On a recent Saturday, Zavier Pike picks up a pair of devil sticks. The teenager tosses the baton back and forth. He flings it behind his back, and then he passes it under his leg. Each time, he catches the baton with ease. Finally, he flips the tasseled stick forward, so it looks like a spinning wheel.
“There we go,” says Brian Foley, watching from the edge of the tumbling mat. “Haven’t seen that move in a while.”
Foley is an athletically built man with a shaved head and a peppy smile, thanks to his 26 years as a professional clown, and he is the lead instructor at the Circus School of Arizona in north Scottsdale. True to its name, the school teaches its pupils in the essentials of circus performance: aerials, acrobatics, clowning, and “equilibristics,” or balancing acts.
“The first thing we need to teach the kids is a foundational skill,” said Foley. “You can’t have an act unless you can do something.”
Pike is a skinny adolescent with long hair and a quiet, pensive demeanor. He's joined by two other prospective performers, his young sister Shynalla and an agile acrobat named Deborah White. But these kids aren’t visiting the school just for lessons. They're auditioning for the brand-new Youth Troupe, which will develop a touring production. For the past few weeks, Foley has been busy assembling the troupe’s teenage cast. This fall, the Circus School will perform in a range of local venues, from high schools to arts centers, and spread the joys of circus.
“We’re not going to be performing in a ring,” Foley says. “We’re not going to be performing in a tent. But we want to get young people together to create something that’s beautiful, that’s amazing, that’s powerful, that’s artful, that’s physical, and show the value of what we can make when we’re together.”
The school was founded in 2007 by Rachel Stegman, a Scottsdale native and veteran aerialist. Stegman was 22 when she decided to learn the trapeze, and she headed to the San Francisco School of Circus Arts to train. Many of her own school’s alumni have gone on to big-name circuses, including Cirque du Soleil.
“We have something for pretty much all ages and abilities,” Stegman says. “It’s such a mixture of performance, physical activity, balance, and strength. It has this mystique. There’s a superhero feel to it.”
Instead of a big top, the Circus School is headquartered in a vast warehouse space. The floors are covered with mats and the ceilings are festooned with ropes and rings. Shelves are stocked with exercise balls and hula hoops, and one wall is covered in mirrors. The place looks like a cross between a dance studio, a gymnastics class, and a climbing gym. During the summer, the Circus School hosts a very busy summer camp. Most of the curriculum is geared toward children and teens, but some courses are available for adults, such as the “Aerial Asana Yoga” class, which takes warrior poses to new heights.
Stegman has conscripted several seasoned performers to teach at the school: Merle Harlan has taught gymnastics for 25 years, and Jens Larson performed with the Big Apple Circus and other outfits before moving to Arizona to teach youth gymnastics. Foley himself is an instructor at Arizona State University and has worked as a professional clown around the world, including several stints in Shanghai.
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Foley is funny and energetic, but he’s also passionate about his craft. To Foley, the Youth Troupe is more than a zany after-school program. He wants kids to cultivate their abilities and embrace their diverse backgrounds.
“One of the things that Phoenix needs is a circus that has a social-justice component,” Foley says. “When you’re working on an aerial act or a juggling act, you just want to get better and better. You don’t have time to pick up a deadly weapon. You don’t have time to worry about how my beliefs are different from yours.”
For about two hours, Pike quietly climbs ropes, walked a balance beam, and tossed a diabolo – the wooden spool that performers toss from a string. Every few minutes, Foley teaches him another trick, like how to toss the diabolo behind his back.
“Good!” Foley says. The young auditioner smiles shyly. “All right,” Foley says, sliding the diabolo along its string. “Let’s try something new.”