American circus arts are enjoying a second, or third, coming. While the circus continued to be seen as art in places like France and China, it largely went underground in the United States after the Ringling Brothers' peak in the 1920s, with a few attempts at a resurgence, like the Jim Rose rock circus in the 1990s. 

Now aerialists, hand-balancers and Hula-Hoopers are a notable slice of the Northwest's theater scene. Companies such as Portland's Circus Project and Seattle's School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts are growing thanks to the popularity of shows like Cirque du Soleil and the 24/7 work ethic of performers, such as SANCA instructor Anna Thomas-Henry.

Thomas-Henry, who won first place in women's silks at the U.S. Aerial Championships in February, will join the Circus Project this Sunday for a showcase that proves just how far circus arts have come. 

In her performances, Thomas-Henry climbs a long piece of silk suspended from the ceiling, looping it around herself until she dangles 25 feet above the stage in a vertical splits. With a flick of her hips, she unwinds in a stomach-turning fall. But circus arts, she says, are on the upswing. 


WW: How did you get into circus arts? What made you decide to make it a career?

Anna Thomas-Henry: I was a musical theater performer in NYC looking for an interesting new hobby. After a few months of [aerial] classes, I was picked up by one of my teachers to start performing with her renegade, underground Brooklyn circus troupe. It was a fun group that I was inspired by, but I realized I was being put in situations that were unsafe. I had very little education and shouldn't have been performing. So I found a professional preparatory program in NYC and went into training full time.

You've trained in New York City, Shanghai and Seattle. How does the U.S. compare?

The Northwest is pretty great by U.S. standards but lacks the history that places like China, Hong Kong or France have. Here it is very much considered a new art since its revival from the heyday of the traveling three-ring circus. The difference is that circus went through a lull for decades now we are sort of starting fresh again. 

You just won first place at the 2015 U.S. Aerial Championships, and you were a finalist at the Aerial Acrobatic Arts Festival—what are those competitions like?

We are a very interconnected industry. Going into a competition feels more like a geeky industry meet-up than a competition. It's a time to meet folks whose work you admire, reconnect, gauge trends and share your work. 

Is aerial more about performance—like a dance—or strength?

In the circus, we consider our acts to be in the art category, because we put them on stage rather than in a sports arena. We want audience engagement, not points against one another. 

How does your profession as a circus artist cross over into your “real life”? 

At this point, my profession is my real life. I've got all my eggs in the circus basket. Work and play are not separate, and that can either feel like I'm working all the time or like I'm playing all the time.

What is your training regimen?

When I was in circus school, I would spend 30 to 40 hours a week training. That was ideal. Now, I'm typically in the circus gym five to six days a week, from four to 12 hours a day. At the moment, it's hand-balancing, contortion, trampoline and rope, out of necessity. I miss my silks! I'll be performing an act that I developed in circus school as my specialty and that has earned me acceptance into competitions and festivals. It's technically complex but not flashy and feels a bit intimate, like a memory.

SEE IT: Summer Community Showcase is at the Circus Project, 1420 NW 17th Ave., No. 388, 764-9174. 6 pm Sunday, Aug. 30. Free.