Dispatch from Seattle, Part One

Communities Regroup in a Year of Adversity

Flow artists gather in Seattle before the pandemic. Courtesy of Seattle Flow Arts Collective.

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Reinvent. Pivot. Fundraise. Stream. Rally.

These are just a few of the terms circus folks became all too familiar with in 2020. 

As the circus community at large reckoned with the impacts of Covid-19, racial injustice, financial disarray and technological shortfalls in the past year, Circus District began taking a closer look at the local circus ecosystems determining our collective future.

From businesses that have shuttered in the last few months, to individual artists who are reimagining how they connect with audiences, the effects have hit circus professionals hard — with their ramifications spiraling outward to students, patrons and producers of the art form.

This series will explore how circus communities across North America are navigating a future fraught with unanswered questions, using collaboration and determination to draw their own road map through the chaos.

Seattle has long been a haven for performing arts, with its proximity in geography and culture to the Oregon Country Fair (established in 1969) and its 17-year history of hosting Moisture Festival, a month-long celebration of comedy and variety arts. 

Like every other U.S. city, Seattle saw its circus events, workshops and performances grind to a halt in March, as the pandemic forced almost all circus artists to put their routine social and professional activities on hold.

Students at SANCA after its reopening in 2020. Photos by John Cornicello.

John Tannous took over as executive director of Seattle’s School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) in January 2020. 

Prior to the shutdown, the school’s 20,000-square-foot facility in south Seattle served 1,000 students per week with a staff of about 60 people. Offerings included flying trapeze, acrobatics, youth programs and in-house performances.

“What I saw with SANCA was this incredible potential,” Tannous said. “A lot that had already been realized with a solid foundation for truly transformative work.”

Tannous said he wanted to reach more underserved communities, expand SANCA’s professional programming, and even launch touring shows.

“Obviously Covid changed all of that,” he said. 

Following shutdown orders in mid-March, SANCA began offering free online classes by the end of the month.

“We kept our online classes 100 percent donation-based for several months,” Tannous said, noting that many patrons of the school actually paid double the normal hourly rate to support the business during the shutdown — allowing those who had suffered job or income loss to take advantage of the free lessons.

SANCA reopened for in-person classes with stringent Covid safety measures in July, but had to cease operations once again during the state shutdown in November and December.

Tannous said that assistance from the federal paycheck protection program, state and county grants, and CARES Act funding were instrumental in SANCA’s survival through the last year.

“The government support is absolutely essential to keep us afloat,” he said.

Students enjoy an aerial class at SANCA after their reopening in July. Photo by John Cornicello.

Tannous is no stranger to handling crises. He interviewed for his leadership role at the American Indian Art and Culture Museum in Arizona on the morning of September 11, 2001, and immediately had to manage the cultural and economic impacts of that tragic day.

Later, as executive director of the Flagstaff Arts Council, he navigated the organization through the devastating effects of the 2008 housing crisis.

Despite his familiarity with adversity, he said the past year has felt different.

“The most taxing part of the pandemic has been the emotional fallout of not being able to perform, and not being able to connect with audiences and communities,” Tannous said. “Because even during those previous crises, we were still able to do our craft.”

While Tannous was taking over a long-established non-profit, other groups were just getting started.

Flow artists perform in Seattle before the pandemic. Courtesy of SFAC.

The Seattle Flow Arts Collective (SFAC), a hub for flow arts, fire spinning and circus, incorporated on January 2, 2020. The non-profit does not currently occupy a physical space, but is meant to bolster organization and collaboration in the flow community.

Arlene Smith, co-founder and director of programs for SFAC, said the non-profit was able to adopt two of Seattle’s long-standing flow arts productions — FlowShop and Spin Jam — to keep them going in virtual fashion.

“That was the purpose of the organization — to give those programs more of a backbone,” Smith said, noting that FlowShop’s weekly workshops and talks (happening every Tuesday) have been a saving grace for those struggling with the pandemic’s stress and unpredictability.

One of SFAC’s priorities in 2021 is to expand educational programs through organizations like the Boys & Girls Club.

“We don’t necessarily want to be adding a ton more screen time for kids, but this is something that can get them away from screens,” Smith said. “It’s really difficult to scroll social media and spin poi at the same time.”

Co-founder and board chair BJ Burg recognized that it will take some time to build SFAC’s reputation as an organization worthy of grants and funding. But they are excited to give the burner community a voice and promote an organized path forward.

“Our community is kind of at that crossing point where we’re starting to have more resources and institutional support, and we don’t know what to do with it yet because we can’t actually run (in-person) events,” Burg said.

On February 20th, SFAC will host a virtual town hall to further clarify their organizational mission and get feedback from local practitioners.

To reach those outside of Seattle’s existing flow arts network, SFAC is hoping to broaden the general public’s knowledge, exposure and understanding of flow arts.

“In a lot of ways, what we’re doing is just marketing the art form itself and developing it,” Burg said. “A lot of people just don’t know, because we haven’t taught in a senior home, we haven’t taught in a school, we haven’t taught in a community center. So all of these things are really just about defining it.”

The organization also looks forward to instilling self-confidence and nurturing growth mindsets in their students.

“I think part of the goal of our organization is to encourage the self-empowerment that happens when you see a thing, practice it and get better — and learn that that’s how everything works,” Smith said.

Come back next week for Dispatch from Seattle, Part Two, in which we talk to Charly McCreary about what it was like to lose her circus studio in the ruthless wake of a global pandemic.

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