Circus City: The Emergence of Circus Culture in New Orleans

We’ve all heard about the circus. Some people dream of running away with them to lead a life of performance and entertainment. Some people want to watch the huge and dangerous animals be tamed by masterful trainers. And even other people are thrilled by the death-defying high-wire and trapeze acts. Whatever your impression of the circus is, you should note that it doesn’t just take place under a big top that travels the nation by train and it doesn’t just occur in Las Vegas theaters. It happens right here in your city in bars, hotels and even in vacant warehouses. Circus is an art that is coming back as a competitive form of entertainment in this saturated city of sights, sounds, scents and colorful everyday life. When’s the last time you went to see the circus?

Firstly, we’ve got to define a few terms so that you know precisely what’s going on. Circus, burlesque, cabaret, vaudeville … they are their own art forms. One of the most prolific circus performers and producers around town made sure to clear up any confusion about them. LadyBEAST explained, “There’s a differentiation between them: there’s sideshow, there’s burlesque, there’s circus. And for something to be considered circus, you have to have four things: acrobatics, object manipulation, balancing acts and clowning. Cabaret is more of a variety act from the World Wars to provide entertainment to soldiers and the general population.”

So I know you’re thinking that LadyBEAST must have run away to clown college to learn so much about this specialized performance art. But her road to the big top arts was her escape from the fine arts. “I was actually a visual artist and did performance art and installations. I did things like scenes and scenarios and would have myself or models interact with people in white wall galleries in London. I left the fine art world because I felt that it was really pretentious. I toured the U.S. doing group performance art and installations. Then I found New Orleans and started to hone in on street performing. Street performing turned into circus because I did fire tricks and different movement pieces. Then I went to get properly trained on the West Coast at the Lookout Arts Quarry, which is a sustainable farm artist residency space that is circus-based. That was amazing, and I met one of my mentors, Vaughn Avery, who is a retired escape artist, and he trained me in seven of Houdini’s top 10 tricks.”

ladybeast circus
Credit: Emily Hingle

LadyBEAST, along with other people from around the world interested in circus arts, have ventured down to New Orleans where they could not only practice and refine their craft with like-minded people, they could hone their skills in the public’s eye; they could do street performance. LadyBEAST discussed her foray into the New Orleans performance scene. “I was doing a lot of street performing in 2011 and thinking about my life as a circus artist. There weren’t very many circus artists, but there were a lot of variety artists. We did Vaude D’Gras starting in 2013, and it went really well. I worked with a lot of people on the west coast and invited them to come here, and some other artists moved here independently.”

The circus performers of New Orleans can’t just stay in this town. Much like the circuses of old, they travel to where the work is, although they do call this city their hometown. One incredibly skilled performer named The Lady Satine is currently traveling on the open ocean, dazzling cruise ship passengers with her unmatched aerial skills. Her preferred instruments are the Chinese poles and swinging poles, but she’s also versed in acrobatics and other classic circus arts.

Another notable local circus performer is Nick Williams, who hails from the North but is currently stunning New Orleanians with his classically trained, operatic vocal stylings and daredevil tricks. Don’t be surprised when you hear him belt out a few Italian classics while walking and jumping atop shards of broken glass.

LadyBEAST explained how it is to be a part of this fascinating emerging entertainment culture. “I would say that the people that come here that aren’t totally enthralled with the city itself and how it works and operates, they don’t stick around long. We’re in the South—things move slower, people are late. Everyone I know that I work with here have moved here or are continuing to move here to be a part of the movement of contemporary circus. We all help each other. Circus isn’t an individualized craft. We’re contemporary artists, but we operate here in the familial circus way.“

The circus folk here won’t cease to amaze you when you find them. When Moxy Hotel opened in the summer of 2016, they staffed their grand opening party with stilt walkers, burlesque dancers, angel grinders and so much more. Circus acts can be witnessed as you eat some pasta at Arabella Casa Di Pasta or while having a cheap shot at St. Roch Tavern. The newest regular show that you can see takes place at One Eyed Jacks: the LadyBEAST Cabaret is truly a feast for the eyes. “We all started making different productions around the city in unusual spaces that aren’t actual venues, to now working with One Eyed Jacks who’s offered us legitimacy with circus. One Eyed Jacks came to me almost a year ago and said they wanted to be the first circus venue in the Quarter. They’ve worked with me on making that happen and allowed us to elevate our craft in the city and provide a regular place for people to see a circus show.”

But don’t expect this to be the crest of the circus wave. There’s so much more in store for you. “Right now, I have five or six different productions in the works. My dream long-term is to do a program for free for kids in New Orleans to teach them circus arts and street performance. It’s very valuable for children; it builds their brain in a different way.”

See you at the circus!

 

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