Dispatch from Seattle, Part Four

Note: This is the final article in a four-part series. Read part one, part two and part three here.

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This series will explore how circus communities are navigating a future fraught with unanswered questions, using collaboration and determination to draw their own road map through immense obstacles. 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 usual social and professional activities on hold.

We’ve seen how important [circus] is to so many people. I feel a huge responsibility. I can’t just walk away from this.

BEVERLY SOBELMAN
Versatile arts, photographed prior to the pandemic by David Inman.

Beverly Sobelman is the executive director of Versatile Arts, an aerial studio she founded in northern Seattle in 2007.

Getting through the pandemic has been a trying experience, but Sobelman said her peers in the circus community have been there to collaborate, commiserate and overcome the unimaginable circumstances.

“I’ve worked hard to try to get the Seattle community to be very cooperative as opposed to competitive, because it’s a huge market,” Sobelman said. “There’s no reason for us to see each other as competition.”

In the wake of the shutdown in March, Sobelman worked with the American Circus Educators’ safety committee to develop a Covid resource kit for circus schools. This industry-specific document aimed to provide much-needed guidance for spaces like Versatile Arts, which was able to reopen its doors in the summer.

With many circus schools struggling to adapt the guidelines for fitness centers and climbing gyms to their unique spaces, Sobelman said she had to blaze her own trail in lieu of specific governmental recommendations and enforcement.

“I feel like we did an amazing job, because our students said our studio was one of the only places they felt safe outside of their own homes,” Sobelman said. “It makes sense, because when you run an aerial studio, safety has to be one of the things that you think about all the time anyway. So this was just a new way to think about safety.”

performers from a ‘silver foxes’ show at Versatile arts prior to the pandemic. Photo by John Cornicello.

Versatile Arts also survived Washington’s second state-mandated shutdown from mid-November to early January. But the past year has taken its toll.

Even though she received grants and government aid to stay afloat, Sobelman said ‘hidden costs’ continue to burden small businesses like hers.

“Most of my employees are now filing for unemployment, which I want them to do. And yet, the amount I pay for unemployment insurance is going to go up dramatically for years to come,” she said. “I don’t know how long it will take us to recover financially.”

Sobelman has consistently operated her business at a manageable scale. But no amount of business savvy could prepare her for the trials of 2020.

“Versatile Arts has always been profitable. I just started small. And we’ve only ever grown to where we could already support the size,” she said. “We’ve always been in the black. So to be in this position of having to ask for  help is very humbling.”

Sobelman set up an online patronage program that is currently yielding $1,000 per month from 30 donors, who were grateful for the opportunity to help defray her operating costs during this time.

While the challenges continue to mount in the new year, the temporary closure of circus businesses has magnified the role they play in maintaining their students’ physical and emotional health.

“We’ve seen how important it is to so many people,”  Sobelman said. “I feel a huge responsibility. I can’t just walk away from this.”

“I’ve tried to leave circus many times,” she said, recalling short-lived stints in the tech industry and graduate school. “Running a circus school is more fun.”

Versatile Arts will present a virtual retrospective of their past shows featuring ‘aerialists of a certain age’ in Silver Foxes 2021: Looking Back, Looking Forward tomorrow (3/13) at 9 p.m. EST. Get tickets at this link.

Dispatch from Seattle, Part Three

Note: This is part three of a four-part series. Read part one and part two here.

listen to this article:

This series will explore how circus communities are navigating a future fraught with unanswered questions, using collaboration and determination to draw their own road map through immense obstacles. 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 usual social and professional activities on hold.

I believe that in the burlesque industry especially, we make art that is political. We make art that is reflecting the world back at itself and turning it upside-down.

MOSCATO EXTATIQUE
Moscato extatique, ‘the them fatale of Burlesque,’ photographed by derek villanueva.

Unsurprisingly, venues for live entertainment in Seattle face an uncertain future as they have grappled with unavoidable financial stress and organizational rebranding in the past year.

Re-bar, a nightclub that hosted cabaret, music and LGBTQ+ events for 30 years, announced the closure of its longtime location this past May, with hopes to reopen elsewhere in late 2021.

