Features Vol. IV, No. 1

Finding Peace with Circus in Tough Times

by Kim Campbell

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Sidney IKing Bateman (L) Jessica Hentoff and Melvin Diggs (R) at the Montreal opening of Cuisine and Confessions

People think of running away when they think of the itinerant circus lifestyle, but who knew that joining the circus could save your life, provide peace and stability and a desire to enrich your own community?

The term ‘social circus’ has only been around for a handful of years, but the concept has existed much longer. The idea, according to Jessica Hentoff, the founder of Circus Harmony in St. Louis, is to work with children, many of whom are marginalized by society, and to help develop character in individuals while building bridges between communities. There are circuses around the world that embrace this concept, but Jessica was providing social circus support by instinct before she even knew there was such a thing. She just knew circus did something special for kids that helped them grow. In the 25 years she has been teaching circus in St. Louis, since helping found St. Louis Arches and ultimately Circus Harmony, many of her students have gone on to have successful careers in various walks of life and others have become professional circus performers. One of her former students, Sidney Iking Bateman chose the latter.  He is one of those kids she now refers to as her circus son.

When Sidney was very young, his brothers taught him how to tumble in the streets and fields for fun.  It was something they did as a family. As he grew, gang activity became more alluring; however, by chance Dr. Diane Rankin, his mentor in a now defunct program called Discovering Options took him to a circus show where unbeknownst to him, he was to meet Jessica Hentoff.  The plan that day was to invite him to join her after-school circus program, but halfway through the show Sidney asked to leave. He didn’t like it. There was nothing in what he saw that he could relate to. Even though he was just a little boy at the time, it seemed to him like something for younger kids. So he didn’t meet Jessica that day. But a persistent mentor and a little push from kismet assisted a few weeks later. They went on a visit to the City Museum, which happens to be the home of Circus Harmony. Sidney says when he saw gym mats on the ground he ran straight to them and started tumbling. He signed up that day and spent years going back and forth between basketball and circus.

Although he quickly loved and excelled at circus arts, he would quit every so often and start running around with gangs simply because he lived in a tough neighborhood and couldn’t avoid being part of it. But when his uncle was shot right in his living room, a few feet from Sidney’s bedroom, he no longer felt safe in his own house. Jessica took him to her home where she was raising her own three kids and let him stay there until he felt safe again. She drove him across town to school every day. That was the moment when he knew he wasn’t simply considered a performer at Jessica’s studio but a person she cared about and believed in.  Although Sidney says it wasn’t a straight path to success, “After that, I really started to rethink my life and all of the decisions I was making, because I was making some bad decisions. That moment led me to go back to circus and take stock of my future.”

While the media coverage focused on the social unrest in response to the grand jury decision not to try former Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, it comes as a relief to hear that there are people living their lives to the fullest in a struggling community and thriving. Sidney’s success story can help snap us out of our complacent tendency to stereotype people based on where they grew up or the color of their skin since he is an example of a boy who struggled to succeed and escape the cycle of violence in his region. His story is worth adding to the voices of those who have something to say about the state of our nation. And his voice rings out very clearly in his circus performance by addressing his former struggles. It’s a perfect example of a social circus act in its nascence.

At the time of the Ferguson incident, Sidney was home in St. Louis for a few weeks on a break from his job with the contemporary circus 7 Fingers (les 7 doigts de le main) in Montreal, Canada before he began his two year tour around the world in the show Cuisine and Confessions that kicked off in Paris. He and his circus partner Melvin Diggs, who is also from a poor neighborhood in St. Louis, created their acrobatic hoop diving act to delve deep in to their experiences as at-risk youth, with voice tracks of the two of them discussing what it was like to grow up in a poor and violent area. Their amazing hoop jumping actions are overlaid with a strident piano bass beat and their stories.  Sidney describes the act as powerful.  “It really compliments the voice track very well because the tricks are super dynamic and hardcore and the presence we have on stage puts everything into perspective. We had people saying they cried afterwards because they were touched.”  Sidney says he only wishes people in his neighborhood could see their act because they have experienced similar problems and they know personally how hard it has been for Melvin and him to overcome those problems.

