Dallas — The first time I see Fanny Kerwich is in the unassuming indoor soccer complex in Addison that hosts the Lone Star Circus studios. She is wearing a thin gray sweater, black fitted track pants, and Adidas Superstars. That label is fitting, considering the graceful woman is an eighth-generation circus performer.
We ascend the steep stairs of the larger studio for our interview, as circus lessons take place on the floor below us. Silky ropes of pink, green, and white cascade from the ceiling, and students of many ages twirl themselves in the fabric. A set of rings also hangs, and I learn that they are a particularly challenging circus component. In fact, I only see two people, Truett and Asaf, even approach them, and both are teachers.
Another striking thing is that the teachers and students of Lone Star Circus come and go, as many work stints with major circuses like Ringling Bros. They train here, they excel, they leave for one or two years, and they usually return in some capacity after a time. Isn’t it a trying time? Not exactly; it is the nature of the circus, and the family that begins there carries throughout a lifetime.
Those deep roots and the ever-present unity in circus carries into the group’s holiday show for 2015, entitled Zingari. The word is Italian for gypsies, and each act is loosely tied to the notion of harkening back to the roots of circus in the gypsy community.
“To me, [the idea for the holiday show] was to celebrate that freedom of now and the past, and to the future of circus and all of circus to be, to celebrate those moments,” Kerwich says. “And not only for us, but any other free spirit of momentum like that. That sense of freedom that you have in the circus, and the love for your audience.”
While all performers are bringing astounding talents to the stage for this show, the core group of Lone Star Circus and the performers based in Dallas have noteworthy acts for this production. With talents ranging from hula hoops to the Cyr wheel—a large ring only a few inches taller than the performer, in and around which they spin gracefully yet quickly—the Dallas-based performers in the show contribute even more diversity to the show.
Two staples of the show include the clown duo Slappy and Monday, performed by real-life spouses Tiffany Riley and Dick Monday, also known as the New York Goofs.
“I think Fanny and Tiff and I both came together at a time when we had an empty spot in our circus career,” Monday says. “We had all been traveling our whole lives, and we were all kind of in one space, Dallas, which isn’t exactly the circus mecca of the world. At least it wasn’t 10 years ago. It was nothing.”
The success of Lone Star Circus since it was incorporated in 2006 has as much to do with the acts as with the many backgrounds and varied experiences of the performers. Both Monday and Riley have extensive experience in large circuses in both America and abroad, and they find that Kerwich’s experience with different circus acts strengthens the voice of each individual act.
“I think also the fact that we collaborate,” Monday says. “In America, the circus clowns started gaining voice…probably not until the late ’60s. Clowns have always struggled to find a strong voice in America. We have found a voice in the past few years, and a very strong one. Fanny came from another environment, a European circus where the clown has always had a stronger voice, so that when we first met Fanny, we knew right away that we had a place where we could collaborate, where our voice would be heard. I think we all had a need: we wanted to do more circus in our life.”
The show is a mix of performers from around the world and here in Dallas. Much of the rehearsing is done at each performers’ home base, and the international performers converge for three rehearsals prior to the opening performance. Jesse Patterson, who performs the Hula-Hoops, described the period before they arrive as tough, but easier to envision and deliver when the entire team is assembled.
“Once the international performers come to town, we all have a night where we meet, and I think the show really comes together when the international performers get in,” Patterson says.
The chance to learn from talents from around the world is too good to pass up for many of the performers. Asaf Mor, who is performing with the Cyr wheel, says the chance to participate with international acts keeps him coming back to the show each year.
“It’s the reason I do it, why I want to be in the show,” Mor says. “These performers have not only experiences from around the world but stories to share, and they have truly international personalities. There’s something about them that’s different from everyday performers.”
Kerwich adds that the most successful students can be asked to be in the show when they are ready, and the holiday show is typically a “take off” point for those who will move on to national work in the near future. Patterson is one such student.
“Jess speaks to the testament of the school,” Riley says. “She learned here and then she took that energy and she continues to grow and get better, and we had the opportunity to watch her perform with our kids at the American Youth Circus Organization performance up in Massachusetts. They all did great, standing ovation, every person was on their feet. I think it’s because of the family we have here that allows people to go out and excel.”
Riley furthered that point, saying that circus cultivates responsible people with a duty to family.
“Circus is family,” Riley says. “It is about family. You can be raised in the circus, and kids that are raised in the circus come out with an amazing work ethic. They mostly speak at least a couple of languages. I think, for us, it’s creating that feeling right here.”
The uncertainty and lack of predictability in circus is one of the more terrifying aspects. With each act usually lasting five minutes or so and so much left to the moment, it takes a clear mind and an aim to see the fun and beauty in the act for it to be successful.
“It’s really about the performer,” Kerwich says. “It’s not about the story. It’s about them, and what they have to bring to that stage. We’re going to embrace that this year, because we have a lot of circus family, we are circus family, and I want to say thank you, for all the others like us. It is a struggle. We have to…not fight, but we have to keep it alive. We are not the first ones, and I want to celebrate the other ones who keep it alive.”
The show is performed at the Rosewood Center for Family Arts, home of the Dallas Children’s Theater. Kerwich says that the experience will be very personable for guests; before the show, there will be different equipment for guests to try out, while performers will be on hand for autographs and to answer questions after the show.
“It’s basically having a circus star perform in your living room,” Kerwich says. “It’s just like a concentration of superstars in one theater.”
Kerwich noted that the group receives compliments of being as good or better than the Big Apple Circus of New York City. Monday noted that that group has a pre-production budget that is more than 10 times the entire budget of Lone Star Circus. These facts serve as a testament to the talent and prowess of this Dallas-based group, and perhaps a growing circus scene in this arts-centric city.
“It’s a true challenge every year, and we can’t fail because we bring it every year to such a level,” Kerwich says. “The true passion of circus is what we share.”
The other acts of Zingari!, which runs through Sunday, are Duo Resonance (hand balancing and aerial hoop, USA/Russia); Sebastian and Rejean (juggling, USA/Canada); Mayya Panfilova and her trained house cats (Russia); Dallas native Stephanie Stewart (Corde Lisse, USA); The Anton Brothers (Risley acrobatics, Argentina); Kirill Rebkovets (rolla-bolla, Russia); and Zaya and Mendee (straps and contortion, Mongolia).