It’s an average working day at Seattle Acrobatics and New Circus Arts — or SANCA, as everyone calls it. While various lessons are happening on the aerial equipment and trampolines, an intense group of men and women on the main floor are standing on each other’s heads juggling clubs. They’re all in their 20s, and they’re part of IMPulse, a new circus company that’s just starting to find a footing — including a performance this Friday in Tacoma’s Theatre on the Square.
After rehearsal, they’ll begin teaching eager young kids how to tumble, balance and fly, and the two jobs are firmly linked. IMPulse’s latest show, “Figments,” explores the world of children’s imaginations, and what’s possible there.
“A lot of us teach children, and we’re constantly exposed to the purity of their imaginations,” explains Emma Curtiss, a founding member of the IMPulse Circus Collective who performs on aerial silks, the large metal Cyr wheel and tumbling. “Kids are so unexposed to the world that they create their own.”
In particular, they create their own imaginary friends, and “Figments,” which premiered at Seattle’s Moisture Festival in March, tells the story of what happens to imaginary friends when their human creators grow up and forget them. No, they don’t disappear — but they retreat to a magical world where they have to learn how to live alone, and learn who they really are. Being imaginary, of course, this leads to all sorts of circus possibilities, from an imaginary friend whose creator always wanted to fly (that would be Reed Nakayama, who does acts on the vertical Chinese pole and freestanding ladder), one who falls in love with another imaginary friend (Wendy Harden, who tumbles and does an acrobatic unicycle duet with her real-life husband, Nick), and a third who is unable to speak, and expresses herself in dance and whirling Cyr wheel (Marta Brown). Curtiss herself plays an imaginary friend who has just been forgotten, and is the newcomer to this magical world.
Other acts include tightwire, solo juggling and trick roping, and the group also comes together for ensemble acts like the club juggling, and teeterboard acrobatics, a form of tumbling where acrobats on one end of a teeter-totter are “flown” into the air by a jumper on the other end, caught by each other or landing on a mat.
The theatrical possibilities of the concept are also why the collective chose it as the plot for a show. As a company, they’re interested in the intersection of circus, dance and theater — in other words, circus with a story.
“People create imaginary friends for all sorts of reasons,” says Curtiss, who had one herself. “They’re lonely, or they need a scapegoat, or sometimes it’s a way of coping with a family situation.”
But “Figments” doesn’t just draw on the IMPulse members’ experience teaching children circus. It also expresses the entire goal of the fledgling group, which formed in 2013 with just five people.
“The characters in ‘Figments’ eventually learn that the world is what you make it,” Curtiss says. “That’s important to us as a group. We’re taking a ton of risks — we have nine members who are all performers. We have no business experience… (but) we’re trying to grow our show and performance experience. We’re so excited to be in Tacoma… Our ultimate goal is to go to Europe, do variety shows, festivals, maybe get an artist-in-residency. We believe that if we can dream it, we can make it happen, and we’re getting closer and closer to our goals.”
But it’s been a roller-coaster ride along the way. Last year, IMPulse merged with another group who brought the teeterboard act into the mix — but that meant they all had to learn that skill. They also all learned to juggle — “Last September, none of us could pass clubs except for Nick and Arne,” confides Curtiss — and they’ve been refining business skills like communications, contract management and fundraising. (Their recent Indiegogo campaign raised $1,000 beyond their goal, allowing them not only to purchase a new crash mat but to take “Figments” on the road.)
Then there have been the injuries. At the Moisture Festival shows, the hand-balancer broke an elbow, and Curtiss sustained a concussion after falling from a teeterboard trick. Brown’s Cyr wheel slipped on an unexpectedly slick floor and she split her jaw open, bleeding through her bandage on the next night’s show. Nick Harden, the main base for the tumbling act, woke up with a painful back, and when Nakayama filled in for him, his foot slipped and got crushed by the teeterboard.
“It was an insane weekend,” Curtiss remembers. “But you rise up, you’re brave, you put your own needs aside. … You’re filled with fear and doubt, but you’re there for each other at all times.”
IMPulse has also had the support of SANCA, the nonprofit circus school that gave the company space, training and teaching jobs. The story of mutual support that saw the collective through its fledgling stages is also SANCA’s story.
“I came from a gymnastics background, and I didn’t like the exclusivity of that sport,” says Chuck Johnson, who co-founded the Georgetown circus school with his wife, Jo, 10 years ago. “I never fit that mold.”
While circus, Johnson found, is an educational, recreational, noncompetitive physical activity that stresses collaboration and conquering fear safely — things that IMPulse also embodies — it’s also about experimentation and creativity.
“I think IMPulse is great,” Johnson says. “It’s a work in progress, and that’s how it should be. With Cirque du Soleil, they create a show and it stays the same. It’s about repetition, perfection — like gymnastics. With a collective, there’s the ability to have fluidity. Everyone has a voice. And Cirque du Soleil is on its way down now.”
That’s as other, smaller companies like IMPulse are on their way up, thanks in part to SANCA, which has given them an artist residency, free space, equipment and financial loans, plus circus teaching jobs.
“We’re nurturing them any way we can,” says Johnson. ‘It’s the next extension of our mission. I never thought that we’d have this level of performance in our staff.”
For Curtiss and the rest of IMPulse, though, circus also offers a way of life that’s deeper than any other, in spite of the injuries and danger.
“There’s something for everyone (in circus) that feeds the soul,” she explains. “When you’re doing it, you feel like you’re flying. Then you go onstage and you make an audience laugh or sigh, and you realize there’s no greater purpose. This is what we’re supposed to do. This is living.”