October 23, 2018

Learning to juggle life skills through Circus Arts

Watching spunky Kaia Susman, 9, stretching her legs in a wide straddle and then bending forward until her body was completely flat on the floor conjures images of a super-stretchy Gumby toy. 

“It’s more fun than pain,” Kaia said during a recent training session at Kinetic Theory Circus Arts in Culver City. “My coach tells us not to do it for our friends outside the studio because it’s not something that you can just do. We take a lot of time stretching and building up to the positions — it’s not about just being flexible.”  

At Kinetic Theory, housed inside a 10,000-square-foot warehouse with 25-foot-high ceilings, students ages 4 to 64 have found it to be a popular mix of exercise, theater and circus. They routinely learn the skills behind juggling, clowning, stilt-walking, performing contortion and hanging from the ceiling on yards of silk fabric. 

“If you don’t like to exercise, you might like circus because it doesn’t feel like it’s exercise,” explained founder Stephanie Abrams. “It’s fun, and our bodies need it, as we are sitting around too much. We need to move to stay healthy. Most of our students come to class for the benefits of the fitness aspect of the training.” 

Abrams, 36, is diminutive in stature but not in nature. She stressed that circus training doesn’t give you the perfect body, if there is such a thing. Every discipline has a different body type. For example, there needs to be a certain percentage of body fat to be a contortionist so that there isn’t tearing during stretching; an aerialist needs to build up the shoulders and arms; and a wider, more solid body type is needed for partner acrobatics. 

The granddaughter of Orthodox Holocaust survivors from Poland, Abrams got her start in gymnastics in South Florida at the age of 4. Watching a performance of Cirque du Soleil, with its combination of theater and acrobatics, changed her life and set her on a similar course. She started doing mime and physical theater in high school, then went to the University of Texas. At 19, after one semester, Abrams decided college wasn’t for her. 

“When I told my dad that I found a circus school and was moving to San Francisco, it didn’t go over really well,” she said. 

Her father, a biomedical engineer with a doctorate, envisioned her getting a college degree in whatever field she wanted — anything but circus. Now, though, she said, he is very involved in Kinetic Theory and incredibly proud of her accomplishments. 

While studying at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts (now called the Circus Center) for three years, she trained with performers from the Pickle Family Circus. That circus group formed in 1974, veering away from the spectacle of using animals and the three-ring format in favor of a dance-like realm full of juggling, clowning, acrobatics and aerials. In the early ’80s, Abrams worked with Make A Circus, a now-defunct nonprofit group that ran free community, outdoor, hands-on workshops in physical theater, and she became a professional contortionist in 1998.

Maintaining San Francisco as her home base, she started Kinetic Theory Experimental Theatre in 2000 as an ensemble combining, mime, physical theater, acrobatics and dance. 

“We were a movement theater company, and all of our shows were experiments,” she said. “I played up the science theme. … Instead of rehearsals, we called them labs.

“The real scientific kinetic theory refers to the movement of particles in gases, but I liked the idea of using a term that refers to the movement relationship of particles. … That’s how I got the name.” 

Moving to Los Angeles in 2006, Abrams expanded and renamed the business. It now houses a professional theater company, experimental theater and a circus/theater training program.  

Most of the classes and summer circus camps combine gymnastics and theater, attracting children and adults who want to try something different. Melissa Susman of Venice has two daughters taking classes.

“It’s an ideal combination of physical strength and creativity, and while it’s similar to gymnastics in terms of the skills that you need to acquire for the acrobatics, it doesn’t have that competitive aspect that gymnastics has or the rigidity for a young child,” she said. “It’s an ideal sport that’s not just exercise, as it has given them a context to thrive emotionally and spiritually in a nourishing environment. ” 

There are some students who aspire to become professionals, and Kinetic Theory has a more competitive arm of the school that involves pre-professional training. 

“Being a professional is a different life than it used to be, living out of a steamer trunk and working for Ringling Bros.,” Abrams said. “Cirque du Soleil is an option, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of your career. There are other choices, but it’s a narrow spectrum. 

“There are nightclubs, cruise ships and even Broadway plays, like ‘Pippin,’ that have aerialists. And then another option is to work for smaller troupes or parties, corporate events and character walk-arounds,” she said. “We try to inform students about all the different opportunities, as it’s hard and grueling to be on tour. … Life in circus is intense.” 

While Abrams’ dream of making it onto a Cirque du Soleil stage never happened, she has managed to take her passion for the circus arts and inspire others.

“Every kid that I have worked with for 15 years or so now, even if they don’t pursue it as a career, they are more confident, they know who they are, they are social, more accepting of other people,” she said. “If you grow up with circus, there is a bond between circus people, no matter where in the world you are.”