Liza Rose, along with collaborator and fellow producer-performer LadyBEAST, has been at the forefront of a fast-growing circus-arts scene in New Orleans. That’s one of the many reasons that makes her competition in the U.S. Aerial Championships May 13-15 in New York City — which was chronicled earlier this spring — so exciting. She will be competing among some of the very best in the form, representing New Orleans as well as herself. As part of a continuing series, “Field Trip,” Liza Rose shares her thoughts and experiences at the championships …
It’s the night before I will compete in the U.S. Aerial Championships. I’m sitting in my friend Cindy’s apartment in Chelsea, working on the website for the new Fly Circus Space because I suppose it’s true — when it rains, it pours. I arrived in New York on Tuesday morning, with my gorgeous valet/life partner, Max, and my aerial gear in tow. I used to live in NYC, and every time I visit, it’s a bit of a homecoming. I kept thinking how beautiful it was as the Uber crawled through Queens in traffic on its way in to Manhattan. If you’ve ever been to Queens, you’ll know how funny that last sentence is.
Liza Rose with New York Fox5 news anchor Simone Boyce.
It’s been a funny ride. I have never participated in an aerial competition before. I am not in the habit of making work to be judged. I make work to be enjoyed. I am a circus artist. My whole job is to remind people how to have fun, how to be inspired, and how to imagine the extraordinary. My job is not not to make sure I can do the most dangerous skill with the most panache in front of someone who will then later declare one person a “winner” and someone else a “loser” based on said levels of danger and panache. Where’s the joy in that?
I know that artists compete every day — for sales or audience, for grant money or Kickstarter dollars, but I haven’t ever stepped over the line and offered up a piece of my work purely and blatantly for competition. It’s well outside my comfort zone, and has not been an entirely healthy process. It has been important for me, in that it has made me look at why I do what I do, and reassess how I spend my time in the studio, and for what. My most fervent hope is that my participation in this competition will draw attention to the growing circus scene in New Orleans, and help audiences to realize that they have world-class circus artists in their midst. I don’t know if I’ll win, but it is an honor to be here in New York, and in such good company.
I would hate to be the judge that had to declare just one of us a winner. Perhaps they have the more difficult role here. Yesterday I traveled out to the Muse, a circus training space in Brooklyn where I’ll be teaching workshops later this weekend. I met and trained with a handful of other competitors. One is from Slovakia, one from Hong Kong, one from Australia, one from Las Vegas. We chatted openly about the nature of competition. We are all very different performers, and our work is difficult to compare. We all acknowledge that in the end, all we can do when we get onstage is try to let the artistry shine through and connect with our audience.
Meeting them made me feel better about putting my work on the chopping block. We all train endlessly. We all fret about details. We all strive for that one skill that eludes us. Why in the world would we ask someone else to join in the critique? We do it to ourselves constantly! I think we do it because as artists, we all just want exactly the same thing: connection. We dream of circus as a common language, and this is a way to know how articulate we have become.
Each month, it seems, the Fly Movement Salon at Café Istanbul has become a showcase with a purpose. Previous showcases of circus-arts works in progress — always free and open to the public — have included opportunities to support related efforts. There was the solicitation for donations to help the folks behind “Vaude D’Gras” get their Mardi Gras-timed show off the ground inside Happyland Theater, and then came the push to help Clay Mazing’s Emergency Circus continue its work entertaining Syrian refugees in Europe.
And while this month’s show, on Tuesday (March 1) at 8 p.m., will showcase the works of salon students, the hat will be passed around to support Salon founder/producer, instructor and performer Liza Rose and her impressive springtime trip. Rose, who instructs at LA Motion in the Irish Channel and at the International School of Louisiana’s (ISL) West Bank campus, will compete in the U.S. Aerial Championships on May 13-15 at the Rose Nagelberg Theatre in the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City. (See the Facebook event page.) Rose is one of six finalists in the inaugural New and Innovative Apparatus division, where she will compete with her aerial umbrella, which she designed and created in 2009, with an act titled “Parapluie.” (Other categories are lyra, pole and silks.) Rose is among 42 finalists overall from a pool of more than 400 applicants.
