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Circus Harmony’s ‘Balancing Act’ Shows Young St. Louisans ‘Walking The Pandemic Tightrope’

In recent months, as Jessica Hentoff and her Circus Harmony crew began planning the social circus organization’s first performance in a long while, they didn’t have to search far for the show’s overarching theme.

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Beau Shoulders | New Scar Design
“The Balancing Act: Walking the Pandemic Tightrope” will pair impressive circus acts with personal reflection. The Oct. 10 virtual event is free, but registration is required.

“Circus is always an analogy for life,” Hentoff, artistic/executive director, explained, “but now more than ever.”

The nonprofit’s Oct. 10 performance is titled “The Balancing Act: Walking the Pandemic Tightrope,” and Hentoff anticipates it being “the most compelling show we’ve ever done,” despite being a virtual one presented from participants’ living rooms, bedrooms and backyards.

It’s also free (with registration required and donations encouraged) in an effort to share the timely perspectives and talents of Circus Harmony’s young people with as many members of the public as possible.

In 2019, Circus Harmony’s talented young performers put on a total of 740 shows. And while they’ve continued practicing their skills in socially distant ways during the coronavirus pandemic, the students have really missed being able to perform in 2020.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Hentoff joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss some of the highlights of the upcoming performance.

The conversation included Circus Harmony alumnus Kyran Walton, who is currently attending circus school in Canada, plus prerecorded comments from St. Louis contortionists Lyla Lawless, 9, and Sarah Kuhlman, 16.

Kuhlman said she sees parallels between her practice of contortion and life in general during the year 2020.

“First of all, contortion takes a lot of practice, and it’s hard, and life is hard,” she said. “And also it takes discipline, for sure, which I see in my life — I think that’s been a good tool for me. But also just doing contortion in your living room is challenging. And I guess that’s a metaphor for 2020.”

“The canes are pretty tall,” Kuhlman went on to explain, “and there’s only one room in my house where we don’t have, like, a ceiling fan or a light hanging from the ceiling, and where we have tall enough ceilings for canes. So I’m doing handstands in my living room and we had to move the couch and our desk.”

Hentoff noted that Circus Harmony is doing the majority of its classes via Zoom these days, but not all of them.

“We have a few classes happening now — masked, outside and socially distanced — that are in person,” including juggling and unicycling clubs, she said.

When it comes to Zoom, internet access issues crop up at times because of the effects of what’s often described as the digital divide.

“We’ve had families where they don’t have a device at home until Mom gets home from work, and so we had to structure our classes to make sure that everyone who wanted to, and could, could participate,” Hentoff said.

Walton is one of the individuals who has been teaching Circus Harmony classes online, even as he hones his own circus technique at École Nationale de Cirque in Montreal. He said he’s enjoyed working with kids in St. Louis, despite the inherent challenges of teaching such physical skills remotely.

“I’ve been teaching them handstands over the summer since around the middle of June,” Walton said, “[and] just getting used to teaching somebody to be on their hands upside down and giving them the exercises they need so they don’t get hurt, it’s a little different. But over the time they definitely have gotten stronger and more skills over these past three or four months.”

Lawless has found that the strength and focus required to master new tricks has been helpful to her during this hard year. She’s taken advantage of both Zoom and in-person opportunities through Circus Harmony.

“Especially with some of the in-person classes … it helps to just be in the same place as people at circus,” Lawless said. “And it also really gives me another thing to think about. Instead of thinking about all the horrible things that are going on this year, I can just think about the fun things that happen in circus and work on some of the fun skills and things like that.”

Related Event
What: The Balancing Act: Walking the Pandemic Tightrope
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10
Where: Online
This virtual event is free, but registration is required (more info here).

Listeners: How are you keeping your balance in this unbalanced time? That’s the big question Circus Harmony has its young people pondering, and we’d love to hear your reflections as well.

Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the Air Facebook group.

And be sure to check out the teaser for “The Balancing Act” here:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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