A small parking lot went up in flames. Amid the blaze, belly dancers shook and unicyclist jugglers filled the air with the sounds of parade drums and trombone squawks.
Members of New Haven’s circus community came together Monday night in an empty lot on Water Street for a “circus happening,” an evening of fire-eating, fire-spinning, juggling, and unicycling. The event, spurred in part by a sudden city-wide unicycling craze, was the result of a recent surge in circus performer cooperation in New Haven. Fire-eaters, stilt-walkers, jugglers, and belly-dancers are starting to find each other and are getting organized.
Press the play arrow below to see some fiery footage.
The circus happening was not so much a performance as a street party, with everyone sharing their circus skills with each other. The small graffiti-lined lot next to High School in the Community was lit up at various points by bursts of flame as Jake Weinstein, a long-time New Haven circus performer and educator, as he got a lesson on breathing fire from Mara, a hair stylist who asked that her last name not be used.
“My fire skills are very rudimentary,” said Weinstein early in the evening. Later he lowered a flaming stick into his mouth (carefully avoiding his big bushy beard), removed it, and then exhaled flame to ignite a second stick. He looked to Mara for approval, “Was that right?” Mara offered a few tips on how to make the trick more dramatic.
Click the arrows to see more images.
Mara said that she’s been working with fire for about a year, beginning “in the midst of my midlife crisis.” She gets a charge out of working with dangerous, flaming objects. “You know, there’s not a lot of things you can do in life that give you that adrenaline rush…that are legal,” she said.
The evening also included spinning flaming staffs and poi, in which balls of flame attached to chains are whirled about. Alia Bartlett of Willimantic – also known by her belly-dancing name, Shajara -performed a slow twirling fire staff dance while perched on top of homemade eight-inch platform shoes. She was also wearing a powder blue ringmaster’s coat and a belt of glowing LED pom-poms.
Meanwhile glowing juggling clubs flew through the air, unicyclists darted around, and an impromptu band performed, armed with various horns and a number of hand drums. At one point they managed a passable version of the Mexican Hat Dance song.
The Ring Masters
Polly Sonic (a fire dancer and former Iron Angel who still uses her roller derby name) explained that Monday’s circus happening was the result of the meeting up of previously divided circus enthusiasts. “Everybody’s been doing stuff individually,” Polly said. “It’s all here and people just haven’t come together to share their freaky skills.” She said that a group of about ten circus people held a meeting a few weeks ago and decided to put together a circus night.
Polly works as an assistant teacher in a circus class at the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven. The class is also taught by Jake Weinstein, who arrived at the circus happening last night by bike, pulling a trailer carrying a pair of stilts, a trombone, a unicycle, juggling clubs, and some fire-eating equipment. Weinstein also works with a children’s circus in Middletown and with a community circus in New Haven. (The New Haven community circus is open to all and meets on Sundays at 5 p.m. in Edgewood park near the corner of West Rock and Whalley.)
Another major player is in the circus scene is David Streever, the founder of Elm City Unicycling. He’s almost singlehandedly responsible for the burgeoning unicycle mania in New Haven.
“I always wanted to unicycle,” Streever said. In January he got his chance when he saw an ad on Craigslist advertising six unicycles for sale. Already an avid cyclist, Streever recruited five other people from the monthly Critical Mass ride and the group of six started unicycling together.
Four months and 25 more members later, the group meets twice a week to practice and ride around town. Streever says that he uses a unicycle for commuting and for picking up groceries and that he’s gone out for rides of up to ten miles at a time.
Streever is organizing a unicycle act as part of the upcoming Arts and Ideas Festival. The details are not yet clear, he said, but it will involve six to 12 unicyclists in a performance piece of some kind.
“It’s a great sensation to ride,” said Streever.
Apparently there are a lot of New Haveners that agree with Streever. Contacted by phone on Tuesday morning, Matt Feiner of the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop said that unicycles have been jumping off the shelves. “It’s crazy, it really is,” he said. “We’ve been selling about four or five a week for the last six weeks.” Asked to speculate about the reasons for the recent unicycle mania, Feiner replied, “Fun. Just fun.”