“I created this act for the 2010 Seattle Erotic Art Festival for Roger Bennington’s show ‘Cabinet of Curiosities,’ which also starred burlesque star Dirty Martini and Dan Savage, the sex advice columnist of ‘Savage Love’ fame,” Rose said. “I was then invited to perform it (and did perform it) in the Moisture Festival, which is the largest vaudeville and variety Festival in the world. I have also performed this act in “Mezzo Lunatico,” the late-night show at Teatro Zin Zanni in Seattle, and here in New Orleans in the first “Storyville Rising” at One Eyed Jacks in 2013.”
At stake is a $1,000 grant and an audition for “Le Reve,” a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. There also will be casting directors from several American and Canadian circuses, including Circus Flora from St. Louis and Cirque Eloise in Montreal.
“I am hoping that my involvement in the competition will help draw national attention the New Orleans circus scene, and help establish it as a place for serious artists to create circus,” said Rose, who co-produces the all-female Cirque Copine troupe with LadyBEAST.
Rose’s exploits are further evidence of New Orleans’ growing circus-arts scene, the foundation of which often can be found in the classroom. Rose has been an instructor with ISL’s circus-arts program, which was founded several years ago by Meret Ryhiner in a collaboration with KIDsmART. Ryhiner, a native of Bern, Switzerland, is a longtime veteran of the circus world who was trained in Europe and has performed a variety of circus acts.
Under her tutelage, ISL students at all grade levels have the opportunity to learn everything from balancing and clowning to acrobatics, juggling and theater. Ryhiner has become such a strong influence that she will help Rose train for the aerial championships. The ISL circus-arts program has gained so much respect that it’s starting to get national attention, recently becoming a recognized Social Circus Program of the American Circus Educators Association. This means, among other things, that it can expand its offerings through the obtainment of more grant money.
“Some of the many things we look for is that the organization or program serves a specific identified “at-risk” population (as opposed to the more common instance of offering general financial aid or community outreach),” said Amy Cohen, executive Director of the American Youth Circus Organization, which oversees social circus programs. “They also must show a dedication to measuring the outcomes of their program to reveal the impact that circus has on the populations they share it with. Measuring outcomes is especially important, as there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about how and why social circus works, but only a select group has been actively measuring the outcomes, something that is worth celebrating and supporting.
“Measured outcomes will serve the entirety of the social circus sector and beyond — those who are currently recognized, and those who are in the process of working towards recognition, as well as recreational programs that aspire to develop their programs to serve specific populations via social circus.”
Zoe Brookes, the lead consultant who worked on the project and recognized the first batch of programs, was impressed with ISL: “We recognize programs that identify a specific population with a specific need, and design circus-related curriculum to help meet that need. We also look for programs with a commitment to evaluating results. The circus program at ISL meets all those criteria.”
Indeed, the ISL program focuses on both diversity and community at a school where more than half the students are on free and reduced lunch programs. According to the school, it follows the National Arts Standards for dance and features circus arts skills. There’s more here:
Emphasis in K-1st grade is on practicing executive skills. Emphasis in 2nd and 3rd grade is on exploring core subjects with circus arts integrated curriculum units. Emphasis in 4th-8th grade on building the skills necessary to use the circus arts medium expressively and creatively, as well as to participate in community events performing and presenting workshops as circus arts ambassadors.
Ryhiner, the ISL’s circus-arts program coordinator, appreciates how as a part-time instructor Rose has been able to duplicate the school’s work at its West Bank location in just a year and a half on the job — all while excelling as an artist herself.
