Circus arts course shows students the ropes

Abbie Vansickle

For young and old, the circus provides an escape – a colorful, brilliant attack on the senses, defying the mundane reality of life outside the three rings. But for Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, the circus is not a land of fantasy. It’s home.

The circus is in her blood, Hernandez-DiStasi said. Like many circus performers, she comes from a long line of acrobats, jugglers and stunt artists. From age 7, when she first entered the ring, it was clear to Hernandez-DiStasi that the circus was where she wanted to be. The only daughter in a family of acrobats, her place was at the top of each pyramid and at the highest spot in the air for each stunt. She loved it.

“The circus was my playground,” she said. “Every little girl wants to be the one on the trapeze. (The circus) is kind of its own little world.”

But like gymnastics and other professions requiring high levels of flexibility, the act could not go on forever. Twenty-five years after she first entered the ring, Hernandez-DiStasi retired in 1990 from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and began to look for other career opportunities.

Schooled at home and with little other formal education, she realized her options were somewhat limited. So she decided to settle in Chicago and look for work in the theater industry, a move that brought her in contact with the Lookingglass Theatre, an award-winning theater company that emphasizes body movement in performance.

At Lookingglass, Hernandez-DiStasi once again flexed her acrobatic talents, integrating the skills she learned in the circus with the world of theater. It was also here where she met her future husband, Lawrence DiStasi, Speech ’88, a founding member of the Lookingglass. Together, along with DePaul University instructor and theater critic Tony Adler, they came up with a new vision for the Chicago theater world – a school that would serve as a training ground for actors interested in bringing the physical intensity of the circus and gymnastics to the stage.

Their dream became a reality in the fall of 1995, when they secured a space in Evanston at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. There, in a glassed-in room filled with gymnastics mats, unicycles, trapeze and bright-colored streamers, Hernandez-DiStasi and her staff began teaching classes in topics ranging from clowning to stage combat. Since that time, the number of classes offered has grown to 22, including a for-credit introduction to circus arts class for Northwestern students.

Medill sophomore Francey Grund is one of the students enrolled in Hernandez-DiStasi’s class this quarter. Unlike many students in the class, Grund is hardly a circus novice. A former gymnast and longtime member of Circus Smirkus, a New England-based, nonprofit, international youth circus, she is experienced in aerial acts and bareback horseback riding. Grund said the class gives her a good opportunity to hone her technique.

“Sylvia teaches the basics, but just being able to practice two times a week is great,” Grund said. “I used to be a gymnast and the cross-over rate between gymnastics and the circus is really high. I love the circus. You get to travel and perform without the competitive atmosphere of gymnastics.”

Grund said the class also is a good opportunity to gain knowledge about a wide variety of tricks and apparatuses, including trapeze, juggling, unicycling, stilting and Spanish web, a soft rope used in aerial acts. Grund said she hopes to put these skills to use after graduation.

“I’m looking into going to a circus school in Australia,” she said. “I would love to tour professionally for a few years.”

Though not everyone in the class plans to join the circus, other class members said the training they receive at the Actor’s Gymnasium has taught them some important life lessons.

“I’ve realized that supporting other people is really important,” Speech junior Liz Lytle said. “Everyone has their strengths. Nobody completely just rules everything in the circus.”

In addition, Lytle said the practical skills learned in the class could be useful in her future profession.

“I’m always telling my parents I’m going to run away to the circus,” she said. “But I’m actually thinking about being a stunt double in Hollywood.”

Hernandez-DiStasi said it is the wide variety of students and interests that makes the Actor’s Gym such a unique place. More than 300 students typically enroll in each of the gym’s four annual sessions. With classes offered for all ages, from toddler to senior citizen, the gym caters to all experience levels.

“I do a lot of choreography and theater in Chicago, and the gym is all-serving for me because it exposes me to a lot of different people,” she said. “For instance, we just had an 89-year-old man start taking classes here because he’s always wanted to learn juggling.”