While St. Louis blew up with protests and rioting, Sidney was spending a lot of his time on the third floor of the City Museum at the Circus Harmony headquarters teaching some young recruits his acrobatic tricks. He says he owes it to them, because Circus Harmony was his home, his escape from trouble and his impetus to save himself from the violence of his neighborhood when he was growing up.  “I like to come back to Circus Harmony because it’s my roots. I see a bunch of kids in similar situations that I was in, and I always want to give back and help these kids so they can have the opportunities that I have right now. It’s also just fun to teach kids because it was always an honor when people came back and taught me new, exciting skills. I owe this to the students that are here now.”

How to Build Circus Bridges

Perhaps the most telling example of how social circus can build bridges between people is one of Jessica Hentoff’s projects called Peace through Pyramids. It invites students from Circus Harmony in St. Louis to collaborate with Galilee Circus in Israel, a circus that brings together Jewish and Arab kids. Sidney attended two trips there when young, and although he says at the time he had no idea what an honor it was, he does admit that he made many friends who he still considers part of his circus family today. “Circus is a big family no matter where you go. If you’re in Montreal, St. Louis, Israel, Europe, it really doesn’t matter. You have family all over. The circus world is so small and yet so big because no matter where you go you always have friends you can stay with for the weekend.”  This sense of family really helped Sidney as a boy, when he was in Circus Harmony classes and performing with the St. Louis Arches. They were together weekdays from 4 to 8 after school, and they took frequent trips together, requiring them to do most things a family would do, like share meals and cooperate on logistics. Being around his peers more than he was around his own family meant there were arguments and issues that had to be worked out just like they would with family members.

“I come from a really troubled neighborhood where there are a lot of gangs and violence and so many negative things and all the odds are really stacked against you. So Circus Harmony gave me a place of comfort because most of the time I didn’t feel safe at home. Circus Harmony was basically my escape. Like I was there so much that I didn’t have time to run in the streets and hang out with the wrong people because circus consumed so much of my time. It changed my life in so many ways,”

As for what Sidney got out of traveling to Israel, he says seeing other peoples’ struggles helped him to put his own in perspective. “When I went to Israel I thought to myself, why try to be in a gang and do all of these bad things when there are so many other problems in the world? It just really opened up this mindset for me that there are just so many problems everywhere, so my problems are nothing compared to other people’s. I felt like I shouldn’t walk around upset because I feel I’m at a disadvantage since there are so many other people that have bigger disadvantages than I have.”

While visiting his hometown, as it happened, Sidney stepped in to a maelstrom of political and social unrest, but he tried to stay centered on what works in his life. “I come home and try to focus on the positive things. Like come teach, see my family, and try to make peace in this messed up time.”  His message to the kids he works with in St. Louis is simple and encouraging, and it carries on the Circus Harmony mission to build character and bridges; “Nothing is out of your reach. You can do anything you want. You just have to have the right mindset. I honestly feel if you want something out of life, no matter who you are or where you come from there are so many ways for you to get it. No matter how many blows you take; it just makes you stronger and it’s going to make your goal that much sweeter once you achieve it.” Because he has friends in all walks of life, he has heard every possible opinion about the events sparked by Ferguson. And although as a teenager he might have found himself in a similar situation to Michael Brown, he and Melvin Diggs now find themselves showing and telling the world their wider message most eloquently through the show Cuisine and Confessions what it is like to grow up in a troubled neighborhood and how to find peace .

Some of Sidney and Melvin’s work a can be seen at 7 Fingers (or Les 7 Doigts de le Main) http://7doigts.com/en/shows/24-cuisine-confessions


A Reverence for Acrobatics

A Conversation with Acrosanct’s Lu Yi and Ayla Agarwal

with Judy Finelli, West Coast Correspondent



Mr. Lu Yi, Artistic Director of Circus Center for 25 years, who was first a star performer and Director for 33 years with China’s celebrated Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe, now dives into the creation of a brand new acrobatic troupe. Mindful of the pitfalls inherent in a new entertainment venture, his eyes, mind, and heart are wide open. He also has a trump card: Ayla Agarwal, who snatched Circus Center from the jaws of bankruptcy, is now his Executive Director. (Ms. Agarwal, who graduated from Mr. Lu Yi’s professional acrobatics program and MIT, still does a mean one-armed lever in addition to employing her business acumen.)

