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OCircus! Goes to the Circus

April 14, 2012

Tess Yanisch ’13

Last Saturday, I found myself on a school bus with forty-seven extremely excited Obies. Our destination: Cleveland, where the Cirque du Soleil show Dralion was playing. Somehow, through the magic of circus networks and the hard work of our administrators, OCircus! had been able to offer heavily-discounted tickets and a free bus ride to Cleveland to Oberlin students who wanted to go see the show. There were two shows we could go to: a Saturday matinee and a Saturday evening show that would be followed by a meet-and-greet with some of the performers. I was in the latter group.

Saturday was gorgeous--warm and sunny. I ate dinner early and hurried over to Wilder, where the bus was waiting and already half-full. Greg, the president of OCircus!, was standing by the bus doors with a list of people's names (this later became dubbed "the clipboard of authority"). Noah, OCircus's secretary, was standing a few feet away with a box full of shirts from old Circus shows that he was handing out to everyone who wanted one. He gave me one from "before your time"--the spring show of his freshman year, "Will Work For Circus."

Eventually everyone was on the bus. Greg made a few announcements about procedures once we got to Cleveland, we gave a resounding cheer for the bus driver, and we got under way!

I looked around the bus, quite content. I knew practically all the forty-eight passengers, most of them by name, a few only by sight. There were lots of people from Sci-Fi Hall, which has a fair amount of overlap with OCircus!, and many people who I know mostly or only through their involvement with OCircus!, but the people on the bus weren't just circus performers. Many people are on the OCircus mailing list because they want to know when Circus-y events are coming up; many people have friends who are in the circus who told them about Cirque du Soleil. My roommate Emma, for instance, was with us.

A bunch of silly, happy, excited Obies on a bus makes for an entertaining experience. We rolled on toward Cleveland through hat-stealing, sunflower-seed-sharing, texting-Greg-from-seven-seats-away shenanigans.

We arrived at Cleveland, where Greg met up with a Cirque du Soleil organizer and got our tickets. The show was taking place in a large indoor stadium. We bustled through the doors and into the stadium itself, climbed up to our seats, and looked around in awe.

We were in a huge room that somehow seemed hushed, despite the number of people streaming in. Gem-like lamps suspended over the stage punctuated the velvety darkness with a soft golden glow that cast very little true illumination; the stage itself was still largely invisible. Connor, Emma, Noah, and I found seats near three recent Oberlin alumni. (Josh taught the poi ExCo I took last spring.) We chatted for a while, and then the show got underway.

While I will attempt to describe some of what happened, I strongly urge you to go to YouTube and look up "Cirque du Soleil Drailion" to get a better idea of what was going on. Needless to say, it was beautiful, and it was great to watch it with other Circus people. People in OCircus have some pretty impressive skills, and, even if you don't know anything about them technically, after a few shows or skillshare sessions you learn to recognize certain moves and techniques. Having attempted a few of them also gives you a feel for how difficult they are. Apparently, this means you're impressed by different things than everyone else. Our block of seats was definitely cheering at things the rest of the audience didn't.

I have the deepest respect for these performers and their dedication and skill is breathtaking. To have that much control over your body, to do these kinds of things, and make it look utterly effortless--it blows my mind. Not just mine, either; at one point, Connor leaned over to me and whispered, "I told you, didn't I? --You'd think you have to be dreaming." The entire show was wonderful, but a few acts stuck out to me.

The trampoline act. The back of the stage was a gently-curved wall, fifteen or twenty feet high. At some point, while the audience was engrossed with lizardlike acrobats, someone had set up trampolines along the bottom of it. When the spotlight shifted away from the lizard-people, there were people standing on tiny platforms along the wall. And then they fell.

And then they levitated.

Over and over, these people bounded from platform to platform, from side to side of the stage, frequently arriving at the very top of the wall. There they would pause, then fall down onto the trampoline, rise effortlessly most of the way up, and then run up the side of the wall to arrive back at the top. It looked the way swimming feels, sometimes, when bouyancy tricks you into thinking gravity is pointing a different way, but it was in the air--and it was exuberant, joyous, graceful.

The crossed wheel. I have seen videos before of someone performing with a giant hoop. This act has two hoops intersecting, sketching out a sphere. Apparently it was invented by the man who does this act, in which he weaves in and out of the wheel, lifts it, rolls on it, stands up through it as it rolls over him.

This performance defies verbs. Is he dancing with the wheel? Is he doing acrobatics on it? How can I describe this? That thought became a defining theme of the night.

Partner aerials. Again, I was baffled at how to describe this. It was a dance in flight, an exhibition of astonishing strength, a display of practice and confidence. It may have been this act that prompted Connor to say, when I was reduced to helplessly stammering, "H-how . . . ?", that "I think they send somebody over beforehand to beat up physics and tie it to a chair."

The clowns. I cannot say too much here for fear of spoiling things for any readers who might later go and see the show; the force of a joke is largely in surprise, after all. I will simply say that I take my cues from those who know more than I do, that OCircus! has some great clowns, and that they were very eager to learn from these at the meet-and-greet.

At the intermission, several people bought cotton candy--what's a circus without cotton candy?--and shared it liberally with the rest of us. Once I got over a fit of sitting thunderstruck by what I'd just seen, I ate my share of colorful sugar and chatted with people. Noah (who, in addition to being OCircus! secretary, is a lifelong stagehand) leaned over and asked, "What does it mean that the person who I most want to be right now is the guy I saw dragging the tumbling mats offstage?"

The end of the show was similar, at least in the people-sitting-speechless vein. As the rest of the audience began to leave, the person who'd given Greg our tickets came over to tell us to stay in our seats until everyone else was gone and then he'd lead us down to the stage for the meet-and- greet. He brought with him a large bag full of programs, t-shirts, and a few red clown noses. Apparently getting to meet the performers wasn't enough--we got swag, too! Nobody had been expecting this. Greg and Noah decided that the contents of the bag would be distributed as fairly as possible by raffle.

Once the rest of the audience was gone, we were led down several flights of stairs to the floor of the stadium itself. The stage rose a good five feet off the floor, and on the edge sat several of the performers: a dancer, two of the clowns, and one of the amazing trampoline artists. Accompanying them were a production manager and another organizer-type person whose exact job I unfortunately cannot recall.

There was an open Q & A session, in which we learned a lot about the process of becoming a Cirque performer and the fine art of moving the whole show from city to city. The stage, equipment, costumes, etc. all pack into a fleet of seventeen enormous trucks; they hire from seventy to two hundred people to help with the setup in each new location. The performers all have different stories. One of the clowns had only been in the show for a month or so, if I recall correctly, while another had been with it for years, and the trampoline artist had been on Spain's national acrobatics team for twenty years before joining Cirque du Soleil. All of them, whatever their backgrounds, have worked very hard. They were all so kind and told us so much about their lives and their training.

At the end of the Q & A, we broke into smaller groups, people moving and mingling to speak with whomever they wished. Noah made a beeline for the production manager; my friend Will got into an intense discussion with one of the clowns, which was adorable to watch, because they had the same intensity and enthusiasm and even some of the same mannerisms.

Before we left, Greg produced a bag from somewhere and gave all the people who had talked with us OCircus! t-shirts. They loved it, and when we took group pictures, some of them even posed wearing them.

And then we piled back onto the busses and returned to Oberlin, elated, inspired, and exhausted.

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