Burlesque performer and educator Moscato Extatique, known as ‘The Them Fatale of Burlesque,’ said that Re-bar was the site of their first live performance.

“Re-bar has been such a staple in our city for drag, burlesque and cabaret nightlife,” Moscato said. “The whole city — the arts community and the nightlife community — really had to grieve that loss, and the reality of the effects that the pandemic is having.”

Moscato is a member of the burlesque troupe Mod Carousel, which immediately responded to the shutdown by shifting their focus to virtual spaces.

“We definitely just adapted to the times and hit the ground running,” they said, noting that the March 28th edition of their show 6 Foot Cabaret quickly surpassed 100 viewers, requiring them to upgrade their Zoom account mid-production.

As the shutdown dragged on, Moscato said that being stuck in the digital realm didn’t always feel like artistic punishment.

“People are finding new ways to be more innovative with their art, discovering ways to present something that you can’t do on a physical stage live,” they said. “I think that’s where I’m very inspired, and I want to continue to do more of that work.”

Moscato extatique by wittypixel photography.

For Moscato, 2020 initially felt like it would be a breakout year, one where their many years of training in dance and burlesque were starting to pay off for their solo acts and group performances.

“We had a European tour on the books, and that would’ve been my first time out there,” Moscato said. “I was just so excited to finally experience that, and show my art to another audience. But of course, those plans were foiled.”

Moscato had also been invited to perform in Las Vegas in the Burlesque Hall of Fame‘s Tournament of Tease, “which is considered like the Olympics of our industry,” they said. If not for the pandemic, that competition would have happened in June 2020.

Brick and mortar performance spaces are trying to roll with the punches. Alternative venues like Theater Off Jackson in Seattle’s International District have invited local groups to co-produce online shows in their otherwise dormant spaces.

Moscato said that organizational efforts to meet the unique challenges of Covid — while also boosting diverse representation in the arts — have not gone unnoticed.

“I believe that in the burlesque industry especially, we make art that is political. We make art that is reflecting the world back at itself and turning it upside-down,” Moscato said. 

“I want to see more black and brown bodies on stages virtually and physically. I want to see producers not tokenizing black and brown bodies,” they said. “I think that that is something that is going to carry on into the future.”

Moscato’s upcoming shows include For the Love of Marinka — a benefit show for the late burlesque star — on March 6 at 8 p.m. EST, Booklovers Burlesque: Once Upon a Tease on March 6 at 10 p.m. EST, and The Noire Project presents Black and Brown Excellence on March 12 at 7 p.m. EST.


Come back next week for Dispatch from Seattle, Part Four, which profiles Versatile Arts owner Beverly Sobelman.

Dispatch from Seattle, Part Two

Note: This is part two of a four-part series. Read part one at this link.

LISTEN TO THIS ARTICLE:

This series will explore how circus communities are navigating a future fraught with unanswered questions, using collaboration and determination to draw their own road map through immense obstacles. 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 usual social and professional activities on hold.

A performance at Arcadia aerial studio. Photo by Marcia Davis.

Despite the camaraderie and mutual support among many circus organizations in Seattle, the pandemic left some businesses in the dust.

Charly McCreary opened her studio Arcadia in 2018. She is the managing director of The Cabiri, an aerial and dance troupe she co-founded in 1999.

In designing a home for The Cabiri’s classes and shows, McCreary built Arcadia with a unique theatrical feel that nourished her community’s imagination. 

Mirrors lined the studio’s walls for rehearsals. Curtains, lights and sound equipment “reminded us that these art forms exist out of storytelling and performance,” she said.

When the pandemic hit, McCreary spent most of her time applying for grants and government aid to weather the storm.

“I really appreciate the weight and heaviness of rallying yourself to apply for funding when your heart is just so crushed about what’s happened,” she said, describing the months-long void of physical classes and performances.

Through financial aid from groups like 4Culture (a cultural funding agency) as well as support from the state and federal government, McCreary was able to reopen Arcadia in July.

Unfortunately, Arcadia’s lease was up in December 2020, and McCreary’s landlord asked her to vacate the space by the year’s end, leaving her future prospects in limbo.

“For us as a volunteer-run non-profit, it’s really hard to look good on paper to a landlord,” McCreary said, noting that Arcadia’s annual revenue was half of what it had been in 2019.

