Shana Kennedy, founding director of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, wants you to open your mind to what a circus can be. Given the recent demise of the Ringling brand, she sees an opportunity to expand that idea beyond the traditional image of lion tamers and clowns.
"With Ringling Brothers closing last year," Kennedy says, "more people are saying, 'Circus is dead' than are seeing that circus is changing and becoming something new. We really need to shift that messaging, and we're working hard at it."
With the launch of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts (PSCA) 10 years ago, Kennedy set out to teach circus arts – trapeze, juggling, aerial work, acrobatics, tightrope, and other skills – to local amateurs and kids. And next week, with the first edition of the contemporary circus arts festival Hand to Hand, she's setting out to educate the public about what more circus can be.
The festival will be headlined by Montreal's renowned Barcode Circus Company, whose show "Sweat & Ink" is described as "a surrealistic and dreamlike exploration of contemporary society's relationship to memory and time." That sort of exploration of ideas – not just dazzling feats and death-defying stunts – is what Kennedy means when she talks about opening audiences' minds to the circus of the future.
Performances during the five-day Hand to Hand fest will take place on stage at FringeArts and outside in the theater's Haas Biergarten, which will have a midway featuring local jugglers, aerialists, and acrobats.
It's one of three noteworthy opportunities in the coming months for Philly audiences to see a wide range of circus performances. The more traditional Big Apple Circus is setting up its big top up from May 23 through June 24 at Philadelphia Mills (the latest branding for what's long been Franklin Mills), where they'll present trained horses, acrobats, clowns, and the high-wire work of the Fabulous Wallendas.
Later this summer, the blockbuster spectacle of Cirque du Soleil will present its show "Volta" for 32 performances between July 12 and Aug. 5 at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks.
Though Kennedy, who has toured with Cirque, values the company's epic-scale shows as a dynamic alternative, she imagines the future in more intimate productions.
"Cirque is limited a bit by its size," she says. "Cirque can do gigantic things that no else will ever be able to do, and I love that. What Cirque can't do is take a nimble approach to creating art and to allow small, interesting ideas to find a path. I think when we're really going to see a difference is when we have a hundred circus companies touring the United States. Right now we've probably got less than 10."
Kennedy is executive director at PSCA's Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, launched last year as the nation's first professional-level vocational circus program.
On the day we spoke, the former Catholic church in Mount Airy that houses both PSCA and Circadium was filled with activity. On the far side of the vast space, students bounced high into the air under the vaulted ceilings on a trampoline. A juggler with a half-dozen bright-yellow clubs practiced in a corner under the watchful eye of Kennedy's husband and co-founder, "innovative juggler" Greg Kennedy. In the middle of the floor, a duo practiced tumbling through hoops while an aerialist twisted and flipped overhead.
These are the members of Circadium's nine-person inaugural class, who will celebrate the close of their first year with a premiere performance at Hand to Hand. Kennedy sees these students as the future of circus and is encouraging them to think about the ideas presented in their work, not just its physical demands.
"Ultimately, we want them to create their own companies," she says. "If, like I said, we need a hundred circus companies in the U.S., to do that we need artists who are going to go out there and make their own work. Our mission as we get closer to their graduation time is not so much helping them get hired as it is getting them to create their own things."
Circadium has partnered with FringeArts to present Hand to Hand, lending the edgy imprimatur of experimental theater.
"Where we get into trouble is if people are looking at circus through a lens of comparing it to Ringling Brothers shows," Kennedy says. "If that's your only knowledge of circus, then [your only criterion] is, 'Well, that thing should be on fire because that would be more exciting.'
"Where circus becomes more powerful to modern audiences is when we can find real points of connection and communication," she says. "We've all seen plenty of shows where the only thing happening is, 'Yay, great, a big impressive trick.'
"But if you've seen any really meaningful contemporary circus shows, it can be thrilling, it can be terrifying, it can be sad. There can be all kinds of emotions that happen in a really good circus performance. Just 'wow' isn't enough for us."