SOMERVILLE — The garage doors of Esh Circus Arts are rolled wide open on a recent morning to let in the cool, dry air. Inside the fieldhouse-sized space, dense blue mats cover the floor.
Thick ropes, swaths of colored silk, large iron hoops, and black nylon straps dangle from the rafters.
Patrick Tobin bounces on a tight wire stretched chest high off the floor. Above him, Kia-Melinda Eastman and Lindsay Culbert-Olds speak quietly to each other as they entwine and dis-entwine themselves, dangling and lifting, leaning and twirling on a single trapeze, their ponytails flying behind them.
They are staying sharp in anticipation of upcoming performances of F.A.Q. Circus, the collective they founded in 2012 with seven other young performers. The troupe’s local shows, which started Friday night and continue this evening and Sunday afternoon at the Arlington Center for the Arts, will be a homecoming of sorts for the trio, who all grew up in the Boston suburbs.
Although they have been studying circus arts and performing for roughly half their lives, they didn’t expect that their youthful interests would translate into professional careers.
“I was 12 years old when my mother told me that I was going away to summer camp for two weeks,” says Tobin, 24, who grew up in Milton. “She told me I could choose whatever I wanted, but I was going. I had done gymnastics and dance and had just seen my first performance of Cirque du Soleil. I looked on the Internet and found Circus Smirkus.”
The Greensboro, Vt.-based summer circus camp and touring youth circus was common ground for all three. Eastman, 23, grew up in Waltham and recalls seeing her first Circus Smirkus show at age 8. Also 23, Culbert-Olds, who grew up in Arlington, became aware of Circus Smirkus through the WGBH children’s television show “Zoom.”
All three trained at the Circus Smirkus summer camp and successfully auditioned for the annual Big Top Tour that travels throughout the Northeast.
Both women were drawn to trapeze early on. “All through school I did soccer, gymnastics, and dance,” says Eastman, “but on the weekends my mom would drive me and another girl to Vermont to train for circus. We did our homework in the car up and back. I had my weekday sports, but on the weekends I had my secret life in circus.”
All three went off to college — Tobin to study journalism first at Salem State, then at the University of Massachusetts Boston; Eastman to pursue her passion for interior design at Endicott College; and Culbert-Olds to a liberal-arts education. “I did one year at Mount Holyoke,” Culbert-Olds says, “but I spent most of my time trying to get off campus so I could train.”
Tobin concurs. “I went to college for two years,” he says. “It wasn’t making me happy. What was missing was performing.”
All three insist that their parents were supportive — and not terribly surprised — that their offspring chose to detour down such an unconventional career path. In fact, the parents may have been a little proud, as all three performers applied to and were accepted at the highly competitive École nationale de cirque (ENC), or National Circus School, in Montreal. Founded in 1981 by a clown and a gymnast, the school has evolved into the Harvard of circus training in North America.
“Circus was something that so spoke to her that we couldn’t say no,” says Eastman’s mother, Mimi Leveque. “It’s like the parents of kids who want to be Olympians. There’s a certain amount of sacrifice, but you’re willing to do it because it’s so special that your child can do this stuff. I can barely touch my toes.”
Eastman and Culbert-Olds, who had been performing a duo trapeze act since their high school years with Circus Smirkus, went through the school together and graduated from the three-year professional program in June. Tobin, who performs tight wire and aerial rope, returns to the school this fall for his final year.
‘Human beings are capable of extraordinary things.’
ENC shares an expansive campus with the world headquarters of Cirque du Soleil as well as the performance venue TOHU, which presents circus companies throughout the year. The complex has helped to make Montreal ground zero for circus arts in North America, and Eastman, Culbert-Olds, and Tobin all now call the city home. Although Cirque du Soleil gets the lion’s share of recognition, Montreal has nurtured a number of smaller contemporary companies.
Born from political agit-prop European circus of the 1970s, contemporary circus combines the narrative of theater, the movement of modern dance, and the athletic prowess of circus into an expressive synthesis. The aim is to create an emotional connection between performers and audience that goes beyond “Wow! I wish I could do that!”
Contemporary circus “combines all the art forms you can do with your body — theater, dance, acrobatics — into one,” says Eastman. What it doesn’t feature are the exotic animal acts of traditional circuses.