“It’s a sad story, and not an uncommon one,” McCreary said. “A lot of facilities have closed in 2020 because of Covid and unsympathetic landlords.”

Charly mccreary performs on lyra at arcadia. Photo by bogdan darev.

While she lost her studio, McCreary said the strength of the Seattle circus community — which relied heavily on its interdependence to expand and build legitimacy in the late 90s and early 2000s — does give her hope.

“I continue to be in awe of the cultural and artistic community as a whole, in terms of its creativity and its adaptability,” she said. “Ultimately, that’s what will continue to get us through crises like Covid.”

McCreary’s background paved the way for her discovery of circus arts. Her childhood in northern California was spent performing in musical theater productions, but she took a break from theater during her college years in Seattle.

Upon graduating, she craved a creative outlet. During a trip to Burning Man, McCreary fell in love with fire dancing. Back in Seattle, theatrical circus groups like Circus Contraption, Unidentified Moving Objects, and Magmavox (a fire performance ensemble) inspired McCreary to build The Cabiri’s shows around mythology and storytelling.

In addition to producing shows inspired by the mythologies of extinct and endangered cultures, Arcadia also served as a hub for groups like the Bulgarian Cultural and Heritage Center, the Rahaa Persian Dance Group, and the Seattle Kokon Taiko drumming ensemble.

“Arcadia was never intended to be a school,” McCreary said. “The tagline is ‘A Sanctuary for Arts and Culture.’ That’s what it always was. And that’s what it absolutely will be if it rises again someday.”


Come back next week for Dispatch from Seattle, Part Three, in which we hear from Seattle burlesque performer Moscato Extatique, who is embracing the challenge of reaching audiences through digital media.

This Week — 12 February 2021

This week is all about traveling without moving. Visit Seattle for a community circus update, drop through Brooklyn for a Valentine’s Day showcase, and fly to Japan for an innovative dance/juggling performance!


READ

NEW SERIES


WORK


LEARN


ATTEND

February 12-14


WATCH

February 12 and 13

February 13

February 14

  • ABCirque Presents: My Heart Beats Circus: Infuse joy into your ‘celebration of love’ night with this spectacular evening of entertaining acts and wondrous feats from The Muse in Brooklyn. VIP ticket holders get access to an exclusive show starting at 7:30 p.m., while the broadcast for the general public starts at 8 p.m. Get tickets here.

February 15

February 19

  • The Crown is a short circus film produced and directed by aerialist Veronica Blair that documents a young girl’s journey of self-discovery. The film boasts a stunning all female cast of circus artists of African descent. Watch this video premiere on YouTube at 7 p.m. EST. Performers include Summer Lacy, Copper Santiago, Shenea Stiletto, Susan Voyticky and Darielle Williams.

February 20

  • Afrotease: The Black Label is a burlesque showcase for BIPOC performers based in Richmond, but currently hosted in cyberspace! This edition stars Alotta Boutté, featuring special appearances by Bebe Bardeaux, Gigi Holliday and many more exceptional performers. This event is 18+ and will be ASL interpreted. The show goes from 9-11 p.m. EST. Tickets are sliding scale. Visit this link for more information.
  • Bill Irwin returns to your computer screen with his playful and inquisitive production of On Beckett/In Screen. In this virtual show, Irwin utilizes his mastery of physical theater and his lifelong fascination with Samuel Beckett’s writings to great effect. This is a production of the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City. Reserve free, donation-based tickets at this link.

February 12-21

  • Discover the world of a lonely clown quarantined on an old theater’s stage in A.Lone, a one-man theater show produced by the Contemporary Circus and Immersive Arts Center out of Troy, NY. Get tickets to watch the production at this link (the stream is viewable for 72 hours once purchased).

TRICKS OF THE LIGHT: PART TWO

Circus Photographers Keep Art in Focus

The District Ringer recently spoke to Dani Pierce and Shamal Halmat, both of whom excel at keeping circus arts in the frame. Learn about their life experiences with photography in part one of this series.

In part two, we share Pierce and Halmat’s advice on how to raise your photography and videography game, including practical tips, online resources, and artists who have personally inspired their work.

