Aerialist Kaelyn Schmitt plans to ignite the circus arts scene in Victoria.
I PLUG THE METER ON HERALD STREET and head into the Union Pacific. Winding my way past the people and pastries I spot a young blonde woman who must be Kaelyn Schmitt, sitting quietly with her latte. The only giveaway of her profession—aerialist, acrobat, and founder of Ignio Circus Company—is her unusually strong-looking shoulders. I wonder if anyone else in the cafe realizes she’s capable of amazing feats—flipping, contorting, and suspending herself by one foot from a trapeze, flying through the air.
Like Elastigirl from The Incredibles, Schmitt looks like a regular person, but has hidden superpowers. She spends six months of each year in Europe, performing at hundreds of shows for rapt audiences. But her goal is to base her personal and creative life in her beloved hometown, and help establish Victoria as a centre for circus arts.
Kaelyn Schmitt (Photo by Warren Zelman)
Growing up, Schmitt didn’t dream of running away and joining the circus, but that’s how it turned out. All four kids in her family were extremely athletic; she started competing as a gymnast at age 10, training exhaustively and travelling far and wide. “Like any kid, I wanted to go to the Olympics,” she recalls. “At 14, I started to realize I wouldn’t be going.” The repetitive requirements to perfect the same moves wore her out. “I loved gymnastics,” she says, “but I just wanted to keep learning acrobatics, new tricks. That’s not the way it works—you do your routine.”
When Schmitt “retired” in grade 11, she went from “25 hours a week of training, to ‘what do I do with myself now?’” Like most teens, she partied on the weekends and got into trouble here and there. To stay active, she played rugby, and started working as a gymnastics coach. She found out about circus school in grade 12, and something clicked. She would train, audition, and get accepted into a class of 30 students at the intensive, three-year circus college École Nationale de Cirque (ENC) in Montreal.
Since graduating from ENC, Schmitt has performed as a professional trapeze artist for 10 years in 27 countries. Though it’s been exciting and rewarding, she yearns to put down roots and be closer to her family here. At 29, she also knows she’s got about five years left of doing daily shows on a trapeze for months on end “or I won’t be able to walk when I’m 50.”
To make her living here, though, she must create a professional context for herself. Not a lot exists in Victoria, as far as contemporary circus goes. “There’s Cirque du Soleil every year or two years, but not a lot of professional shows for people to see,” Schmitt observes. Contemporary circus, in her view, is a mix of dance, acting, and acrobatics, offering opportunities for myriad artistic collaborations and thought-provoking social commentary. “I think it’s extraordinary, and I want to share it and make it more accessible on Vancouver Island.”
Schmitt was behind the scenes of the launching of two brand-new circus schools here. Island Circus Space (ICS) at 625 Hillside, which she co-founded with performers Jake West, Lisa Eckert, and Coral Crawford, offers classes for students aged 6 through adult, and aims “to build a contemporary circus infrastructure for Victoria.” Because of her overseas commitments, Schmitt advises and teaches at ICS, but can’t be consistently present for all the practical aspects of running the business. She is grateful to Eckert and Crawford, “talented, hardworking women, who did incredible job of setting up a beautiful space.”
Then there’s the Victoria Centre for Circus Arts (“The Rising”) at 1047 Langford Parkway, offering classes for everyone from toddler to adult. It was founded by Sarah Scheunhage, who shares Schmitt’s passion to bring circus arts to her hometown after performing worldwide.
“It’s super exciting,” Schmitt enthuses. “Now there’s two places in town for people to learn…and we can grow that community. Both are excellent schools, with excellent teachers. They’re really well-set-up, safe environments, very professional.”
Last winter in Berlin, stationed as a performer and artistic supervisor of a long-running show, Schmitt saw a performance at a theatre she’d once performed in. “I wasn’t impressed,” she says, “but before I can talk down someone else’s work, I should try it myself—do a whole show. So I thought, ‘Let’s bring circus to Victoria, let’s build a circus community here in Victoria. I can perform, and also build the [production, direction and management] skills at the same time, to be ready for when I can’t perform anymore.”
Schmitt founded her brand-new production company, Ignio Circus, to create cutting-edge, contemporary local circus shows. In early July, Ignio (Latin for “ignite”) is offering their first production, “Eyes Up,” examining smart-phone culture and how we connect with each other. International performers are being brought in to join Schmitt and other local artists and musicians. “Often we use technology as a vehicle for communication, but when we take it away…there is awkwardness and beauty,” she explains. “Each of us has an inner desire to connect…it’s becoming a lost art, face-to-face interactions. ‘Eyes Up’ is exploring what it is to be human, what it is to communicate with technology, and without it.”
Working with youth, Schmitt has found that circus arts provide powerful healing for many emotional issues. “Circus is physically denying what you think is possible,” she says. “Everyone has similar potential from birth to do something physically extraordinary. Circus is a neat little reminder to push the limits of what you’re capable of.” Some of the troubled or disabled kids she’s coached “couldn’t catch a beanbag, and had been written off by society.” Soon, though, they learned to juggle, even though “they thought they were never going to accomplish anything physically.” While they had a slower learning curve, it was “profoundly humbling to witness them progress, to see how much confidence and enjoyment they had learning. Circus is a powerful tool.”
On Saturday, August 11 at 7:30pm, Ignio Circus is staging “The Open Hearts Gala” at the Metro Theatre to support NEED2, a Victoria nonprofit providing live online chat and in-person suicide prevention support every day through counselling, workshops, and education to youth in grades 8-12. The evening will showcase international circus professionals along with new local talent, offering an “awe-inspiring evening” of acrobatics, magic, comedy, music, and dance. All proceeds benefit NEED2 Suicide Prevention Education and Support. All-ages tickets are $25 and available at www.ticketrocket.com beginning July 3.
In 2004, performance artist Mollie Kaye relocated to Victoria. As the then-mother of two young children, she was disappointed there wasn’t a circus school here. She is delighted this is now being remedied.