Cheap tricks

By HermineBloom

Three rings are nowhere to be found in El Circo Cheapo’s industrial loft on the Northwest Side of Chicago at 2041 W. Carroll Ave. But a myriad of professional circus acts like Russian trapeze artists clad in sequined costumes and clowns who balance coat racks on their red noses perform for a mere $10 ticket in between ringmaster Carmen Esposito’s stand-up comedy routine.

Families, 20-somethings, out-of-towners and the like have snatched up tickets to the poor man’s Cirque du Soleil, or El Circo Cheapo, selling out each show, which has occurred on the first Saturday of every month since November 2009. Unlike the big, traveling circuses such as Barnum and Bailey or Cirque du Soleil, Chicago-based El Circo Cheapo’s space in one of the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago’s lofts, has a 90-person capacity, which the performers find valuable. The INC is a non-profit organization committed to rebuilding communities.

“It’s harder to relate to the performers in bigger circuses,” said Shayna Swanson, the artistic director and developer of El Circo Cheapo. “They seem like they’re magical robots doing tricks and we’re right there in front of you acting like normal people. We have real people doing this and it’s easier to believe.”

The El Circo Cheapo cabaret is a product of Swanson’s company, Aloft Loft, which primarily teaches trapeze, aerial hoops, silk and rope, she said. Classes occur seven days a week with as many as three classes taught at once.

The members of Aloft Loft weren’t making enough money performing at private parties because of the recession, which is when Swanson developed an idea for a monthly show in their training space. The original intent of the shows was to get good audience feedback and to shoot video footage to send to companies if and when they started hiring again.

Local performers and international performers alike perform at the cabarets, along with company members of Aloft Loft, who make up about 75 percent of the shows, Swanson said.

Studio manager at Aloft Loft, Elena Brocade, has been performing with Swanson since 2005. She describes her work on the Spanish Web, which is a rope that has a loop connected to the top, allowing her to spin from her hands and feet, as a work in progress.

She said that the cabaret serves as a great opportunity to showcase pieces that they’ve just started working on or have been working on for years with various levels

of completion.

Brocade, much like Swanson, thrives upon the unique intimacy of their space. Often throughout the show, performers might talk to the audience candidly about their work or even ask to start over if they felt that the beginning of their act wasn’t up to par.

“There’s definitely some casualness to [the performances] as much as we’re all professionals because we still work really hard at what we do,” Brocade said. “In the monthly show setting, you’re seeing the art as its being made. There’s newness that people feel. They can feel close to us, in a way because we’re opening up the process of making circus art.”

In regards to anyone who might be interested in taking classes at Aloft Loft, Brocade said the physicality of the tricks are more intimidating from an outsider’s perspective.

A simple combination of determination, being able to deal with pain and frustration and having a certain amount of body awareness are traits prospective circus performers should have, Brocade said.

“Other people came in with gymnastic and sports backgrounds and they were able to move quicker,” Brocade said. “I spent time in bars and drank a lot. It was sort of a fluke for me.”

Some who are involved, on the other hand, are content just watching, which is what Amanda Kulczewski, business manager of Aloft Loft, said she prefers.

Kulczewski added that the cabaret show is donation only. People who are unemployed or simply can’t afford it can get their money back after the show, although most people don’t.

The range of acts, as well as the intense yet playful nature of the shows, are among some of the reasons behind why no one requests their money back, she said.

“If it’s circus-related and doesn’t involve animals, there’s a good chance it’s either been in one of our shows or is coming up in one of our shows,” Kulczewski said.

In Kulczewski’s case, for instance, a Cirque du Soleil show is not something her whole family could afford to go to. The earlier 7 p.m. El Circo Cheapo show, however, has become increasingly popular for families to attend, she said.

Swanson said without a single El Circo Cheapo flyer taped in a business window, the show relies on word of mouth, a 1,500-person mailing list and their Web site to sell out every month.

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