When the Tsunami Circus show called Beyond premieres this weekend, the circus artists will likely be more excited than usual to perform since Covid has stymied them for the past two years.
Circus students come from elementary, middle and high school on Salt Spring. With a variety of ages comes collaboration, mentorship by the students who’ve been in circus longer, and playing off of each other’s strengths in performances. Some of the 30 artists have wanted to be in the circus program since they first saw their predecessors perform, some even before they started school.
To get into circus, mindset and determination is more critical than talent, the coaches explain. But everyone has to know how to juggle.
This year’s circus performers have spent 12 weeks moving from six weeks of conditioning — “acrobatics, handstands aerials on the trapeze but also aerials in the fabric,” coach James Cowan said. Then eight weeks in, the students began to specialize.
Behind the performers are volunteers, often parents of eager circus kids, who pour thousands of hours into the endeavour. Tsunami Circus has been running since 2015. It was, and possibly is, the only public school in Canada with an aerial circus, James said.
Jaqueline Wightman saw her mom and founder of the program Tiffany (Fanny) Wightman spend hours and hours on circus, then she herself got involved at age 12.
“I was here all hours and I became really fit and able to do things and I got past my fears. It was a hard journey but it was so much worth it,” said Jacqueline, who has floated from hammocks to hula hoop, to stilts, and now she’s now in love with the dance trapeze. “I’m so proud that my mom’s doing all this, and I’m happy I get to be a part of it.”
Steph Cowan has been with the circus for five years. She started training on stilts, then went onto aerial hoops and for the past three years has been training on the aerial cube.
“And I also really like unicycling,” she said. “I’ve spent so much time in this gym devoting myself to this training. This is really what I love to do,” she said. “The shows are just an incredible experience.”
Jacqueline and Steph agree that the hurdles in circus are often a matter of “beating down the mental blocks of saying, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ It’s, ‘I can’t do this yet.’ But if you work hard enough you can do anything.”
Some parts of circus are harder than people think. For example, with stilts you are up there for three-and-a-half minutes holding your own body weight and doing all the movements with stamina and grace.
Eighteen-year-old Nicole Gent started circus in 2015 and fell in love with it. For Gent, it’s been an outlet from stress around school, friendships or any life drama going on.
“You leave it at the door, you come here, and it’s just your outlet,” she said. “You can express yourself and you just forget about all your problems and you just have fun. And you end up making something really amazing.”
Thirteen-year-old Teagan Hunwicks, who is nicknamed “Bendy” at Tsunami Circus, said hammocks and contortion are her main focus. “It’s just like your other family, kind of, where you totally click,” she said of the circus community. “You get teamwork and get experience for when you’re older, how to work around people, and you get to meet new people . . . in the hallways, you see all your circus people, and you have more friends.”
Volunteer administrator Michelle Bennett said many things, above and beyond the circus arts, are taught here. They are summed up into “the five Ps” of the community’s culture code. They include pass it on, persistence, pain (the good kind), positivity and patience.
Tyrel Domingue decided to join the circus during his first year of middle school.
“I came in here and I instantly saw all the wacky things people were doing here. All the silks and the cradles and the trapeze, and so I thought this seems really cool.”
Domingue said the program has led to the majority of the middle school knowing how to juggle, with students practising and working on their craft in the multi area. The school also has a circus class, which Piper Wightman, Rachel Skinner, Arawyn Steeves, Bryn Pyper and Lola Rosborough are currently in.
With Salt Spring Island Middle School (SIMS) closing this year, the future of Tsunami Circus is up in the air. The school’s gymnasium is specially kitted out with rigging for aerial circus arts, a space which doesn’t exist elsewhere on the island. James said they are working with the Capital Regional District, which is taking over the operation of SIMS, to see how the circus could continue to operate.
“Ideally, we would have our own facility, and the appetite on the island is huge,” James said. “We turn away many, many, many . . . hundreds of people each year who want to do circus but we don’t have the space for it.”
Tickets for the May 13 and 14 shows, from 6 to 8 p.m., and the May 15 show from 1 to 3 p.m. are available at West of the Moon and the Salt Spring Elementary School and SIMS offices.
The Beyond show poster explains that “Adults and Aliens” pay $10 a ticket while children and students pay $5. A concession and merchandise table will be set up with T-shirts and juggling balls for sale.