Fire breathers, aerial gyms and clowns: A look behind the curtain of Louisville’s expansive circus scene

Running away to join the circus is mythic. A young child — already yearning to escape a hum-drum life — sees the seemingly magical feats under the big top. He steals away in the night: Perhaps there is a train yard. The youngster is discovered by a ringmaster, or perhaps an aerialist, and they begin to turn the child away. “Go home,” they might say, or,  “The circus is no place for the foolish.”

But wait. There is something in the youngster’s eyes. Something that the ringmaster recognizes. Maybe it’s hunger, maybe it’s determination or maybe it’s that indescribable quality that makes people look at you before you’ve ever begun to perform. Whatever it is, the kid has it. And the ringmaster, no doubt with a twinkle and a nod, says, “Well, come along.”

It’s mythic. But it’s not real life.

And yet in Louisville, and nationwide, there are more and more people learning the skills and performing. Clowns inhabit late-night bars, kids are exploring juggling and moms and twenty-something hipsters alike are rolling up their yoga mats and climbing circus apparatus to fly for their fitness. Not a month goes by without some circus performance in Louisville, and often they fall on a nearly weekly basis. Last weekend I had to choose between two circus events on the same night, and it wasn’t the first time.

What in the name of Barnum and Bailey is going on? And what even is circus anymore, if it isn’t the big top, if it isn’t the train in Dumbo?

“When you talk about ‘the circus,’ people picture a place, and not an art form,” said Jess Alford. He’s a teacher, juggler, acrobat and the chair of the board of the American Youth Circus Organization. He is a passionate advocate for the circus arts, and he believes it can make the world a better place. “I think there is no better tool for teaching people teamwork and trust and self-confidence and self-worth. I mean the list goes on and on.”

Circus as an art form is a lot of different things. A mixture of theatre, dance, physical comedy, acrobatics on the ground and on arial devices. For some, it’s also clowning and sideshow work.

Alford came to Louisville because of his day job, which magically, and ironically, happens to be theatrical lighting. Most people in Louisville do theatre for free at night, and pay for it with a regular job; Alford’s fallback job is somebody else’s dream.

For Alford, circus has been a lifelong journey. “That’s what I did as a kid instead of baseball, or any sports,” said Alford, who, in college, majored in technical theatre. “Technical theatre is also technical circus.” It took him awhile to graduate, though. Halfway through college he ran away to San Francisco — to do circus. “I took a break … to do a million circus-related things, and that started building a network across the country that made it possible to continue to work in circus wherever lighting for theatre took me.”

Alford’s broad skill set allows him to teach in and all over Louisville. He’s worked at Turner’s Youth Circus — the 150-year-old grandfather of Louisville current circus renaissance — but he also has ongoing gigs with Suspend and CirqueLouis. Both entities are young. Suspend is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary, and CirqueLouis had their first show last December. Those groups are part of what Alford calls “exponential growth” in Louisville’s circus scene.

Alford agrees that circus is booming here in Louisville, and he has the unique perspective of working with a national body that helps circus education all over the U.S. He also works regional, with My Nose Turns Red Circus in Cincinnati.

In addition to the idea of circus as an art form, there is the idea of circus as a sport, or the growing craze of aerial training as exercise. Alford is aware of the similarities between circus and sports, but he says circus is better.

“There are a lot of parallels in the benefits of circus to the benefits of sports, but with sports, there’s a competitive element that is not for everyone, and circus avoids that in a way that doesn’t even feel like you’re avoiding it,” said Alford.  “It’s not like you are giving every kid a trophy, and saying that everybody is a winner when in fact some teams still didn’t win.”

In circus, be it a trapeze act, clowning with a partner, or acroyoga, you have to work together to win.

Not Always Kid Stuff

In Louisville, there seems to be a division in the circus scene. It’s not based on enmity, or anger or even ideology. Frequently the division seems to lie between acts that would have traditionally been in the big top, and acts that would have been in the side show. But the division seems to also lend itself to a serious difference in the maturity level of the content.