“Circus arts are extremely demanding, athletically. You have to perfect and maintain a high level of skills and mental acuity, and artistically, you have to be inventive with your apparatus, the composition of your act and your signature tricks,” Ryhiner said. “I am happy Liza has made New Orleans her home and brings this caliber of professionalism to the City, and to our community as a teaching artist for the circus arts program at the International School of Louisiana.”
“It’s not burlesque,” Ryhiner said. “It’s circus arts and it’s a wonderful artistic discipline, and New Orleans should have that as part of its palette of colors.”
Tuesday’s Fly Movement Salon’s student showcase will feature the new works by students Becca Chapman, Stephen Kernion, Dallas Alexander, Sean Maloney, Virginia Sibley, Laughing Sky Diamond and Cassie Palmer. Along with Liza Rose, Penelope Little, a fellow Cirque Copine troupe member, also serves as an instructor at the salon.
(NOTE: A complete list of upcoming circus-related events can be found at the bottom of the post.)
For LadyBEAST, the goal is pretty simple.
“I want to hit the big top with circus” in New Orleans, she says. LadyBEAST, an escape artist, aerialist and fire performer, is with fellow performer and producer Liza Rose, talking over coffee at the Who Dat Café in Faubourg Marigny. “And I don’t mean Barnum and Bailey circus or Cirque du Soleil.” She pauses and then says with a little laugh, “I want to be a big weirdo for the rest of my life and create a platform that will sustain us.”
For the circus artists, trying to create a sustained scene can be a fun but daunting challenge. At first blush, New Orleans would seem like a logical mecca for variety performers, drawn to the port city’s bohemian and creative spirit. There have been moments in the past where the circus arts has drawn attention, especially in the late 1990s, but it’s never made a consistent mark.
The beginning of 2016 offers some tantalizing glimmers of hope, building on the success experienced in 2015. LadyBEAST has confirmed a regular monthly circus show at One Eyed Jacks that will feature many of the performers with whom she’s collaborated over her six years in New Orleans. And there’s no better way to kick that off than with the return of Cirque Copine, her collaboration with Liza Rose, and “In Wonderland” on Jan. 29 — which will hold down one of those monthly dates four times out of the year to give the all-female troupe a quarterly presence inside One Eyed Jacks.
And then, in the spirit of Mardi Gras, LadyBEAST returns with her other, Carnival-themed circus and sideshow project that has been re-branded as “Vaude D’Gras,” to run Feb. 5-8 (ending on Lundi Gras) at the old Happyland Theater in Bywater. (The first two productions were called “Cirque du Gras.”) Other events include two fun affairs on Thursday (Jan. 21) — “Cirque di Pasta,” a gathering at Arabella Casa di Pasta on St. Claude Avenue featuring most of the “Vaude D’Gras” cast; and “Circus Darling,” the debut show produced by Darling Darla James at the Hi-Ho Lounge and described as a “sexy circus cabaret bizarre.”
Add to that Liza Rose’s monthly “Fly Movement Salon” inside Café Istanbul, several training spots around town like La Motion — and the desire for a permanent performance venue — and the seeds are there to bring the big top closer to the foreground of New Orleans’ variety scene. It’s a scene that’s created increasingly attended audiences for everything from burlesque and drag to cabaret and comedy.
“We are a movement of people who want to make regular work that utilizes our skills as circus artists, but one that is an all-encompassing theater experience,” says LadyBEAST.
Liza Rose has no delusions of grandeur about the potential of growing such a scene. She says she’s at a point where doing it for the fun is just as important as doing it for a paycheck.
“I want to enjoy the process,” says Rose. “If you don’t enjoy the process you have to quit. Ed Sullivan is not calling. It’s not a thing. You have to actually enjoy the work that you do.
“We want to get to the point where work is fun.”
Based on the description of these upcoming shows, it would be difficult to imagine any of this being anything but fun. With Cirque Copine’s “In Wonderland” — which premiered in 2015 — the pair hopes to create a turn-of-the-century atmosphere, with versatile entertainer GoGo McGregor serving as a kind-of hostess and Penelope Little performs as a clown. LadyBEAST and Liza Rose each will perform, as will Sarah Stardust. The whole production will be performed to a live soundtrack created by the local band Opus Zeo.