Photo by Shamal Halmat, (c) Shamal Deare Creative, 2019.

Pro Tips from Circus Photographers

SHAMAL HALMAT

  • Think about the story you want to tell. That’s the point of all art, photography and circus — to actually revolve around good storytelling.
  • Fire spinners: Slow down! To get a good photo, you kind of have to spin differently. Usually it’s too fast and chaotic. For ‘super spicy’ fire pictures, slow down as much as you can.
  • Good content is good content. For video, a lot of it comes down to making good, interesting content that people can relate to. It doesn’t really matter if you’re filming on an iPhone or a cinema-grade camera.
  • Master the basics. Learning the basics of photography and video — composition, frame rates, lighting, audio and editing — can go a long way. Try filming at ‘golden hour’ to embrace the power of natural light.
  • Circus artists: Give credit, and give back! Giving credit all the time is pretty important. And when working with a photographer, let them get something that could be for a portfolio — something they could actually use to get more work. Always keep them in mind and give them referrals to other people. If you’re dealing with event coordinators a lot, pass on the information for the photographer to work the same events.

DANI PIERCE

  • Focus on the artist, and how to capture what they’re trying to convey. One of the things that drew me to the circus community is that it was a community of people who had taken seriously things that other people didn’t see as careers — and they really had a focused attention and commitment to their craft. I’ve always appreciated that. What I love about photography is that we’re able to capture other people’s art.
  • Explore ideas beyond the ‘best trick’ or ‘favorite pose.’ I will often see beauty in the form that maybe the artist — that isn’t the most dynamic part of their act, or maybe they didn’t like how their lines looked, but I think it looks beautiful. I think there’s a balance of being aware of what circus artists strive for, and then what they would actually want captured and shared.
  • For live performances, be prepared and stay in the moment! Sometimes there’s only like three chances for the best shot. You really have to be ready to go. There have definitely been so many opportunities where I think, oh man I totally missed that shot, and that was the last performance.
  • Value your time and your work. That idea of exposure and art for art? No! People need to eat and pay their bills. I charge because I know how important it is for other photographers — that I don’t just give away art for free — because unfortunately, the way that the art economy is structured, it just does everyone else harm.
Photo by Dani Pierce for Street Light Circus, (c) 2018.

Further Inspiration & Education

From Dani Pierce:

  • Acey Harper is a fine art photographer based out of Paris. He focuses heavily on the human figure, with many of his shoots involving acrobats and aerialists. See how he set up a stunning portrait of aerialist Morgaine Rosenthal hanging by her teeth from the back of a 1957 Chevy in this video. The portrait appears in the book [private acts] The Acrobat Sublime, photographed by Acey Harper and written by Harriet Heyman. “Both acrobats and photographers are used to working hard and in hardship for our respective art, and for [this book], we shared the difficulties of bringing our visions to life,” Harper said in an interview with Loenke Magazine. Read the full interview here.
  • Gregory Crewsdon is a New York City-based photographer who stages extraordinary suburban scenes that resemble cinema in their exacting consideration of lighting, sets and cast. He cites Diane Arbus and Edward Hopper as inspirations. His work often takes on a surreal quality through the staging of humans, nature and architecture.

From Shamal Halmat:

  • Taylor Jackson is a Canadian photographer who specializes in wedding photography and videography. He maintains a blog with multiple courses for aspiring multimedia creators. Many of the courses focus on weddings, but class titles also include ‘Creating Profitable YouTube Videos’ and ‘Make Money With Your Photos.’ His YouTube channel is full of knowledge about everything from event portraiture to landscape photography, based on his many years of experience shooting photos and film across the globe.
  • Larry Cohen takes poignant urban photos in Baltimore (where he is based) and other cities. His current focus is the social justice movement. He has also worked extensively with burner communities in Richmond, Baltimore, D.C. and Philadelphia. You can see his latest work at I Shot Baltimore, a diary of his photographic interests.
  • Doug Sanford is a studio and event photographer who lives and works in Washington, D.C. He takes lively and colorful portraits of artists and other subjects, including his starkly beautiful series Playing with Fire.
  • Aaron Kirn is a North Carolina-based photographer who takes masterfully lit, charismatic photos of fire artists and other variety performers. Check out his instagram to see his amazing work, and view his online portfolio here.