The sideshow half of Louisville’s scene is made of people who breathe fire and walk on glass. They juggle knives, crack whips and flip the audience the middle finger. On their best behavior, this crowd is PG-13 and once the burlesque dancers and the foul-mouthed drag queen MCs get onstage, the actions move into hard R territory real fast.

This group is represented locally by the likes of Blue Moon Circus, The Kalishnikov Clowns and Bluegrass Bizarre Bazaar. But they are augmented by other traveling shows. Last month Tinderbox Circus Sideshow teamed up with Thunder Snow Cone, a circus from Philadelphia. In February, The Pretty Things Peep Show set up shop in the Alley Theater for a two night run, and though it’s been awhile since they hit town, the Bindlestiff Family Circus has also been known to swing through Louisville.

This is circus for adults, and yet the shows scratch the same part of the brain as their PG counterparts — they cause delight. Fire and glass and danger give audiences the same sharp intake of breath. It’s an escape from the everyday.

It’s more likely to have foul language, cringe-inducing stunts and boobies.

I Used to Climb

Anne Bock Miller and Meg Wallace are co-owners of what is arguably the hippest aerial gym in Louisville. I first met them at the Flea Off Market, shortly before they opened Suspend, their gorgeous aerialist gym in Butchertown. It’s just a few blocks away from the bustle of Nulu. At the Flea Off, they had a portable rig set up. It looked like the bones of a giant teepee. They were performing some tricks, answering questions and trying to get the word out.

I honestly wasn’t that amazed at the time. Sure, the stuff they were doing seemed cool, but I’ve seen aerialist acts before, most frequently and recently in shows put on by the Va Va Vixens.

I took a card and filed it away as strong possibility for a story.

It wasn’t until a month or so later, when I went and visited Suspend’s actual location, that I started to itch to put down my notebook and iPad and start climbing.

In the roomy gym two stories tall, brightly colored silks, ropes, hoops and trapeze stretch all the way to the ceiling. People were climbing up and down, flipping and twirling and turning.

I suddenly was sucked back to my elementary school days, and even further back. See, I used to be a climber. From the time I could walk, I started scaling things, not always in the safest manner either.

Slowly over the years, my inner monkey has been tamed. Gravity gets less forgiving the bigger you are, and I hit 200 pounds and 6 feet pretty quickly. And I ain’t even that small anymore: my weight creeps up to somewhere around 240 most of the time.

Falling hurts a lot more than it used to. And at some point, don’t you just look foolish trying this kid stuff?

Not really. But it does get harder to fight the fear of looking foolish. You tell yourself. it’s just for kids, and you walk away even though inside you are dying to try it.

Staring up at the silks, I remembered the feeling of climbing, of reaching a summit — arms burning, lungs alive. You’ve been focusing on putting one hand in front of the other, thinking about foot placement, but once you hit the top, and get a secure hold, you look out, and see the world from your new vantage.

Even as a kid I thought it was amazing how different the world could look from just 20 feet up. A slight change of perspective, and you’ve escaped your life.

photo by Samantha Beasley (
photo by Samantha Beasley (

This Story Starts in the Soviet Union

Here’s a story of a different kind of escape.

“The story of the Kalishnikov Clowns is not my story,” said Steven Hughes. Onstage with Louisville’s late-night clown act, he’s known as Simcha DeClown, and Hughes characterizes his charter as “the clown who offended the gods.”

In real life Hughes is neither awkward nor vexed by powers beyond his control. He’s the well-spoken and affable mouth piece for the Kalishnikov Clowns. He started as a visual artist, and got dragged into clowning by Tatyana Malkin, his wife of seven years. It’s her story that Hughes will tell you if you ask about the Kalishnikov Clowns: “She’s actually part of the last wave of refugees (before) the fall of the Soviet Union. With her, she brought these memories of watching the Russian clowns, and what clowning was in Russia.”

Hughes describes Russian clowning as “A different art form. It’s a little more dramatic, a little more surreal.”

Hughes was intrigued by Malkin’s memories of the clowning in the old country: “She always told me about it with this glow in her eyes.” But still Hughes resisted getting in on the act, until tragedy struck. “We were facing a lot of sickness. My wife’s father had brain cancer, and it was one of our outlets to shrug off the things that were bothering us and bring a bright hope into our lives.”

