Life at Mastery : In the News : on the ground: circus arts thrive in germantown

on the ground: circus arts thrive in germantown

Tuesday, April 30 2013. By ALAINA MABASO

Through an unassuming door near the corner of Greene and West Rittenhouse Streets in Germantown, there is a sunny gymnasium that resembles a giant birdcage. A variety of ropes, perches and a large dangling ring hang from the ceiling -- a great big parrot might be in heaven, but at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, the gear is for those who fly without the benefit of wings.

The school is open to all, offering classes for beginners and experts, young and old alike. And, since 2009, some of the locals taking advantage of the school include sophomores from Germantown'sMastery Charter School Pickett Campus, just a few blocks away. Every year, two lucky interns get first-hand experience not only in the administration of the school and its performances, but also on-the-ground -- and in-the-air -- practice with aerial silks, juggling and other circus arts. 

According to the school's General Manager Kitsie O'Neill, circus arts have gotten a bit of a make-over in recent years, with major pop artists like Pink and Britney Spears incorporating elements of aerial silks into their shows.

O'Neill, a former full-time graphic designer who now teaches and occasionally performs in the company's staff shows, began with aerial silks about ten years ago. She tried them first in the backyard of Founding Director Shana Kennedy, a juggler and aerialist who had a vision for a professional-grade Philadelphia-based circus school and performance company. 

"Circus has been really evolving not as a fringe art, but as an art that can be funded in the U.S.," she explains. While circus arts are considered a mainstream performance genre in Europe and Canada, in America, when it comes to scoring supportive grants, circus performers fall under a kind of artistic no-man's-land. Potential funders' reaction to jugglers, trapeze artists or aerial silk experts is often confusion.

"Usually we're just filed under miscellaneous, or 'what?'" says O'Neill with a chuckle.  

The shifting perception of the art form is one reason why O'Neill welcomes two Mastery 15-year-olds into the school's classes and operations from early February through May each year. She wants to demonstrate that circus is not a members-only club.

"For Americans, there has long been a feeling that if you want to learn circus arts, you have to be born into it, and have the circus in your blood," says O'Neill, who goes on to emphasize that, like any career, from medicine to public relations, having family in the business might help, but anyone who wants to can learn the skills. 

This year's Mastery interns are Jean Sheared and Marquita Gilliland. When Flying Kite visited the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts on a Wednesday afternoon in April, O'Neill led the teens right onto the gymnasium floor to continue their introduction to aerial silks.

"I like doing weird stuff," says Sheared, adding that she's always enjoyed the circus. A basketball player, she also hopes that lessons in juggling will translate into increased hand-eye coordination on the court. 

Acrobats at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts can train on what look like long, thick ropes dangling from the ceiling. They're called corde lisse, and they are actually braided ropes with a softer canvas overlay -- easy on hands grasping them in mid-air. 

The aerial silks that Sheared and Gilliland practice on hang from stout carabiners and swivels secured to the rafters. The four silks – or tissu in the French tradition – aren't actually silk: they're a strong and stretchy blend of fibers that, on Greene Street, come in a glorious quartet of magenta, red, purple and turquoise.

With thick mats underneath them, Sheared and Gilliland stretched the fabric with their hands and feet, practicing three basic poses, just a few feet off the ground.

Aerial artists contort their bodies in graceful movements and poses through knots in the silk that are tied and untied with the help of their own body parts. 

While work in the air is fun, O'Neill was quick to note to that the internship program has challenges and benefits besides physical skills. In the program -- developed after Mastery first approached the school in 2008 -- interns get valuable office skills as well. 

"Usually with the interns we get, it's something that has attracted them to this type of internship," says O'Neill. As the interns' supervisor, O'Neill tries customize the internship. For example, Gilliland is hoping to gain administrative experience. O'Neill is glad to help them achieve this, in part by including the students in the curating and planning of the company's annual student showcase.  

Interns also learn how to answer the phones and deal with queries from the company's customers and students. In a world where we're increasingly glued to text messages and e-mails, professional telephone skills are no longer a given for those entering the workforce. 

Back on the floor, Sheared laughed as she noticed that in buckling down for a juggling lesson, her body automatically crouched into a basketballer's defensive pose. 

O'Neill and the juggling teacher, Jonathan Perry, started the girls with a pair of juggling balls. "It's like we're scooping ice cream and making that 'X' in the air," O'Neill explained.

Perry, who has been juggling since age twelve, took a slightly different tack.

"Picture yourself in a phone booth. The walls are covered with nitroglycerine, so if you touch them, you explode," he quipped, reminding the girls to keep their arms close to their bodies.

Juggling is full of unexpected challenges -- catching those balls, tossing them high as your arms get tired pass after pass, and remembering to breathe through it all.

As Sheared tried to keep three balls in the air, Perry explained the professional juggler's term for mastery of a particular toss: a "qualifying" catch. The formula is simple: the number of objects you're juggling times the number of hands you have.

So when Sheared, juggling three balls, joyfully managed to achieve six catches in a row after about fifteen minutes of practice, she had made a qualifying catch.

According to O'Neill, there's another obvious benefit of a high school internship at a circus arts school. "Put that on your resume," she says, "and in any kind of job or college interview, it will make for a good conversation starter."