AK: Sitka Cirque Lassos Sitkans Into The Show

The circus is coming to Sitka, but the performers aren’t from out of town. They are ordinary citizens, who in the past two years, have learned to climb, swing, and soar. Led by an aerialist with roots in Alaska, Sitka Cirque is dreaming up a new kind of circus that provides as much thrill to the participants as it does to the audience.

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Nearly 100 Sitkans are learning to fly on aerial silks. Sitka Cirque performed before a sold out crowd in May. (Mike Hicks/KCAW photo)
Nearly 100 Sitkans are learning to fly on aerial silks. Sitka Cirque performed before a sold out crowd in May. (Mike Hicks/KCAW photo)

“Okay, are you ready? On your marks, get set,” says Frannie Donohoe as she watches as her students climb—not to the top of a dunk tank or a trapeze…

“Look at the silk dance,” she oooos.

But up a flowing pieces of fabric, rigged from the ceiling and falling dramatically to the floor like a stage curtain. It’s called a silk. Donohoe has rigged four of them in what used to be the town swimming pool. Part of the drama of silks is the height and within seconds, her students are 20 feet in the air.

Frances Donohoe, watching Charles Hart in the air, was born in Sitka and trained as a dancer before learning silks. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo).
Frances Donohoe, watching Charles Hart in the air, was born in Sitka and trained as a dancer before learning silks. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo).

“Part of the thing when I was starting out, I would say, “Oh I’m teaching silks,” and people go, “What? What is that?” Well now, I say, “I’m teaching aerial silks,” and they all go, “Oh! You’re the one doing that thing with everyone up in the air. I heard about that.”

Today, Donohoe is leading an evening class for her advanced students.

Aerial silks was invented by Cirque du Soleil in the mid-90s. Performers wrap, drop, swing, and spiral their bodies on the silk to music. All kinds of music.

“And let’s find a way back down to the ground.”

Donohoe grew up dancing in Sitka, without any dreams of running away with the circus. She started learning ballet at the age of 10. She was the Snow Queen in Sitka’s first local performance of the Nutcracker. But when she moved to London in 2008 to light up professional stages, the circus found her.

“Every agency that I came up against, they said ‘Oh, you’re a dancer. Great. But can you do it up in the air?’ So after enough of those people saying, ‘Can you do it in the air?’ I went, ‘Okay, yes. Why not?'”

Donohoe picked it up quickly. She returned to Sitka in 2014 and opened a grassroots circus program with aerial silks at its core. In the past year, 95 students enrolled in her classes, some with prior training in dance or climbing, but whose last pull-up was on the monkey bars in kindergarten. And these are exactly the kinds of people Donohoe wants to teach.

From L to R: Zeke Blackwell and Chantal Cough-Schulze improvise to music. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
From L to R: Zeke Blackwell and Chantal Cough-Schulze improvise to music. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

“The ones that say I can’t are the ones that I am most wanting to succeed because for me what is important isn’t how well someone can execute a skill, it’s how far they progress from where they started.”

And sometimes, that means being painfully honest about your body’s limitations. Taylor White is an aquarium manager. She’s constantly moving buckets of rocks and shifting aquariums around. She joined Cirque to improve her upper body strength and those first two weeks were brutal.

“You can’t even hold onto the silk long enough to do the things that you want to do because you can’t hold yourself on the silk long enough and you wake up with these lobster claw hands,” she laughs, “and you have to stretch them back.”

White broke her pinky once during a drop, which is when you wrap the silk around you and free fall, so that the silk catches you before you hit the ground. That drop, which used to be her nemesis, is now her favorite. She performed it at the Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines last month.

“It’s a total trust thing and trusting that the silks are wrapped correctly and that your body can handle that drop,” she says.

And according to Zeke Blackwell, when you finally get it, it’s pure exhilaration.

“There’s nothing like it. All of the lights in your body go off at once.”

Some students come to circus with prior training in dance, yoga, or climbing. But many are new to the aerial arts. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Some students come to circus with prior training in dance, yoga, or climbing. But many are new to the aerial arts. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Blackwell was obsessed with the circus growing up.

“I wanted to be one of the 40 clowns that come out of the small car and hit each other on the nose and fall around and eat pie,” he remembers.

Blackwell explains that modern circus is trying to showcase something a little less slapstick and a little more human:

“You still get tricks and the amazing marvel, but it’s all channeled through people and through the human form.”

Donohoe just signed a lease for a new space for the circus program and plans to add more classes this fall: juggling and acrodance. She’s not aiming for perfection. Rather, she wants to create a space where students don’t have to worry about wowing audiences, and can simply learn to be in awe of themselves.

“How many adults are allowed the time to play? To not be limited by by what you think is possible but to allow yourself to discover what can be possible,” Donohoe says.

And sometimes, that means getting off the ground.

Sitka Silkies Perform at Fireweed Dance Company Spring 2015 from frances donohoe on Vimeo.

Donohoe plans to add more circus classes this fall, including acrodance and juggling. Photo: Emily Kwong/KCAW.
Donohoe plans to add more circus classes this fall, including acrodance and juggling. Photo: Rachel Waldholz/KCAW.