The co-producers try to keep details to a minimum, hoping for a surprise factor, but do say there will be local artists out front selling trinkets.
To underscore what they describe as the old Belle Epoque era from Paris, the pair are encouraging guests for the Jan. 29 show to come dressed for the period, hoping for an absinthe fairy here, and a Mucha girl there.
These monthly and quarterly shows in the heart of the French Quarter, especially inside One Eyed Jacks — home of the monthly Fleur de Tease burlesque show — represent a kind of planting of the flag for circus artists. Being able to work in a space where much of the technical aspects — hell, even having someone handle selling the booze — takes a huge load off the shoulders of organizers too often burdened by the “Y” part of a “DIY” existence.
“Every other space,” LadyBEAST says, “I’ve had to direct it from nada.”
The two separate shows will be followed by a late-night dance party with a DJ.
LadyBEAST’s regular monthly show,“LadyBEAST’s Cabaret,” will have a more mid-20th century feel, with a steady rotation of local and some touring circus artists. Live music will be provided by the G-String Orchestra and other musicians, and vendors again will be selling their wares at the front.
“We’ll be inspired by the old ‘big top,’” she said. “For me this is about being able to have more opportunity to be a producer and the best boss I can be to those people.”
The four-night “Vaude D’Gras” show will have more of a mix of circus and sideshow performances inside the old Happy Land Theater. So while LadyBEAST, GoGo McGregor and Sarah Stardust will be on hand, so will Guglielmo, the opera-singing clown; his wife, the knife-throwing Madame Daggers; Clay Mazing, the whip-cracking clown; and music by the Vaude D’Gras Band with “maestro” Sarah Jacques (of both G-String Orchestra and Opus Zeo.
In keeping with the previous productions, there will be a distinct narrative feel for the show, this time featuring a meta-fictional “show within a show” scenario in which inner turmoil among the cast members will lead to shenanigans.
“Now I really feel that this is our part in Mardi Gras, our way to give to Mardi Gras, which is important if you a performer or artist in this town,” said LadyBEAST, who estimated last year’s attendance was as high as 700 over the four performances. “As for this year, it’s my longest-standing production, and it’s the thing I started in my head five years ago, and I want to keep having it evolve and having it become a bigger production.
“I see growth. I see evolution.”
INFLUX OF TALENT
That’s due in part to recruiting such game performers as Guglielmo, who moved to New Orleans in early 2012 after several visits from New York City, where he’d gained experience singing opera and emceeing circus and sideshow productions. When LadyBEAST offered him a slot in the inaugural “Cirque du Gras” in 2014, he jumped at the chance. (He and his wife, Madame Daggers, perform together and separately.)
“Anytime I’m asked to doing something ‘out of the box’ that I like, without question will give it a shot,” he said.“Risks are what I live for, and its been quite a ride! What I love about what we do is take a bunch of circus, vaudeville and sideshow and turn it into more of a theatrical experience.”
The growth of New Orleans’ circus scene overall has included a modest migration of talent in recent years, with performers sometimes put off by the larger scenes in which they’ve worked and intrigued by New Orleans’ free, creative and communal spirit. These aren’t just wandering souls, either; they come well trained. Sarah Stardust, who moved to New Orleans from New York City in January 2015, spent several years studying ballet and modern dance in Texas before switching to aerial performance and studying that and acrobatic dance at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vt., beginning in 2007.
She spent about two years in New York performing and teaching before deciding to move to New Orleans, partly because she’d tired of the “sexy cabaret style” and “joke acts” that were prevalent in New York but also because she enjoyed visiting her brother in New Orleans and decided to move “on a whim.” She currently teaches at Ashtanga Yoga Room and aerials at LA Motion along with Liza Rose.
