Longtime circus artists found in Woodstock neighborhood
An article about a local circus arts organizer in the June issue of THE BEE received a response from two Woodstock residents who have been circus artists, as well as circus arts teachers, for almost a quarter century in Southeast Portland. THE BEE has a way of bringing people out of the woodwork!
Aaron Wheeler-Kay and Wendy Cohen, who have lived in Woodstock for fifteen years, both began performing and teaching at the local nonprofit "Echo Theater" twenty-four years ago. Now Cohen is Director of Education, and Wheeler-Kay is Director of Operations and Community Engagement there.
Situated in the Hawthorne District, the Echo Theater was originally founded as "Do Jump! Extremely Physical Theater" by Robin Lane in 1983. Echo was the first organization in Portland to teach trapeze and contemporary circus. Wheeler-Kay expresses Robin Lane's vision for Echo, which still stands today:
"Lane's vision [was one] of hybridizing circus with theater, choral, dance, and other performance traditions, in order to create temporary and lasting community, to revel in beauty, and to embrace our quirky, striving, noble, human selves."
Today the theater continues to offer dozens of classes, and employs over twenty teaching artists, many of whom also work for other local circus arts organizations.
"Wendy and I were hired within months of one another in 1996 to perform in Do Jump!'s Young Audiences school show, as well as to develop professional work with the ensemble – and to teach single point trapeze, acrobatics, partner acrobatics and ensemble theater skills," related Wheeler-Kay.
"I began apprenticing in the Adult Aerial and Acrobatics class, as well as teaching juggling and basic acrobatics to children," he said in an e-mail to THE BEE. "Wendy co-taught all of the classes offered at the time – teaching acrobatics and trapeze and co-directing the youth company."
Wheeler-Kay says he was hired due to his strengths as a dancer and actor, and Cohen was hired for her strengths as a dancer and acrobat. They began to learn stilt walking and single point trapeze, rehearsing four to five hours each weekday, when they weren't performing.
The couple worked and performed together for two years before falling in love. "We were partners for five years [after that], before marrying in 2003. We took some pictures in our wedding clothing doing acrobatics; and our cake-toppers were able to stand on one another's shoulders!" remembers Wheeler-Kay.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, classes ranged from instruction in aerial dance, to physical theater principles, acrobatics, partner acrobatics, inclusive dance, creative movement, and single point trapeze. The classes also focused on creating a group/community dynamic among students, fostering risk assessment skills and opportunities to create fearlessly.
During the pandemic, Echo is offering 30 online classes for ages 1.5 to adult. Wheeler-Kay says they received a PPP (Payroll Protection Plan) loan, and National Endowment for the Arts funds, in March. He is happy that most of their classes taught online during the pandemic have been successful. "Our teaching staff adapted to the online classes with creativity and humor, using training in improvisation and collaboration to expand our curriculum to the new format, and to keep students engaged."
The most popular virtual classes are Adult Strength and Conditioning, Tap Dance, Mindful Movement, Youth Performance Groups, Get Upside Down (Handstands), and Flexibility Training.
Among the classes for children and family include Home Circus for Youth, Family Circus, Living Room Acrobatics, Circus Fitness for Teens, Physical Storytelling, and Just Keep Spinning (hooping). After their first child was born eleven years ago they began a new program called "Baby Circus" that still continues today.
Wheeler-Kay and Cohen emphasize that Echo Theater is unique in its approach to teaching circus arts: "We trust in the potential of each person to contribute to solutions, to discover their capacity for listening and trusting in others, and to experience their body as a worthy and essential thing. I think most schools start with a statement that is something like 'You can be so much more than you are!' But at Echo, it's more like 'You are already enough, just as you are. What else do you want to be?'"The couple adds that the theater is following the recommendations and protocols of the Oregon Health Authority and the Center for Disease Control.
This summer both in-person and virtual classes and summer camps are being held. Go online to see what's available – www.echotheaterpdx.org/registernow
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