"My brothers and I used to climb trees, wrestle, and jump off things. Sometimes we’d get hurt, but it was really fun. As an adult, you don’t usually have those kinds of opportunities. There’s no appropriate social outlet for interacting with people like that,” Neebinnaukzhik Southall said during a recent Friday-night open studio for participants in BUST!, Wise Fool New Mexico’s six-week circus-arts training intensive. BUST! welcomes aspiring performers who identify as women, transgender, or nonbinary, and culminates in three public showcases on Friday, June 30, and Saturday, June 31, in which participants display their new skills in aerial dance, acrobatics, trapeze, stilt-walking, and more.
Like many who take part in BUST!, Southall had no circus experience before the intensive began, but she has seen her strength and agility steadily improve. Trapeze is the most challenging skill she has learned, because it requires so much of her shoulders. “You have to really throw yourself up onto the trapeze, and that’s hard. It’s frustrating because somehow I think it should be like playground swings and that I should remember how to do it.”
Freyr Marie directs this year’s showcase, which centers on the multiple intersecting experiences of the participants, and how they come together to create a story. “How do we tell our stories and embody our realities with dignity?” she asked. “And how do our bodies create art that recognizes our context and creates social transformation?” Marie added that this kind of art-making should be joyous and liberating. “I see people bloom as they experience physical challenges, as well as the personal and emotional challenges that come up when we interact with our bodies in these new areas of expression.”
When viewed from the audience, circus acts may appear effortless. Underneath the grace and sparkle, however, even the most experienced performers’ muscles shake from the tremendous exertion. Entering the discipline for the first time is like starting any new physical activity, from yoga to ballet to roller derby, in that you are likely to be bad at it at first. That is just fine at Wise Fool. The environment of BUST! is noncompetitive and supportive of all different ages, fitness levels, body types, and gender presentations. Participants are taught and overseen by a leadership team of circus professionals. Over the last few years, BUST! has broadened its mission and staff to be more diverse and inclusive of transgender and nonbinary people.
Marie initially entered circus arts as a drag performer and participated in BUST! for the first time in 2009. “I was usually the only trans person in the space, and I didn’t see myself reflected in a lot of the aesthetics that were being created. It’s often people twirling on fabric, pointing toes, and being beautiful and graceful — but what is the story you are telling? What drives you to do this activity? Circus is a physical medium for developing a deeper relationship with one’s self, getting one’s needs met, whatever that means. I really like to stress to participants that it’s just that. It’s not about the final performance or about being able to wrap yourself up a million times in the silks. That medium, that story — it’s just yours.”
At forty-eight, Roxanne Tapia is the oldest participant. One of her students from Monte del Sol Charter School, Lucia Lopez, who is sixteen, is the youngest. Lopez did a mentorship in aerial fabric performance for a school requirement and wanted to learn a broader array of circus arts at BUST!, while Tapia wanted a new way to challenge herself. Lopez is sore and bruised after every class, but said that the pain is worth it because of the progress she makes. Her favorite skill is still aerial fabrics, which work the thighs and can be rough on the feet, because silk can burn your skin as you learn to maneuver your body up and down.
Tapia, who will perform on trapeze, is active in the Santa Fe theater community and is a recently certified Pilates instructor. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in better shape than I am. I have good core strength, but circus is a whole different realm,” she said. “I’m challenged in the upper body mostly — if I need to climb or hold myself up with my arms. I can do it partially, if someone supports me, but I don’t have the strength to do it on my own. My legs are pretty strong, though.”
The exhaustion and pain that come with learning all of these skills mean emotions can sometimes run high. The members of the leadership team have all been through the same process of trial and error, failure and success, and so their guidance is more than physical. “Even if you don’t have issues around trauma or trust — even if that isn’t something that someone is cognizant of — it comes up,” Marie said. “Having to be touched by other people, having to go upside down. There are so many edges that no matter who you are, you’re going to find your triggers.”
Despite the rigors of the practice, BUST! offers some participants their first taste of an environment that is respectful and supportive rather than competitive and denigrating. Christine Siegrist was an athlete and classical ballet dancer from early childhood through her teenage years, but when she was just nine years old, “It was made very clear to me that my body was not cut out for the form,” she said. She stuck with dance despite teachers who commented on her perceived flaws and even poked her with their fingers. Siegrist started taking classes at Wise Fool about a year ago, building on an existing yoga practice, and was soon so taken with the medium and the organization’s overall mission that she now serves on Wise Fool’s board of directors. Though she felt well prepared physically to embark on circus due to her background, “Where I was last year and where I am now are two different places. I’m much stronger now.”
At the open workshop, Alanna Herrera concentrated on acro-balance, a partner-centered activity in which one person “bases” while the other “flies,” balancing on the abdomen atop their partner’s feet or standing on their thighs. A major feat of acro-balance is the handstand, which Herrera said she has not quite accomplished during the BUST! intensive, though she continues to try. “I took circus classes a few years ago and did them all the time, but then I lost the ability. It’s not like riding a bike. Going upside down really screws with my head. When I go upside down, suddenly my head turns into white noise.”
The process of attempting a new trick, failing at it, achieving a few tiny victories, and finally succeeding at something that seemed like it might never be possible has made acro-balance Southall’s favorite part of BUST! “I was self-conscious at first. I probably weigh more than some of these people, and you have to trust them to be strong enough to hold you. It was scary, but we fall over and laugh. Even if you’re off-balance or take a tumble, you’re still having fun.” ◀