In other words, sometime you have to laugh to keep from crying.

At the time, Bubble-ishus — Malkin’s clown persona — started working with Blue Moon Circus. But once Blue Moon went on the road, Malkin, Hughes and a loose collection of performers decided to start a clown act. Part of having a clown-specific act was to resurrect what Hughes calls a dying art. “The more you look at it, the more you see,” he said. “It’s a dying art form. I’ve always been a fan of picking up things that are forgotten, and breathing new life in to it.”

In their recent show, “Everything in Life is Luck,” Simcha, Bubble-ishus, Salty (Deb Adams) and Lady Necrotatas (Athena Prychodko) were joined by a drag queen MC named Shawna the Dead; a Charlin Chaplin and Groucho Marx impersonating drag king named TB Sparrow; and Trashique,The Burlesque Anomaly & Mistress of Lift.

The guest acts added plenty to the show, but the clowning was at the center of the action. The various clowns interact and argue and flirt. “We’re very character driven, everything in our troupe, all the acts, are driven by the characters,” said Hughes. When writing material, the group just considers how their clown alter egos would act in any given situation. Simcha, for instance, can’t ever get ahead. “He has to be the victim. If there is anything miraculous that’s gonna happen, or any kind of magic, it has to happen to him, he can’t initiate it.” Bubble-ishus on the other hand is used to getting her way, and gets angry if anyone stops her from taking what she wants. She’s the one who’s always flipping off the audience. There is something divine about a giggling clown giving you the old middle finger. It made me laugh every time.

You can easily imagine the kind of abuse she heaps on the head of poor Simcha. The fact that they are loving spouses IRL is just a little bonus for audience members in the know. The other clowns have personal dynamics that come into play as well. Lady Necrotatas likes to play tricks, and Salty … well, she’s Salty.

How Long is Forever

Last September, Blue Moon Circus co-founder Laurel Fleury (AKA Ember the Fire Bender) rode off into the sunset in a bus with her paramour Jack Wojciechowski (AKA Jacek the Strange). They had packed up their tricks and their four cats and were starting what they called their Forever Tour.

They were suddenly one of those touring acts, bolstering the circus presence in other towns, strengthening their connections with other regional and national acts. “We met other side show performers, and burlesque performers, and all kinds of cool people,” said Fleury. “And, after the show, sometimes people will come up and say ‘Hey, we’re in a sideshow troupe too.’”

They were out on the road for 8 months, and recently arrived back in Louisville to take a little break from touring and try to upgrade their bus. “It was a crazy good year,” said Fluery. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. “Scary, challenging, a lot of fun … did I say challenging? It’s been an adventure for sure.”

The duo performed all over the South — Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana. They performed in bars, theaters and even flea markets. They met up with other sideshows, some who even worked under a traditional tent. “We learned to put up the tents and drive the stakes, the old-fashioned stuff,” said Fluery. She said those types of gigs are called grind shows: “You’re doing a show constantly as long as people are coming in the tent.”

That kind of constant performing upped their circus game in a big way. “The show grew, we grew, we added new games, new jokes, the show is ten times better than when we started,”said Wojciechowski. Fluery added that some of the growth came from their audiences: “Sometimes, they would crack jokes, and we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re using that in the next show.’”

One of their biggest lessons on the road? “You don’t have to look a certain way to be a circus performer,” Fluery said. “A lot of people think you have to look real thin or be super muscular. But you just have to be really resilient in spirit.”

It’s a sentiment echoed down the line of circus folk with whom I spoke.

Blue Moon Circus from Derek Wohltmann on Vimeo.

I Can Still Climb

I actually asked for a Suspend gift card from Santa Claus. Yes, I’m 36 years old and Santa still comes to visit, because that’s how my family rolls. No, I don’t have kids. Why do you ask? Santa came through with a 30-day new student package, which included a four-class introduction to aerial, unlimited cirque fitness, unlimited yoga & meditation and unlimited open fly. The package cost $120.

