There are no elephants or other exotic species. There’s no lobster boy or bearded lady sideshow.
In fact there isn’t even a trademark big top tent at the Bend Circus Center, which is located in a non descript metal fab building on Bend’s southeast side.That’s all right with founder Brandon Huston who modeled his upstart circus academy on the modern European circus acts like Vegas veterans Cirque de Soleil. While there may not be a caged lion in the wings, Huston with his curled moustache is the clear ring master here at what he hopes will be an academy of sorts for circus arts like juggling, tight rope walking and even trapeze work.
The idea isn’t unprecedented. Similar schools exist in cities like Portland and San Francisco, but it’s a little out of the box for Bend, where running and cycling clinics are an everyday occurrence, but juggling is something that career moms do when yoga class conflicts with the kids’ after school soccer practice.
Maybe it was the growing tribe of Burning Man pilgrims in Central Oregon, the dedicated hula “hooping” community or the legions of local festivalgoers, but Huston saw something here in his adopted hometown that convinced him he could coax the community into embracing circus arts.
With a little seed money and a concept, Huston set out fundraising this past spring. Within a few months he had raised $9,000, enough to secure a lease on his warehouse site off American Lane in a light industrial park.
Open for just a matter of weeks, the circus center offers beginning hula-hoop, juggling, aerials, poi (fire dancing), as multi-class series and on a drop-in basis. The circus center also offers free workshops, which it did recently with the traveling Chautauqua Circus, which performed at the Tower Theatre in early July, and then held free workshops at the Circus Center.
It’s not just a classroom, though. It’s also a performance and gathering space. Last week, more than 120 people packed into the Circus Center to see Oakland’s Vespertine Circus perform. Such events also serve as fundraisers that provide cash for more classes.
The community response has met or exceeded Huston’s expectations. Classes are beginning to fill up and Huston plans to offer an entire line-up of after school classes for kids once school is back in session.
Just a few short months ago, Huston had no teachers and only a loose idea of the kind of classes and curriculum that the Circus center would offer. Turns out that was enough.
“I though, if you build it they will come. And they did,” said Huston, specifically referencing his decision to include a silk aerials class, even though he didn’t know anyone who could teach the art of “silking,” which if you’re not familiar is like an aerial ballet of sorts with the performers suspended in midair by long silk strands that stretch from floor to ceiling.
Today, Huston has five instructors dedicated to silk aerials, three of whom are teaching classes and two who are waiting for a chance to do so.
One of those instructors is Kendall Knowles, a former competitive rock climber with the lean muscular arms covered in colorful tattoos and the sinewy frame of an athlete who can pull herself up a sheer rock wall without breaking a sweat. Knowles transitioned to silk aerials a few years ago after burning out on rock climbing. Knowles said a friend convinced her to join the Dragonfly Aerials in Reno, where she attended college and was still living. For the past four years Knowles has traveled around the Northwest performing and teaching with Dragonfly.
But you don’t have to have the body of a rock climber or an Olympic gymnast to learn the basics of silk aerials. Most of her students have zero experience with climbing or gymnastics.
“We have them climbing and learning basic tricks after the first class,” Knowles said.
Her students are now in their fifth week of classes and becoming quickly proficient at hoisting themselves up the fabric strands that hang like rainbow-colored vines from the roof of the circus center.
Nastasia Zacarias is among the inaugural band of would-be aerialists who paid $105 for six weeks of instruction. A classically trained dancer, she immediately took to the new discipline, though she said she is still trying to learn her first real trick.
“It looks graceful. It’s beautiful,” she said.
Zacarias said her only goal is to “see how far she goes.”
That could be a few more weeks of classes or years of performing, depending on what happens. At this point, she’s just having fun.
And that’s the idea, said Huston who sat in on Knowle's most recent aerial class.
A former semipro snowboarder who has made his post-ski-bum living building circus-related props and tools though his business, The Spinsterz, Huston said the idea of a local circus academy was a chance for him to continue doing what he loves while spreading some of that infectious enthusiasm to his hometown.
“I get to say I’m a 31 year old who gets to play with toys for a living,” Huston said.
• The Bend Circus will perform this Saturday at the Deschutes County Fair 8 p.m. in the Family Fun Zone.
• A new beginner and intermediate aerials class will begin Tues., Aug. 14
• An after-school program for kids in the fall
• Slackline classes
Drop in Hula-hoop, Poi and juggling classes, Belly dancing, yoga and more
Instruction fees range from $10 for drop in classes to $105 for aerial series classes. Passes are available. See bendcircuscenter.com for more information.
Bend Circus Center
20680 Carmen Loop #102