You no longer need to run away to join the Circus Project. After most of a decade spent walking budgetary tightropes without a net, the nonprofit famed for its work with homeless youth finally put down roots by securing a 4,200-square-foot space large enough to accommodate a range of aerialist training courses for the organization's rare brand of big-top entertainment.
"People have this image of the traditional Ringling Bros. mentality—freaks and oddities and scary clowns," sighs Kirsten Collins, executive director of the Circus Project. "That's not what we're about."
As a multimedia showcase for current students and touring alums, events like this weekend's 10th anniversary show, Change(d) Together, promise breathtaking flourishes of athletic grace and soulful physicality cleaved from the hokier trappings of yesteryear's three-ring spectacles—think lo-fi Cirque du Soleil or a modern dance stage at the X Games. Clowns, though involved, cede the spotlight to confessional narratives told via airborne choreography. The Circus Project has little taste for "Greatest Show on Earth" exploitation—and don't even ask about elephants.
"Animals lost their luster," sniffs veteran acrobat and coach KC Fong. "How they were treated was looked down upon. But also contemporary circuses moved toward a more abstract world of creation. Instead of finding an actual lion, we would use four or five people to evoke the creature."
As much as the popular conception of circuses has changed over the past few years, the 2018 version of the Circus Project barely resembles the nonprofit's earliest iterations. Designed by veteran circus performer and process-oriented psychologist Jenn Cohen, the project was intended to be a vehicle of social outreach.
Initially skeptical that acrobatic instruction was a reliable remedy for youth homelessness, Collins soon came to share the founder's belief that the "circus held a particular appeal to people who don't identify as mainstream. The circus has a cultural history as a home for transients and vagabonds—a place where they'll be celebrated for what makes them different."
That much, at least, cannot be argued. "I definitely use acrobatic skills in my daily life," says acrobat Zoe Stasko. Four years ago, the former linguistics student left the University of Puget Sound to major-minor in aerial straps and handstands at Quebec's prestigious École Nationale de Cirque. She represents the newest stage of the Circus Project's development as the organization evolves to meet the needs of professional acrobats and disadvantaged youth alike.
"Reaching people who are experiencing homelessness is still important to us," Collins says, "but that's not the total focus of our work. Making circus accessible to people from all walks of life is really about professional and equitable programming. We're now offering classes for ages 2 all the way up to seniors of all abilities—absolute beginners and also professional artists who use our space for their own professional training."
However dramatic the institutional shift of emphasis, the Circus Project's ascending stars dismiss any concerns over hierarchical divisions clouding Cohen's still-resonant vision. Even the most advanced programs offer scholarships to those transitioning away from homelessness. And Stasko believes circus training creates kinship.
"It's like a family," she says. "There's this tradition in America of misfits who don't fit in anywhere else running off to join the circus. It's usually derogatory, but to me that really seems to be the point. The circus can be a great unifier. Weirdos come to the Circus Project and find their place."
SEE IT: Change(d) Together plays at Peter Corvallis Warehouse, 2204 N Randolph St., thecircusproject.org. 5:30 pm Thursday, 7:30 pm Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 11-13. $10-$25. $125 for Thursday gala.