Students Learn the Circus Arts at Unique Apprentice Program
By George McConnell
Both Elishia Besheair and Jason Guareadl, students in the teen apprentice program at San Francisco's Circus Center, say they like learning acrobatics, juggling and gymnastics, but the program isn't just about the circus, they say.
"I'm more flexible now and not as lazy. I have more self-control and I stop and listen to suggestions," Besheair said.
During the day, the two apprentices are eighth graders at Herbert Hoover Middle School in the Sunset District. When their school day is finished, they take a bus to the Circus Center and study circus arts. Guareadl said he heard about the program from his friend Elishia. Since joining he says he is more energetic and recognizes he now has more potential.
"Our apprentice program teaches kids so much," said Jennie Johnson, the youths' instructor. "It's great for different body types and teaches them to trust their body. It helps expand their possibilities and know their capabilities. It teaches patience and perseverance, discipline and focus and gives them confidence and a sense of success. It's a proven medium for change. I've witnessed it."
Professional circus performers are in demand, Johnson said, and to recruit and educate younger students who have an interest in learning circus arts, the center started the program three years ago.
The idea was sparked by Peggy Ford, a director at the center. Johnson is a graduate of the center's Clown Conservatory, and she has worked professionally as a clown for four years. Because of her background and interest in working with children, she also heads the apprentice program, which is designed for students 13 to 20 years of age.
"Our program is dedicated to developing well-rounded students with skills in juggling, acrobatics, balancing, stilts and gymnastics," Johnson said. "We follow the school year and classes are held from four to six on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. It's totally free and we don't turn anyone away, but students must be prepared to commit to the program."
Originally called the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, the Circus Center began as a project of the Santa Cruz-based Pickle Family Circus in 1984. Sixteen students composed the first class. When the school hired master trainer Lu Yi, formerly a star performer and artistic director of China's Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe, to head the program a few years later, it soon grew both in size and professional status.
In 2000, the school purchased the Pickle Family Circus and changed its name to the Circus Center. The organization's productions now operate under the banner of the New Pickle Circus. During the holiday season, the group stages shows at the Cowell Theatre at Fort Mason, and every January it tours performing centers around the Bay Area.
The school started in a church on Potrero Hill, but now occupies the old Polytechnic High School gymnasium on Frederick Street, right across from Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park. Inside, there is one of the most comprehensive Chinese acrobatics training programs outside of China.
In addition to acrobatics, the school also teaches traditional circus arts, such as juggling, miming, trampoline and the flying trapeze. Six years ago, the center opened the Clown Conservatory. It is currently the only year-long circus clown-training program in the United States, and students learn traditional clowning skills, as well as how to create original clowning material.
Recently the conservatory inaugurated a course in clown therapy. The two-day workshop discusses how clowning can help people meet psychological and physical challenges with a sense of humor.
Johnson, who hails from Alaska, where she worked in theater arts, recently performed at the International Women's Clown Festival. In June, she will be appearing at a circus in Spain. Her specialities are acrobatics and hat tricks, and she said she likes taking big risks in her performances to get a meaningful emotional response from her audience.
"Connecting with the audience is the most important thing to remember when performing," she said.
People like the circus for two reasons, Johnson said.
"The circus reminds us of our possibilities and our limitations at the same time," she said.
According to Johnson, the most popular class in the apprentice program is the trampoline.
"Everyone loves flying through the air," she said.
For more information, call (415) 759-8123 or visit the Web site at www.circuscenter.org.