Portland Phoenix: Just Don’t Fall

duo-lyra-3“Push up. Push up from your shoulders. You’re sagging.”

I can tell I’m sagging. I’m upside-down, balanced on my hands above a concrete floor, my feet pointed at the ceiling like the cone of a rocket ship. And since I flipped into this handstand, my face has been slowly lowering. Push as I might, I can’t halt the descent. My shoulders are spent, won’t budge anymore, and as they fail I can feel my weight tipping. The tower of my body has begun swaying like a felled tree.

“Push! Tighten your butt! Push! Push! Push!” Cory is yelling at me again. He’s always yelling at me, at least when he’s within 10 paces. Otherwise, he’s yelling at somebody else. It’s not a scolding yell, it’s a coach’s yell, the shouts of encouragement that seem almost enough to suspend someone in air upside-down, like his students’ balance hinges on the volume of his instructions. He clearly sees what I’m doing wrong, and maybe a few well-timed shouts can save me.

But not this time. His yells aren’t enough. My balance has shifted, and the spell that somehow kept me standing upside-down on my hands has broken. My legs are now headed over backward towards the concrete, a tumbling fall that at this point has become familiar. I fold at the waist and twist my body, the spin coming just in time to plant my feet safely under me. I pop up, standing rightways again, my face red from exertion and the rush of blood that comes from being upside-down. Cory is nodding and smiling. “Good. Good,” he says. “Now just don’t fall.”

Just don’t fall. That seems like good advice at Circus Maine, where handstands are probably the least hazardous height someone can take a tumble from. “Just don’t fall” becomes even more important once you move to the trapeze, the aerial silks, the straps or the Chinese pole (actually two poles that stand parallel that performers bounce between).

Falling is required just to get going on the giant inground trampoline, but then the faller flies into the air at twice their original speed, suddenly giving “just don’t fall” new meaning.

Even acrobats who stack to form human towers must heed this “don’t fall” mantra. For them, a fall there takes out not only themselves but the rest of the team.

So yeah, it’s good advice, just don’t fall.

The thing is, there’s lots of falling at Circus Maine. It’s a circus school. No one is born knowing how to do a handstand, much less a one-handed handstand, much less a one-handed handstand on stage before an audience where every movement is choreographed in time with music. To get there takes falling, years and years of falling.

“It took me seven years to put my hand-balancing act together,” Circus Maine’s hand balancing instructor Cory Tabino said.

He studied handbalancing at Ecole Nationale de Cirque, the National Circus School of Montreal, for three years, and then he spent three years working for Cirque du Soleil, also based in Montreal. He’s now spent a quarter-century working as a circus artist around the world.

“I went across the Atlantic Ocean four times,” he said, doing his act on cruise ships. “The only place I haven’t performed is Antarctica.”

Now, in addition to being the lead handbalancing instructor and a professional performer (just last week he went to Japan to perform for U.S. soldiers), Tabino is also Circus Maine’s artistic director. And he’s also the head of the professional program. And he serves as a stagehand at live productions. And he organizes signature events in the Circus Maine building on Thompson’s Point. And he coordinates off-site performances for private and corporate events.

Like everyone at Circus Maine, Tabino wears many hats.

“We are the textbook definition of a startup company,” he said.

Circus Maine is a recreational circus school with both adult programs and kids programs, a professional circus training academy and an event production company. They put on monthly cabarets that bring top level performers to Portland, host a summer camp that over the past three years served more than 500 kids, and in October they held their first marquee event, a Halloween party called Mischief Night that paired circus performers swinging on silks in full costume with DJs, drinks and a dance party.

These events are anything but bland: two of the Mischief Night performances were pole dances. Two others were beautiful women in trim costumes hanging above a crowd dancing on a concrete floor. At a cabaret event in October, a couple performed on a suspended hoop in formfitting bedclothes, her wearing a slinky top and shorts that barely held her in. The pair tumbled and swung above the audience bathed in milky light; the whole performance felt like something out of a dream.

“New circus is sexy,” Joshua Oliver, the male-half of the bedclothed performance, said. “It’s very bold. It’s intoxicating.”

An instructor and performer at Circus Maine, Oliver is also the technical director and driving force behind the project. When he talks about circus he gets animated, the excitement shows in his eyes.

“We’re essentially the next generation of high-end entertainment,” he said. “We want to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable art. I don’t think you will be bored.”

At the heart of this effort is Circus Maine’s purpose-built circus training facility in Thompson’s Point Brick North. From the outside, it’s an old brick mill building, but inside it has a trampoline, multiple lines for trapeze, padded floors and countless gymnastic mats. If ever there was a space to fall, it’s here.

But that learning space can also be converted into a performance space. And that performance space can also be converted into an events venue. The same room that hosts a dozen children practicing back flips every Tuesday night also housed a TEDx event last year in which Oliver swung from a pair of straps suspended from the ceiling in a performance that looked both Olympic and artistic. Circus Maine uses the venue to host 10 shows a year and also run their recreational program serving 120 students. Later this month they will hold their Solstice event, their first full in-house circus production, there, and on New Year’s Eve they will hold another marquee event, a 1920s Great Gatsby-themed “Red Carpet Event,” in the same space.

It’s a movement towards a type of spectacle-infused events that have become common in bigger cities, Tabino said, “but here in Maine we’re really toeing the line.”

Shows are provocative, emotive, fast-paced, beautiful. Performances infuse tremendous physical control and precise movement with an element of storytelling.