The Company’s administrative staff includes Jory Bell, board chairperson; Ayla Agarwal, executive director; Lu Yi, artistic director; Bradley Henderson, chief acrobatic officer

The company consists of Chloe Marvel Light Axelrod, Anoka Barnes, Toni Cannon, Evangelos Chaniotakis, Scott Cooper, Chris Cortez, Steven Delaney, Herdlyn Evans, Alexandra Harrington, Jordan Joel, Marina Mendoza, Luke Pieper, and youth members Ron Oppenheimer, Althea Young, and Miles Stapp.


Judy Finelli: As I recently approached 1600 Illinois Street, the home of Acrosanct, an industrial green warehouse at the southeastern foot of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, I recalled meeting Mr. Lu Yi 26 years ago. At that time, I was with a show I had directed for the Pickle Family Circus in Stony Brook, on New York’s Long Island. I read in a local paper that the Big Apple Circus had collaborated with the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe from mainland China.  It turned out the circus was performing in Southampton on my day off. The show was called East Meets West. The BAC performed the first half of the show and the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe performed the second. After the show I met Mr. Lu Yi and told him how much I liked his acrobats. I had seen Chinese acrobatic troupes from Taiwan and mainland China beginning in the mid-60s. I knew that without a very disciplined approach to acrobatics, Americans would never be able to achieve the higher levels of training. So I asked if it might be possible to arrange for Mr. Lu Yi to train the company for a few months which, fortunately for the US, evolved into a long-term arrangement. Mr. Lu Yi and Ms. Agarwal discussed Acrosanct with me, and I got the lowdown on their intriguing project.

JF: Why, at this point in your career, did you want to tackle creating a new company, this new Acrosanct project?

 Lu Yi: I had the dream long ago. It was in me, in you, and it’s in Ayla, too. And now it’s returned, I have that dream again.

 JF: What seasonal schedule will Acrosanct follow?

 LY: I have already been planning this with Ayla. First, we want to find the right performers and properly credit our corporate sponsors’ belief in us.  The show – and each act – will have a good style, a good concept, and a high level. We want to perform first here in San Francisco. But this time, [unlike in the 90s,] we will not be stupid, but very smart. You, Judy, already founded a place where former performers can teach. [Mr. Lu Yi is referring to the circus school I founded with Wendy Parkman.] A long time ago, we collaborated on La-La Luna Sea, a Pickle show. It was a good show. Very successful. Why didn’t it continue? [The Pickle Family Circus was unable to secure enough funding as the 80s progressed.] We now need to find many more people to support us. We need two things. First, we need to be mentally and physically healthy. That is very important. Secondly, we need to allow other people to nurture us.

 Ayla Agarwal: I think, ideally, we would have a season like the Ballet or the Opera. We will have that season, and in the other half of the year, we will work on previous productions, new projects, and smaller projects.

 LY: Instead of combining acrobatics with American circus, movies, magic, etc. We want to create our own unique style. We need to have a unique look for our acrobatics that is different from other companies’. It sounds easy, but it’s not easy to make it happen. We need lots of people to come and work together, including on the financial side. We do have the concept.

 JF: An organization that enjoyed an amount of success thanks to you was the all-female troupe, Lava Love, which you trained. Often companies get to a certain level and that’s it. They don’t progress any further. In order to achieve a higher level a company would have to have a lot of financial support to be able to pay performers, to rehearse, to train, and to have enough equipment. These are enormous expenses. That’s what happened to the Pickle Family Circus. Eventually, they could not afford to continue and went bankrupt. You want to keep your good performers in the company. You don’t want to lose them.

 LY: I have been in this country a long time. I now know this country well. In China, Russia, Europe, and in Canada, the arts enjoy very solid government support. Here there’s little government support. [The National Endowment for the Arts spends less than 50 cents per person on the arts.] So we have to work very hard to make people realize what they need to do to support us. [Acrosanct needs to educate the public and teach them in much the same way Big Apple Circus had to do.]

