Women’s Circus Troupe Aloft Creates ‘Brave Space’

Aloft comes to Santa Cruz on Wednesday, June 19

The eight person circus group relies on audience participation in their circus show. PHOTO: MICHELLE REID

Aloft circus group never intended to be an all-female and non-binary troupe. That’s just the way it happened. “It just felt right to us,” Aloft artistic director Shayna Swanson says. “It came through the process. It wasn’t an advance decision.”

But Swanson admits that since the group itself is pretty feminist, the gender breakdown isn’t really a surprise.

“In some circus acts, the men are strong and the women are pining after him and things like that,” she says. “These very stereotypical plays between men and women in circuses are frequently represented, and it’s so boring. I’m so tired of it.”

A contemporary do-it-yourself circus group based in Chicago, Aloft is visiting Santa Cruz next week to perform their Brave Space show incorporating aerial arts, hoops and silks, and acrobatics.

This summer seems to be the time of the circus in Santa Cruz. With the Venardos Circus just wrapped up in San Lorenzo Park, and Flynn Creek Circus visiting Scotts Valley next month, Santa Cruz is being been overrun by big tops. But Swanson wants to be clear that their circus is no Ringling Brothers—while there are some traditional acts, there is also much more beyond old-school entertainment. The show’s title is a twist on the idea of “safe space.”

“People, especially white people and people with a lot of privilege, can use this term ‘safe space’ to shield themselves from any responsibility,” Swanson says. “Anytime you bring up a controversy or something that they have done wrong, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh this is supposed to be a safe space, I’m not supposed to be challenged here.’ And so we are encouraging people to embrace the term “brave space” to mean that each person should be brave enough to take responsibility for their own actions.”

With a cast of only eight, the show will be intimate, tactile and interactive—meaning the majority of the audience will be participating. The audience helps to build a blanket fort akin to that of a kids’ rainbow playground parachute activity: everyone holds the edges of the large tarp and run under as they lift. The show takes place under the self-made tent, a tiny world where anything can happen. Built on trust, the idea is that the performers and audience members will coexist and rely on each other as strangers to ask for help and be willing to lend a hand.

“The things that we do in the circus can be used metaphorically in the real world to encourage people to be more brave in their daily lives, and to put themselves on the line for members of other marginalized communities,” Swanson says. “To actually look outside yourself at people around you that need help, and to help them or to ask for help if you need it.”

Attendees will have some idea of what they will be doing in advance, the cast makes abundantly clear. They can accommodate people that do not wish to participate and folks with accessibility issues, since there is a lot of movement required of the audience.

“We trust complete strangers with our safety in a really physical way. We have strangers hold our equipment in the air for us when we perform,” Swanson says. “These are people we do not know, but we have decided to operate under this idea that people generally have the best intentions at heart. We want to let people know what it’s like to be trusted, because we don’t always have that in this world.”

‘Brave Space’ will be in Santa Cruz for one night only at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 19. Radical Movement Factory, 2801 Mission St. Ext, Santa Cruz. $25/$35.

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