“It’s highly athletic,” Tabino said, “but it allows for individual expression.” The artistic angle is the key part. “Otherwise it’d just be gymnastics.”

That such expression is occurring at all, however, is somewhat of a surprise. Fifteen months ago the idea that Portland would host multiple circus shows in a matter of weeks seemed unlikely if not impossible. The Circus Conservatory of America, a proposed professional-level circus academy, had just turned insolvent, and Oliver, Tabino and the other professionals recruited to bring contemporary circus to Portland were out of their jobs.

But circus isn’t a normal career. No one gets into handbalancing, trapeze, juggling or clowning for the money. Contemporary circus is an art, and like any art form, it is the art itself that pulls at its practitioners. They do it for passion rather than the paycheck, performing almost out of compulsion.

Oliver is no exception. “I’ve been on stage since I was 8 years old,” he said. He discovered new circus, the intermixing of gymnastics-style physical feats with performance, in his early 20s, and it has held him ever since.

Modern circus style is an intermixing of Russian technique with French artistic tastes, according to Oliver. “We perform in theaters rather than tents,” he said, and cotton candy and elephants aren’t part of the act. “New circus is been a really important art form, an opportunity to use physical excellence as a voice.”

Circus artists create their own acts, and it takes time. It takes developing your skills and your own creative vision. It’s similar to dancing, but unlike a dancer, a circus artist choreographs their own movement. The person builds the act, Oliver said, and what you see on stage: “That’s her.”

This is a tradition with centuries of history, but it used to be passed down among families. You were either born into a circus family or you weren’t. The modern circus school is a very new thing, and it occurred in tandem with the intermixing of Russian and French influences that eventually became contemporary circus. Schools pulled elements from Moroccan and Chinese acrobats and went to seed in Canada. And it blossomed. Cirque du Soleil is the name everyone knows, and Montreal is now its the global hub.

Oliver lived in Montreal for 10 years. Like Tabino, he studied at Ecole Nationale de Cirque, Canada’s premier circus arts training institute, and then worked in the industry afterward. The Ecole and Cirque du Soleil sit side by side in Montreal, he said, and they form the left and right ventricle of contemporary circus around the world.

Oliver started circus at 22, a late arrival for the industry—at Circus Maine 12-year-olds are already eyeing the National Circus School—and his act includes aspects of the martial arts that were his passion before he found circus. He is powerfully built, and when he walks he glides across the floor, leading with his chest like a warrior headed to battle.

Which seems appropriate, because when Oliver talks about pulling Circus Maine from the ashes of Circus Conservatory of America it sounds like a battle.

“There have been at least three miracles that have allowed this project to continue,” he said. “We worked until we were bloody, and then we worked some more.”

Oliver and Tabino literally dug the hole in the floor that became Circus Maine’s inground trampoline with shovels, pulling out old railroad ties by hand, hacking them out with an ax. Oliver is a builder, and much of the work that went into renovating Brick North was done by his hands.

“I came to Maine to make this project work,” Oliver said. “I tried to build a circus school in Norway and in New Zealand. This was my third attempt.”

So when Circus Conservatory of America sank, Oliver was not ready to let go. He scraped and saved. He asked Thompson’s Point to work with him to keep a school afloat. He put on outside shows to earn extra cash, borrowed and leased and bought equipment and built what he couldn’t otherwise find, renegotiated and collaborated and asked for help.

“We opened in October of last year doing classes,” he said, and at the time the school had 21 students. It wasn’t nearly enough to make ends meet, but they kept pushing, limping their way through the holidays and into the winter.

Then in February, they held a two-hour cabaret that ran several times over a weekend. They sold 900 tickets. Suddenly it felt like ground may have materialized beneath their feet, however unsteady.

Since then Circus Maine has continued to grow. Tuesday nights are now packed with adult hand balancers (my class) falling out of handstands, a youth tumbling class and a youth trapeze class. Afterward is adult partner acrobatics and an adult tumbling class. The monthly cabarets are filling up. Shows include professional performances, and then students take the stage at intermission to grab their first chance at performing. It has a unique feel, somewhere between a family picnic and a broadway stage performance, like Cirque du Soleil descended on a Fourth of July barbecue.

“People are realizing our potential,” said Oliver. “We were international level spectacle performers. Cory and I are plugged into the source. We’re going to turn Portland into the nexus of new circus in the U.S.”

“But,” he said, “we need to create a solid community of circus artists here first.”

And, as I prepare to flip into one more handstand, that’s how it feels. Cory is across the room now. Mathias, another student in his 30s, is muttering something to himself just to my right. He and I have both flipped upside-down at least 50 times in the last 20 minutes, but neither of us seems able to hold it today. A few feet away high school phenoms Sarah and James are balancing on their hands and doing slow splits, lowering their feet inches off the ground before returning upright. Hugh, whose daughter is in the tumbling class, is on the mat flipping up into Cory’s assistant Sierra’s waiting hands. Hugh’s still working on finding his balance point, but he’s gotten much stronger. Kirsten and Ian are flipping on their own, legs waving in the air before they tumble, and Cory is striding between all of us barking instructions: “Tighten up! Point your toes! Hollowbody! Hollowbody! Squeeze your butt! Push! Push! Push!”

And of course, “Just don’t fall!”

But we all know, at Circus Maine it’s safe to fall.

This story appeared in today’s Portland Phoenix.

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