Yeah, let’s get price out of the way fast. Aerial training isn’t cheap. Prices vary from Turners, to Suspend, to Cirque Louis, to B.You Fitness and I imagine, as the circus fitness craze grows, there with be more places to take classes, but it isn’t cheap anywhere. And if it is cheap, be wary: The equipment is expensive to buy and maintain, and teachers need years of training. The only way to make it cheap would be to cut corners that would make the endeavor dangerous.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s absolutely worth it. For 30 days, I took a class at Suspend almost daily. It was addictive and slightly intoxicating. The first time I hung upside down from the silks I felt a profound rightness with the universe that had been missing since I stopped climbing.

Since I had unlimited access to many of the classes (upper-level classes were off limits) I took everything I could. Juggling, acro-yoga, mediation, aerial yoga. I took a lot of fitness and training classes, which are intensive workouts using the circus apparatus for circuit training.

During my first class on the silks we learned a few simple techniques — how to wrap the silks around your body in various ways to keep from falling down. The basic classes are all very low to the ground, so even if I had fallen, I wouldn’t have been hurt. Throughout every class I took there was the utmost care and concern with safety.

There are so many holds and positions, and they all have evocative names: the crucifix, the meathooks, the man in the moon and the mermaid.

Some of the names hint at one of the truths of aerial work — it hurts. The silks will bite into you. You’ll get little bruises and abrasions if you keep training. But anyone who has done any kind of physical training knows there is pain involved.

A great lesson I took away was that physical accomplishments don’t exist in a binary state.

Take pull-ups for example.

I haven’t done a pull-up since god knows when, but I imagine the last time was in elementary school. I can do push-ups and sit-ups, but pull-ups were out reach. But, at one of the teacher’s suggestion, I started to go over to the pull-up bar before class to just hang there. Just hang and try to pull up. It felt ridiculous, and I’d be lying if I wasn’t ashamed of my complete inability to do a single pull up. But I did what I was told, and hung in there. Ahem. I hung in there. And amazingly, after a single week, I could do a pull-up. Just one, but I could do it. I had a similar experience with head stands, a skill I have always assumed was well beyond anything I could do.

As I learned new holds and positions, and my strength grew, I became more at ease with the apparatus. You come to trust the silks, you know the lyra will always be there. I also came to trust my classmates. As a former dancer, I’m used to picking people up, but trusting someone else to me pick me? In acro-yoga, a class where we learn lifts and holds to perform with partners and groups, we learned a lift called the candle stick. One partner is on their back, with their knees up, the other places themselves above the first in an almost handstand like position.

Now this was easy enough when I was on bottom. I can hold somebody in place. But the first time I tried to be the upside down person, my body flat out would not obey my commands to go upside down.

It took weeks to get to the place where I trusted my partners to take care of me.

In one of the last classes I took that month, we were finally asked to climb to the top of two different apparatus.

I’ll admit I couldn’t make it to the top of the silks that day — it’s a difficult climb. By the other apparatus, the rope — about as big around as my wrist — is made of coarser stuff and is a little easier to climb.

When I got to the top, my lungs burning, my arms aching, I secured my hold and looked around — what a difference a change in perspective can make.

I don’t want to escape my life. I love my life. But, in that first month and on that climb I was able to escape many fears that I believe people succumb to if they aren’t careful — the fear that they can’t do knew things, the fear that the joys of child-like exploration and play are beyond reach, the fear of trying and failing, the fear of placing personal safety in the hands of another.

From that vantage point, I found myself sharing the beliefs of Alford, and Miller and all the rest of the proponents of cirque life.

Circus makes the world a better place.

Escape, Even for a Minute

You probably can’t run away and join the circus. If you’re under 18, it’s hella illegal, and if you’re over 18, you’ve probably got shit to do.

But it’s easier than you ever thought to escape your life for just a minute, and it’s something everyone needs sometimes, even if you love your life.

Try on a bumbling character, and give the world the finger. Walk on glass or light yourself on fire. Climb a rope. Instead of complaining about how you have to juggle responsibilities, go actually learn to juggle.

Remember that even though you’re middle-aged and you may worry that all adventures have passed you by, it’s never too late to learn something new and radically different. It’s good for your brain, and it’s good for your soul.