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A Verbal History of Cirque in Seattle

In preparation for The 7 Fingers' Passengers, vaulting onto the Bagley Wright Theater stage Sept. 22 – Oct. 15, 2023, we sat down with Rachel Nehmer—Program Director of Seattle’s School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) and one half of the trapeze act Duo Madrona—to get a sense of the history of cirque performance in Seattle. 

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Méliejade Tremblay-Bouchard, Marco Ingaramo, and Santiago Rivera Laugerud in Passengers. Photo by Martine Poulin.

Seattle Rep: How did you get involved in cirque performance? 

Rachel Nehmer: At age 11, I attended a summer camp, French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts in Hancock, NY. Before that I had participated in my school theater program as well as a children’s troupe at a regional theater, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. I was in a few plays at French Woods Festival… but mostly I got swept away by the circus program! I went to French Woods for seven summers as a camper and then a counselor. It changed my life. I did make an honest effort to go down a “normal” path, earning my B.S. in biology at Haverford College and taking a research job at the University of Washington, but I couldn’t stay away from the circus for long. I joined Lara Paxton’s troupe the Aerialistas in 2004. I started working with my now-husband, Ben Wendel, shortly thereafter. We created a trapeze duet called Duo Madrona, performed it for the first time at the 2005 Moisture Festival, and I’ve been a circus artist ever since. 

SR: How do you approach movement as storytelling? How do you see the relationship between cirque and theater? 

RN: I think circus movement offers some really special tools for storytelling. The varied disciplines in circus (i.e. juggling, hula hoops, partner acrobatics, aerial arts, etc.) can serve different specific purposes in a theatrical setting, as each modality has its unique qualities and can cater to different types of characters. Further, circus really lends itself to creating moments that are elevated—the surreal, poetic, absurd, magical. That type of quality can be more difficult to create with traditional text or staging. And of course, theatrical conceits definitely help imbue circus acts with meaning.

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Duo Madrona performing with Teatro ZinZanni in 2019. Photo by Filling the Frame Photography. 

SR: Cirque is a new venture for Seattle Rep, but certainly not for our city. Could you tell us more about the history of this type of performance in Seattle? 

RN: I’ve been part of the community here for almost 20 years, so I can speak to my own experience. When I moved out here in 2004, I was eager to connect to the circus community, so I googled “circus classes.” Lara Paxton’s name was the first result. At that time, she was teaching out of the Sand Point Hangar space that also served as the rehearsal studio for her troupe, Circus Contraption.

Circus Contraption was founded by Lara Paxton and David Crellin in 1998, a group of 17 or so left-handed artists who left their mark on the circus scene nationally with their deeply creative blend of live music, throwback imagery, and dark comedy. She and the Contraption crew were out on tour, so that summer a group of Lara’s students were gathering to practice at a new circus space —the first location of SANCA (where currently I am Program Director). SANCA was founded in 2004 by Chuck Johnson and Jo Montgomery with the goal of making the joy of circus arts accessible to all. They started with five students in a tiny warehouse, and SANCA has now grown to three locations with hundreds of students!

Later that year, I joined Lara’s spinoff project, the Aerialistas, and began performing around town, including at the Moisture Festival, one of the largest comedy/variety arts festivals in the world that is held in Seattle annually. It was born of the roots of Oregon Country Fair folks who traveled to Europe and wanted to bring the “variety” type of show back to Seattle. It was amazing to be there in 2005 with the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Du Caniveaux, the Umo Ensemble, Baby Gramps, Godfrey Daniels—all these local legends, such cool and wacky folks doing their specialized schtick. Circus has always been entwined with variety and this was no exception. The Moisture Festival is still going strong, presenting affordable, high-energy shows for the community, drawing from a national pool of artists.  

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Duo Madrona performing in our first show with Teatro ZinZanni in 2009. Photo by Michael Doucett.

Meanwhile, as SANCA grew, professional artists began showing up from another legendary local show—Teatro ZinZanni. Formed in 1998 by One Reel (the company that produced Bumbershoot and many other arts festivals and events in the region), Teatro ZinZanni is a dinner show combining cuisine, comedy, music, and world-class circus. They are about to enter their 25th anniversary season and I am personally so honored to have been a cast member in various shows for the past 15 years. 

These experiences are just a snapshot of my involvement in the Seattle circus scene with descriptions of some of the major players—of course, many other groups have been creating and performing as part of the vibrant circus community we are lucky enough to have in our city.  

SR: How can audiences support local cirque performers or get involved themselves? Is there anything else you want our audiences to know? 

RN: Audiences can support circus artists by coming out to see shows! As I mentioned, Teatro ZinZanni is opening a new show on October 12 in a cool new location at the Lotte Hotel downtown. Emerald City Trapeze Arts will be presenting Carnevolar, a flying trapeze and circus show, in collaboration with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra Oct. 20–21 and 27–28. Local contemporary circus company Acrobatic Conundrum (with which I have also had the pleasure of collaborating over the years) is in residency at SANCA creating a new show based on the poetry of Rumi to be debuted at 12th Ave Arts in February. 

To participate, you can come take classes at SANCA or Emerald City Trapeze Arts. We have classes in all different circus disciplines for young kids through adults. There are more in-depth six-week sessions, or single-serving classes to drop in and try it out! 

See Seattle Rep’s contribution to the local cirque scene with The 7 Fingers’ Passengers, playing Sept. 22 – Oct. 15, 2023.