Special thanks to Dani Pierce and Shamal Halmat, who generously provided many of the photos you see on the header of the Circus District blog.

This Week — 13 November 2020

This month has plenty of scintillating circus surprises in store for you. Scroll now to get your calendar in order (or chaos… whichever you prefer).


READ

  • Today, The District Ringer brings you the final edition of The Covid Chronicles, catching up with TSNY-DC general manager Mandy Keithan, who tells us how the trapeze school in Navy Yard has reopened and rebuilt their class offerings around the challenges of 2020. Read the story here.

WATCH

TOMORROW (11/14)

  • See the next generation of circus artists perform during the Circadium Virtual Gala from 7:30-10 p.m. EST. This live production features current students at the school of contemporary circus in Philadelphia. Tickets benefit Circadium, the only school offering higher education in circus arts in the United States. Buy tickets here and check out the silent auction, with items including aerial silks, moving sculptures, circus face masks and more!

MONDAY (11/16)

  • The Bindlestiff Open Stage Variety Show: Quarantine Edition starts at 8 p.m. EST. Watch on Facebook or YouTube. You can donate during the show at the links provided, or support their fantastic feats of circus anytime via the donation page on their website.

TUESDAY (11/17)

  • See the online premiere of On Beckett/In Screen, an award-winning production conceived and performed by Bill Irwin, whose commanding acting and clowning skills bring playwright Samuel Beckett’s works to life on the digital screen. The show runs through November 22. Reserve your timed viewing spot at this link.

WEDNESDAY (11/18)

  • Meet the Jugglers is a brand new interview series hosted by Pearls of Juggling. The first live chat — with Mexican club and contact juggler Santi Malabari — will take place at 11:30 a.m. EST on the Pearls of Juggling Facebook page.

FRIDAY (11/20)

  • Don’t miss an online screening of Cirque Du Cambodia, available throughout the weekend (11/20-22). This gripping documentary follows circus artists Sopha and Dina on their journey from 2011-2018, attending a social circus program in their home country, then École Nationale de Cirque to achieve their lifelong dream of performing in Cirque du Soleil. Visit this link to purchase a ticket, which supports the stars of the film as well as the circus program they grew up in.
  • The finals of Battle Night USA will start at 8:30 p.m. EST. Watch as some of the best three-club jugglers in the nation throw down their smoothest, spiciest and most technical sequences in this action-packed head-to-head format. Who will be crowned the campeon/campeona de los Estados Unidos? Find out by visiting the Battle Night Facebook page for the Zoom link, or watch on the Unicirclo Laguna YouTube channel.
  • Enjoy a casual demonstration of airborne straddles, whips, gazelles and layouts during the TSNY Staff Flying Trapeze Demo from 7-7:45 p.m. on Facebook live. Visit the event page for more details.
  • Check out Rise: A Virtual Performance, an ensemble aerial dance performance that tackles the challenges of 2020 from In the Wings aerial studio in Boulder, Colorado. The show will be available for online viewing 11/20-22 and 11/27-29. Visit the Facebook event page for tickets.

SATURDAY (11/21)

  • Marvel at some of Maine’s best performers in The Matt Tardy Benefit Show, a fundraiser for juggler and variety artist Matthew Tardy, who is battling Stage 4 thyroid cancer. The line-up includes Michael Menes, Fritz Grobe, Jason Tardy, Michael Miclon, George Saterial and Showtime Steve, sure to delight audiences of all ages. The show will be livestreamed from Johnson Hall at 7 p.m. Visit this link for tickets.

ATTEND

TUESDAY (11/17)

  • The DC Unicycle Meetup group is hosting an all-levels practice session from 5:30-6:30 p.m. EST at Volta Park in Georgetown. Visit their page to reserve a spot, and let them know if you need to borrow a unicycle.

LEARN

  • Dancer, pole artist and burlesque performer Eva Mystique just opened Studio Mystique in Northwest D.C. Visit her website to register for private lessons in pole, burlesque, belly dance, chair and floor work. The studio is also available to artists looking to rent a space for photo shoots, rehearsals and virtual performances.