need to not bend your back at all and use your arms.  Being small is a huge disadvantage for me, though.

After juggling where we just did our assessment and I didn’t do too bad, we saw the Jeu III students present.  They were pretty good!  A few were a bit less interesting, but it was nice seeing people’s stage presence, though.  Straps Guy is really good at it. 

Main a Main was cool because we did planche and I finally got my timing down as well as being able to be the pusher on the running form of planche.  You need to bend when the pushers’ first foot hits, and finish your jump as soon as they touch the end of the board.  I jump too far, but Sylvain let me do a double (“just for fun; this isn’t track and field”).

After main a main, it was time for a half hour of free equilibre with Byamba.  I was pretty exhausted, and I think he could tell, but this is experience I need to gain.  3 hours a day is the goal.

Movement assessment was weird, we just did the standing there humping thing, and then did the four people humming and one person following thing.  The Trapezist told me that she thought I was good at the moving freaky thing.  My only goal was to be entertaining using breakdancing moves, silly noises, long pauses, and the like.

Then I got a pretty good massage from one of the girls in the first year who has gender issues about how the group immediately saw the Boss in our show as being a male.  I think she worries too much.  At first, the group wanted me to be the boss, but then I said I’d prefer being the troublemaker, and they agreed.  This exact first-year was being pressured into being the lesbian boss, but then because the wife of the boss at my suggestion.  All of it happened too fast, though, and she is now maybe unhappy about it.  Good massage, though.

Flexi assesment tomorrow.  Oh my god.

Acrobat riding a deer statue in Arnhem, Holland

Success and Improvement

Ah, finally a nice day.  It is definitely autumn, now however.  You can smell it in the air and you can feel the edge of a chill on the walk to school.  Leaves are falling now as well.

Physical conditioning first.  The ante is continually upped now, as Esteban has noticed that I do more than I am asked to do.  This means that he is telling me to do more numbers.  ie, 30 calf raises instead of 20, which means I must do 40!  Hopefully, it will work out for the best.

I am, however, horrendously weak in abs and legs for jumping.  I need to remedy this.

Then came trampo.  Carol told me again to get an apple or something before class, and it has proven itself again.  It’s funny how I realize exactly how food and sleep will affect my training.  She taught me a back tuck today.  Even though I’ve been doing them for almost 6 years now, I was scared to do this one for some reason.  I guess it comes down to a weird fear of doing something once you have seen or are aware of the “correct” way of doing it.  Everything was good, though.  Always can improve the form, of course.

ITA with Alex!  Fun stuff.  I started out with The Clown as double porters in the cradle.  I had to explain and call the tricks we were supposed to do to The Clown as we were doing them.  The Clown was tired, didn’t like the class, and didn’t want to be there.  We have a good time up there anyway, singing songs, posing, talking to flyers.  When The Aerialist is up, I always say:  Ah!  The beautiful woman.  For The Trapezist it is always: My favorite flyer! 

Then came swinging trapeze.  I can see why people want to do it now.  When the thing starts flying, you can really feel it!  At the end I got to be a flyer again, just doing a back tuck from stationary.  The Trapezist was upset that Alex corrected her form, but didn’t seem to mind when he corrected mine!

The first stuff we had to do was tough, though.  We had to grab the flyer’s hands, switch to feet on the knee-crunch, switch to hands on the front, two times each, and then throw her for a salto back.  Ouch.  Everyone else was something like backtuck to feet mount, switch to hands on the frontswing, carp, uncarp, back tuck.

Juggling was as juggling is.  Lost some endurance contests, but whatever.  I do my own endurance on my own time.

The Clown, The Contortionist, The American, and I had to talk to Isabelle about history of circus that we were supposed to go to tomorrow.  Turns out we can wait til next year when we know more French, if we want to.  I do want to wait.  I also found out that I have been switched into Byamba’s Equilibe III class!  Isabelle said that that only happens except if the teacher asks for it, and that he is very specific in what he wants.  He wanted to work with me, so I should take it as a big compliment.  Belive me, I do.  She said that Sylvain had asked me to join his class as well because I have good work ethic, that people like me, and that I am easy to get along with.  Nice compliments!  I am glad that this is the case.

Byamba seemed happy that I got in to his class and that I was so happy for that.

Hand to hand was fun too!  I did three successful turns on the ground with all three flyers, and then tried our first three-person structure.  Didn’t work, but I definitely felt it.  Next time.  Sylvain said that The Mentor  said that I just got my flyer up on my shoulders based on pure strength, and that I should use more dynamics to make the lift easier.

There is also going to be a school cabaret possibly, and The Clown and I are thinking of a possible music and hand to hand act.  Took a quick shower and was late to nutrition.  My Ukrainian shirt got a lot of hoots and hollers.  It was funny.  Worth a late, I think.

At one point, the teacher asked “how does the body turn glycogen into energy?”  Suddenly, all of my course 7 work on respiration came back, but I realized that this was probably not the answer she was looking for.  She just wanted to talk about simple and complex carbohydrates.

Then pizza night and party at The Funambulist’s!  But that will have to wait until later, because I am tired!!