Louisville has a breadth of artistic experiences which is really remarkable for a city of its size. In recent years the explosion of interest in circus-focused performance art has added to the city’s diversity of artistic expression.
Turner’s on River Road, of course, has existed for decades and many youth have enjoyed its programming. And the Shriners’ circus has come through town as well. But the inception of CirqueLouis just three years ago has raised the visibility of circus in our community. From classes to performances to socially-conscious programs, CirqueLouis is expanding the way we perceive ‘circus.’
Abbie Springer and Lynley Elliott are co-founders of CirqueLouis. Elliott has a long history with Turners, and she and Springer met a couple of decades ago when they were cheering at the University of Louisville. As is often the case in Louisville, their paths crossed again a few years ago through their children’s interest in acrobatics. The confluence of their shared history and interests, the Turner’s connection, and an increasing awareness of circus as performance art led to the two of them forming CirqueLouis in 2015.
Jordan Clark, who grew up in Louisville, knew he was interested in circus from an early age. He’s now back in Louisville as the director of the upcoming Gravity’s Varieties in the Bomhard Theater at Kentucky Center for the Arts. Clark left Louisville to pursue circus at the prestigious National Circus School in Montreal, where he studied for three years. Subsequently he toured extensively throughout the world, including on cruise ships, as a performer.
Clark has a thorough grounding in many aspects of circus performance, and his primary focus is hand balancing. Returning to Louisville for family reasons, Clark said he’s excited to direct this program as part of cultivating a culture for circus here in Louisville, because it didn’t exist here when he was growing up. He’s eager to share with the CirqueLouis students and performers his tour experiences and transform them into training and productions for his home town.
Springer and Clark both light up when they talk about the opportunities for inclusion and diversity in circus performance. Skill, rather than physical appearance, has always been paramount in circus, and it’s a tenet that is front and center for CirqueLouis. Circus is an opportunity for performers to discover the skill that they can develop; to achieve a dream. For audiences there is a deliciousness in watching the struggle to do the impossible; Clark’s example is the juggler who drops a ball and keeps going, reintegrating that ball into their routine – unlike other genres, seeing the struggle is an exciting aspect of performance, experiencing both the risk and the confidence of the performer.
For this weekend, inclusion takes on a new role as CirqueLouis has committed to a sensory-friendly performance for their Sunday matinee. Before the show they will make available to their audience a range of their props and accoutrements for performance that the public will be able to pick up and explore. Again, unlike some other genres, circus encourages audience responses during the performances, they’re part of the performance. They’re hoping that audiences will embrace their invitation to vocalize during their performance. Clark reminds us that through the ages circus has been a populist art form that encourages audience to be a partner in the experience.
CirqueLouis is working with FEAT (Families for Effective Autism Treatment) to be recognized as an Autism Friendly Business, as a result of this Sunday’s performance. This designation is one that other area arts organizations are also being invited to consider. One of their outreach programs is the Unicycle Project which honors a former member of the CirqueLouis community, whose specialty was the unicycle, through which they perform at area events and community organizations, lifting up the issues of mental illness through the joy of circus.
Gravity’s Varieties has two performances, Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. (sensory friendly), at the Kentucky Center. Audiences are invited to embrace the momentary illusion of taking flight and flying into their own dreams.