The art form is most firmly established in Europe, where there are more than 450 troupes in France alone. Quebec has proved the most fertile ground in North America, with about 40 companies, according to the Canadian national circus-arts network En Piste. “No one really knows how many US companies are out there,” says Duncan Wall, national director of Circus Now. The New York-based professional development and advocacy organization is working to build the infrastructure for funding, producing, and touring that has helped circus flourish elsewhere.
The members of F.A.Q. Circus consider themselves missionaries for the art. “We’re 10 Americans who met at ENC and decided to form our own company with the aim of helping Americans better understand circus,” says Tobin.
“Most Americans are aware that there are different styles of dance,” explains Eastman, “but they tend to think that Ringling Bros. defines circus. We have the utmost respect for that kind of circus — it’s part of our American history and we feed on that tradition — but we hope to show that there’s more than that.”
Although the company members all hope to secure contracts to perform with established companies — Eastman and Culbert-Olds have a two-month engagement this fall with Chicago-based Midnight Circus — they formed F.A.Q. when they were still in school. That way, they would have a company in place where they could come together and create their own work.
Incorporating in New Hampshire (one member hails from Manchester), they launched their first tour last summer and quickly learned about the financial realities of a life in the arts.
“We had no idea how to run a business,” Tobin says. “We learned just how expensive gasoline and insurance are.”
Undeterred, they are now coming to the end of the tour of their second show, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” which has played in Freeport, Maine; Troy, N.Y.; and Brattleboro, Vt.
Last year’s F.A.Q. production was essentially a showcase of circus skills. For this year’s more ambitious show, the company collaborated with Montreal-based dancer and choreographer Michael Watts. “ ‘Hero’ is about questions of identity,” says Tobin. “It’s perfectly suitable for children, but it’s not stereotypical family entertainment. It’s no darker than, say, ‘Harry Potter.’ ”
Throughout “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” seven company members don and doff masks as they address the question of authentic identity. Of course, their identity crises take place in the context of a wide range of circus skills — tightrope, trapeze duo, aerial straps, contortion juggling, clowning, dance, acrobatics, and Cyr wheel (a rolling hoop with an acrobat inside).
Ultimately, the performers discard all artifice to reveal their unmasked selves.
“It’s a roundabout way of talking about the sense of identity in everyone,” says Eastman. “But we don’t want to strip away the magic of the performer.”
They also don’t want to strip away the magic that is intrinsic to the art of circus. “Human beings are capable of extraordinary things,” says Tobin — extraordinary things that often involve physical risk. That’s what gives circus arts a power and an edge over other performance arts.
“Risk brings the audience in more,” says Culbert-Olds. “They participate in the nervousness with the artist.”
Throughout their duo trapeze act, Culbert-Olds and Eastman talk each other through each twist, turn, jump, and catch. Eastman is the porter, or catcher. “I have a mind for knowing what’s going on at the bar,” she says. “The porter has to be the stable figure. Even if you are afraid, you can’t show any fear. And you have to know when it is — and isn’t — safe to perform a move.”
Culbert-Olds is the flyer. “I’m not ideal as a flyer,” she admits, “because I’m not fearless.” Yet she seems to fly through the air with a fearless sense of liberation. “I’ve learned to deal with my fear,” she says. “Trust is a big thing. If she [Eastman] says we’re good, I have to trust we’re good.”
As a solo artist, Tobin’s physical challenges are different. Noting that “my legs shake when I’m afraid,” he explains that he must draw on his inner resources as he performs on the tight wire. “It’s all about calming yourself down,” he says. “Connect with your breath. Shut off your brain. Let your body take over and do what it’s trained to do.”
Unlike larger, grander companies such as Cirque du Soleil, F.A.Q. performs in small, intimate venues with ticket prices that are far more affordable. At the Arlington Center for the Arts, “You’ll be close up to the performers,” Tobin jokes. “You’ll see us sweat.”
You might also get future bragging rights. “There’s a sense in the field that the American market is the next big one,” says Wall of Circus Now. “The first cool American company that everybody talks about hasn’t emerged yet. As much as anyone, F.A.Q. has a real shot of becoming that company, the one that creates an identifiably American circus.”Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.