We need to have top performers. I think first we will start performing here at our training space. Maybe later we will have a theater, go on a small tour, and eventually tour internationally. We will go slowly, step by step. Of course, any show is a risk. We will slowly build it up naturally, organically. We already have this training space and it could easily be a performance space as well for small audiences. We already have some very interesting acts that I love. But we need to find enough money to pay performers and keep them. Everything depends upon marketing and the financials.

 AA: We don’t want to become distracted in the first few years by looking for a theater. The first couple of performances will be largely for friends and family, not so much for the public at large. We can’t fit very many people in here. However, we do need and want feedback and we need support from the people we know.

 LY: We need to discover a unique way to present acrobatics. It must be American in character. It must not copy what is happening in other countries. Acrosanct will provide a fresh take on acrobatics from a different perspective. Acrobats need a lot of equipment in order to do Chinese pole, hoop diving, banguine, teeter board, and cradle. Performers sometimes want to try doing an act without equipment. Or they want to do a solo act to the exclusion of partner, trio, or group acts, but I think that can change. There is value in doing a wide variety of acts with differing numbers of people.

 JF: Have you seen Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios?

 LY: I saw Kurios. It was a very good show. High energy! High-level tricks. Funny. They made the audience so happy! And they did it by being crazy! Crazy concept, crazy ideas, crazy [steam punk inspired] sets, crazy execution of tricks, and they made the audience so happy! The crazy concept worked!

 JF: They have great timing within the tricks, enhancing the acts by using eclectic, original music and lighting so the audience receives the maximum impact and are electrified by the show.

 LY: I also like Seven Fingers. That’s a different concept. A different direction. They were very smart and completely modern. It’s a smaller show with many details.

 JF: Will the performers train in other skills besides acrobatics?

 LY: Yes they will train in dance and acting to improve their ability to connect with an audience and encourage it to be drawn into the performance. This will involve striking the right balance of supporting skills because, as Ayla points out, skills added to acrobatics might even be confusing to an audience [especially if they appear gratuitously “tacked on”]. There are only so many hours in a day. Ayla does not want the acrobatics compromised by studying too many other skills and detracting from the acrobatic training time.

 JF: Will Acrosanct enjoy some connection with China?

 LY: Yes, I am already using my resources to connect with China and Acrosanct will eventually tour there.

 JF: Is there anything either of you want to add?

 AA: One thing we are doing is a brand new way of running a nonprofit. We are so grateful that Mr. Lu Yi has agreed to select and work with these excellent acrobats, making them even better. So the company is really composed of high-level performers and high-level donors. So we are attracting and structuring-in people who can afford to give. [The donors are encouraged to have a personal interest in the company and vice versa. This is an innovative idea.]

JF: Acrosanct is a group of attractive, compelling young people. As for new ideas, they are working on Chinese poles, which Mr. Lu Yi has set farther apart than the traditional Chinese dimensions. He wants to give his acrobats more air time as they somersault and spring from one pole to another which will increase the “Wow!” factor. This is definitely thinking outside the box.

When Gary Thomsen took the photos of a training session, another thing they worked on was a layered combination of tricks. One performer stood in banguine, and is pitched into a high somersault, while another acrobat behind the banguine is pitched into a high dive roll over the first banguine and under the somersaulting acrobat. This complex series of tricks needs to be timed perfectly, and it was this that they were refining. Another exercise involved practicing their three-high which looks quite solid. The acrobats were actually able to smile! These complex tricks and Acrosanct’s new, inventive ways of using equipment will put it in a great position from which to grow.

I asked Ayla if she thought up the name Acrosanct. She laughed and groaned, recalling how many lists of names with “acro” as a root that they combed through, while looking for just the right word to convey the spirit of the company. Acrobatics is an ancient art form. It is at least 6000 years old! It is precisely this respect for the sanctity and creative possibilities of acrobatics, reflected in the name “Acrosanct,” that will make this a company a force to be reckoned with.