Stardust, who performs with Cirque Copine and in “Vaude D’Gras,” loves the collaborative spirit in New Orleans, whether with Liza Rose and LadyBEAST or musicians such as those in Opus Zeo — with whom they collaborated in last year’s first “In Wonderland” performance.
“We sat down together and developed a storyline based on Liza’s concept,” Sarah Stardust recalled. “We found our characters and mostly our own choreography, but had each other for feedback, which is important! The best part for me though is that Opus Zeo met with each of us to talk about what we envisioned for music and what they made was such magic.
“It just made everything come to life!”
While she embraces that collaborative spirit, Stardust says, she wishes the New Orleans scene had more cohesiveness, at least in the aerial community, and perhaps more dedication. Part of that challenge is the lack of a common venue to serve as the kind of hub that scenes in New York or San Francisco enjoy.
“I would love for there to be more opportunities for everyone to work hard and train together,” she said. “I think that’s one thing that’s really holding us all back from being better!”
Clay Mazing, a whip-cracking clown most notable for his appearances in “Cirque du Gras,” has traveled around the country and (more recently) overseas with his Emergency Circus, performing for Syrian refugees. He moved to New Orleans seven years ago, and also notes a growing and increasingly vibrant scene here after watching the burlesque scene become so big. But he still feels New Orleans is in catch-up mode to scenes in the San Francisco Bay area and Portland, partly due to those cities because of the training and competition going on.
But he also notes the downside of developing a scene in the wrong direction.
“I see the potential, and hope to be able to shape the scene in a positive way,” said Clay Mazing, who will host a benefit, “Emergency Circus Strikes Back,” on Feb. 13 at Castillo Blanco Art Studios.
“I can see a surge of circus coming and I hope our scene can remain cooperative and add to the magical charm and culture of this excellent city,” he said. “I don’t want to see some homogenous scene pop up equal to the Bay Area or Portland here. I’d hope that our circus culture will remain unique, accepting and adding to the vibrancy and even the grit that makes New Orleans so exceptional and alive.”
Chatty the Mime, a popular clown who blurs the lines between circus and burlesque performances, sees a growing scene for the circus arts.
“When I started five years ago, there was only one show that was a full variety circus show,” she said.“The scene back then was mostly burlesque shows with one variety performer. Now there are probably around 8 different circus shows happening at a given time. 2015 was my busiest year performing.
“So I do have high hopes for 2016.”
She participated in holiday play recently, “A Christmas Carol” at the Bayou Playhouse, and was heartened when the director wanted circus performers to add a new dimenstion the show.
“It was great to see an audience who may not have ever experience something like that have so much fun,” she said.
VALUE AND COMMITMENT
Liza Rose, who along with balancing herself with her aerial work, also balances a professional mix of teaching aerial work to others at La Motion and to students in the Circus Arts program at the International School of Louisiana. This is life for a professional who’s worked on both the East and West coasts before settling down in New Orleans, where she’s performed with such varied settings as the New Orleans Fringe Festival and “Freaksheaux to Geaux.” She’s seen other scenes compromised by producers hiring lesser-trained performers at cheaper rates, and doesn’t want to see that happen in New Orleans.
She wants to see value and commitment placed in the New Orleans circus scene.
“Everybody keeps saying to me, ‘Liza, let me know when there’s something going on that I can be a part of,’” she said. “I need people who will come and help me make the scene.”
She has a strong collaborator in LadyBEAST, whose creativity and energy complements Liza Rose’s talents as a skilled performer and choreographer. As long as they keep moving forward, together, they’ll be satisfied.
“The main idea,” LadyBEAST said, “is evolution. I come from visual-artist background, so without change, you’re stagnant.”
“Cirque di Pasta” Thursday, Jan. 21
Arabella Casa di Pasta Performers: Guglielmo, LadyBEAST, Clay Mazing, Sarah Stardust, Madame Daggers and GoGo McGregor