“When I was 18, I moved to Logan Square and lived around the corner from the Fireside Bowl,” begins Shayna Swanson, founder and owner of Aloft Circus Arts. So begins a story that follows Swanson, a petite dancer and gymnast from Chicago, to circus school in England; international acclaim as a performer in the tightly competitive world of contemporary circus; performances in China during the 2008 Olympics; and suspended from a bridge over the River Kent in a daredevil act featuring torch bearers and singers beneath Swanson spinning from a small, thin rope.
And now from Jan. 6 until Jan. 12, Swanson and co-producer Matt Roben host the first Contemporary Circus Festival ever held in the United States, at the Atheneum Theater right here in Chicago.
It’s kind of a good story.
Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get Swanson to talk about herself when she’s so excited about the festival.
“I wish we could have had the festival around Logan. I’d love to incorporate it for next year, somehow,” she says, between classes and an instructor’s conference at Aloft’s gigantic practice space in Ukrainian Village.
Aloft: A Contemporary Circus
The old factory space boasts 35 foot ceilings, allowing troupe members, students and visiting performers (who stop by to continue the intense daily training needed to withstand their often painful and exhausting routines) as much vertical space to play in as possible.
Aloft’s loft is a needed 13,000 square feet, and in the days leading up to the first Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival, every bit of the cavernous space is filled with people spinning, climbing, rolling and stretching. Dozens of bare feet flash by from floor to ceiling as music blasts. At the center of all this mayhem, Swanson explains why Chicago needs more circus and circus needs Chicago.
“We are trying to make Chicago into the Circus Center of the U.S.A.,” she says. “There are a bunch of great companies here, and the rent is so reasonable for small artistic businesses.”
We are interrupted by the cheers of instructors from all over the country who have gathered to trade tips and talk standards in Aloft’s space as a particularly challenging routine is broken down. “Plus, we have all these beautiful old industrial buildings that are perfect for circus. High ceilings, open spaces, great light, centrally located. It’s a dream. Newer cities struggle trying to find just the physical space.”
With such an abundance of physical space in Chicago, the festival itself will feature performances at the Atheneum, workshops at a variety of venues and even a trip to the Canadian Consulate. (Canada sends us not just the arctic weather this week, but the influence of the company most Americans associate with modern circus: Montreal’s Cirque De Soleil.)
Contemporary Circus in the U.S.
Contemporary Circus is still struggling to grow here in the U.S., which is why so many of our homegrown artists have been living out of their suitcases for the last decade. Hopefully, at least one local circus star can stay home more often after this festival blows the lid off an art form that’s been percolating all over the country, producing internationally renowned performers still largely unknown in their home towns.
Learn more about contemporary circus:
Contemporary Circus Festival
From now until the Jan. 12, however, it’s all work. Modern circus features no animals, no big top and no tiny cars. The artists of Contemporary Circus rely on strength and skill to dazzle the crowd.
In the days before the festival begins, everything is busy, colorful and loud at Aloft: costumes are picked, performers speak to the press, riggings are set for the silks, trapezes and hoops. Throughout these final hours of prep, the snow and wind are wailing past the loft’s high, wide windows.
But just this once, the performers of Aloft Circus Arts do not need a single suitcase.
“I’ve always really loved the neighborhood and its walkability,” says Swanson, speaking of her home in Logan Square as she prepares to go the next 10 days without seeing much of it, or a bed, or her husband. “It’s my favorite neighborhood in the city.”