Double-decker bikes, fire-spinning clowns, flying trapeze artists and death-defying acrobatic stunts. In Portland, you don’t have to wait for the circus to come to town.
From concerts to parks, in studios and on the street, circus arts performers are taking over every inch of this city. For exercise, fun, a challenge and a treat, ordinary folks are realizing they don’t have to leave town to join the circus and are getting involved in acrobatics, aerial dance, fire spinning, unicycling and general clowning around.
The Wanderlust Circus is perhaps Portland’s largest collective of performers who join together to put on breathtaking shows involving an ever-evolving group of clowns, aerialists, acrobats, stilt walkers, contortionists, jugglers and unicyclists.
The acrobalance troupe Kazüm is one of the Wanderlust Circus’ star spectacles due to their impressive mix of human strength and tension, comedy and costumes.
Ulrikka Haveron founded Kazüm in 2005 after she found her way to Portland from Texas a few years earlier. She started taking classes at Do Jump!, a local company that creates a unique blend of theater, aerial work, dance, music and visuals.
“There was nothing like that in Texas,” she says. Coming from a dance background and with a tiny build, Haveron says it was way more fun to practice acrobalance—a blend of adagio (partner lifts, throws and tosses) and hand balancing.
“There were a lot of people playing around with it, people were interested, but I had a dream of something more organized,” she says.
Years later, her dream has been realized. When Neighborhood Notes caught up with Kazüm at their practice space in Southeast, Ulrikka brandished pages scrawled with choreography ripped from a spiral notebook, directing her troupe, which has now grown to nine people. Only eight weeks after the birth of her baby daughter, the lithe and limber mother sporting black and white striped tights practiced handstands, lifts, and directing her gang of acrobats to perform tricks with names like “double lotus” and “scorpion.”
Kazüm has performed at the Oregon Country Fair, Pickathon and dubstep shows. Their wily mix of handstands and headstands, cheerleading stunts and gravity-defying lifts make for a spectacle that seems to fit any stage.
Two members, the imposing yet ever-agile Jon “Dutch” Paglia and gymnast and former cheer coach Scott Maxwell, offer a class on Sundays for would-be acrobats and gymnasts. The small class size allows for an intimate setting to get instruction and support for those looking to learn the ways of acrobats.
Why do it? Haveron says the ultimate goal is to “uplift the spirit of humanity.” For a slightly more self-centered reason, physical fitness is a well-earned byproduct of many of the circus arts.
The A-WOL Dance Collective is an aerial dance company that, in addition to wowing crowds with their stunning in-air achievements, offers classes to aspiring acrobats of all ages.
Photo: Heather Zinger
“I think the draw is that physical challenge,” says A-WOL’s Artistic Director Jen Livengood. “It’s for driven people that want physical fitness but also are looking for physical expression. It’s all about beauty in conjunction with physical exertion.”
A-WOL performances, often held in their converted warehouse space in north Portland, blend dance techniques with the art of aerial silks.
Aerial silks is a performance in which an artist performs aerial acrobatics while suspended from a special piece of fabric suspended from safety lines (or rafters, or tree branches). This type of spectacle has been popping up all over Portland in music venues to accompany DJ shows. Members of A-WOL are even traveling to Las Vegas later this month to perform at the Electric Daisy Carnival, the nation’s biggest electric music festival.
“It’s a big trend right now to do aerial work. People are hearing about it and they want to try it,” says Livengood.
According to Livengood, the adult classes are popular and the teen program “is really taking flight.” In October, they had about 120 students, and now they can count 300 among their ranks. People of all skill levels are welcome and they offer kids a free class to try it out.
For children looking for other ways to clown around, they need to point their parents no further than Circus Cascadia. Circus Cascadia roams around Portland offering workshops, classes and summer camp for kids to learn the circus arts. Typically, they teach the kids circus skills such as, but not limited to, juggling, stilt-walking, tight rope walking, unicycling and general clowning around for a few days and then coach the crew to put on a show.
“Portland is a great place to do circus arts,” says Circus Cascadia founder Paul Battram, who followed a woman here from England and never left.
“It’s like a circus explosion. I set up a space with my bag of tricks and people really know what to do with it,” Battram says.
Indeed, there are more and more opportunities for big kids in Portland to clown around and master circus skills, too. Flamebuoyant Productions is one such company that offers fire spinning and circus performances, classes and even manufactures equipment such as fire poi and stilts.
“What’s appealing [about circus arts] is that it is a non-competitive physical activity that engenders self-confidence. There is a limitless range of what’s possible,” says Flamebuoyant Production’s CEO Shireen Press.
According to Press, you can constantly build upon skills you are learning, whether it’s flying on a trapeze, spinning poi or doing partner aerobics.
“It’s non-competitive, so people can revel in their own achievement,” she says.
As for the Wanderlust Circus, it says on their website that they are “at home on the endless road we roam with the purpose of following our dreams for a better reality.”
For a glimpse into Portland’s circus culture, don’t miss the upcoming Wanderlust Circus Orchestra, billed as a “madcap marriage of music and circus unrivaled in the modern age,” featuring performances by Kazüm and A-WOL, among many others.
To check out some of the other amazing circus groups, or to stop being a spectator and get involved already, the following (non-comprehensive) list provides you with some local resources:
MarchFourth Marching Band
A-WOL Dance Collective
Pendulum Aerial Arts
Night Flight Aerial Arts Studio
The Circus Project
The Nomadic Theatre Company