Watching the Cirque Us performers leap onto each other’s shoulders, toss juggling balls in perfect sync and mamba to the beat during a rehearsal, it’s hard to believe their new summer production is being created from scratch in a mere 11 days.
Such speed is only possible because the company directors let the performers’ skills set the show, rather than looking for artists who can fill pre-set roles.
“We write the show from the ensemble backward,” says company founder Doug Stewart. “We cast the people first and then build the show.”
The result? A dynamic production and happy artists. Rena Dimes, who specializes in aerials and contortion, spent the last year performing across Europe in what she called a “plug-and-play” company.
“I love Cirque Us because I have full say in what we do,” she says. “We can make what we want to see on stage.”
This summer’s show, “RagTag: a Circus in Stitches,” invites the audience, as the website says, to be “entwined with our group of mismatched artists as they stitch together a tapestry of talents: from high-flying, knot-tying, gravity defying aerialists, to loopy jugglers, to musicians that pull your heart strings, and comedy that leaves you in stitches.”
Most circuses today focus on the solo act, celebrating individual achievement. But not Cirque Us, a uniquely ensemble-centric company—their goal is to create a new genre of circus. They’re not interested in simply creating spectacle; they want to show technique and the human element.
Show director Jesse Dryden explains that circus performers’ incredible feats can make them seem superhuman to the audience. At the same time, the audience is aware that they’re watching someone risk failure (though in a safe environment), and when a performer falters, it communicates what it means to be human. “When we see such extreme skill it’s a balance between humanizing and deifying,” he says.
Adds Stewart: “Our artists are drawn to showing audiences anything is possible.”
Cirque Us performs in intimate venues that allows them to share their love of play and make more of an impact on the audience. In Ithaca, that place is Circus Culture, which this year is not only hosting the performances and workshops the company will offer but also giving Cirque Us a place to create their new show from scratch.
Stewart founded the company in 2016 while still in college (studying business). Dryden calls him “an over-achiever” because despite founding the company, performing and setting up bookings from his dorm room, Stewart still managed to graduate in three years.
“The idea came to me in 2014 when I was in Circus Smirkus as one of Jesse’s students,” explains Stewart. “It was the most fun I’d ever had and I wondered, how can I keep doing this?”
The company spends long hours together, so getting along is as important to their success as their circus skills. The ensemble serves as its own road crew and must do everything: sound, lights, set-up.
“Sometimes we even sell the tickets,” says Stewart. “Everyone is wearing 17 different hats. There’s such a passion among the performers, such a go-get-‘em attitude. They’re getting up at 6 a.m., driving for four hours, setting up the show, performing 21-hour days and loving every minute.”
On top of everything else they do for the show, many of the artists also provide live music.
With Cirque Us, the fourth wall is completely permeable. The performers play with the audience, who are invited to participate from their seats. Each show includes a meet-and-greet afterward and interactions with the performers before the show. As Stewart puts it, “We invite the audience into our world so everyone can feel that they’ve been seen and been a part of it.”
The workshops offered in Ithaca on Friday, June 28 span the gamut, from tight wire to club passing, trapeze to diablo, beginning to advanced. They’re priced for accessibility, at $20 per session.
Tickets for the June 29 and 30 performances and workshop registration are online at http://www.thecirqueus.com/.