Master Lu Yi Pursues One More Dream

After 23 years as Artistic Director of Circus Center, where he has trained a generation of acrobats who went on to perform in starring roles with elite circuses around the world, Master Lu Yi has announced he will retire from active teaching at the end of this summer. I am happy to say, however, that he will be staying in the circus world and the Circus Center family. Lu Yi came to San Francisco to bring Chinese acrobatics training to the United States, and now he is going to pursue another lifelong dream: founding a small, professional performance troupe that will raise the level of acrobatics in America. He is founding this troupe here in San Francisco, and inviting former students and members of his extended circus family to audition and be part of his dream. Circus Center and Lu Yi’s new troupe will work together in a close partnership. Circus Center will provide facility, equipment, training, and promotional support, starting with hosting the company’s first auditions in early September. Master Lu Yi says that training and performing are two halves of one whole, and both sides will be strengthened by this partnership: students who trained for years at Circus Center will now have an opportunity to perform onstage, and those performances will in turn inspire more people to discover the joy of circus training. Everyone here at Circus Center is incredibly grateful for Lu Yi’s long years of teaching and leadership, and we are proud to stand beside him as he pursues one more beautiful circus dream. We love Lu Yi, and if you do too, we invite you to share your message of love and gratitude for Lu Yi on our Twitter or Facebook pages. If you’re feeling hashtag-y, we’ll be using #circusislove and #thankyouluyi (and, of course, #circuscenter).

Devising Circus Theater

by guest blogger Jane George  In conjunction with her upcoming collaborative production, Cabaret METAMORPHOSES, Dr. Kathryn Syssoyeva (PhD Stanford, Theater and Interdiscipinary Studies in Humanities) offered a four-day master class intensive on Devising Circus Theater at Circus Center this March. For the past 18 years, Kathryn has explored the new places and directions circus can go as a theatrical form. More Fellini than Ringling, her focus lies at the border of circus and theater. The structure of circus theater derives from storytelling, action, and emotion, not from the more expected I step in the ring, do my act, and leave type of format. Circus theater goes beyond the incredible skill level required of circus performers and adds physical vocabulary to build a narrative that tells a story to the audience. Indeed, at times, physical limitations and lack of skill can be more interesting to the audience from an aesthetic point of view, a creative opportunity from which to build dramatic tension between performers. What does it mean to devise? A lot of devised theater arises out of improvisational play between performers, which then gets shaped by the director. Dr. Syssoyeva explained that devising breaks down divisions between form, skill sets, and methods of training and allows things to flow one into another in a way that works as a whole.  Elements of effective devising are:

  • Eye contact, keep a constant connection with your performance partner. How does one performer affect the other’s movement?
  • Mirror each other more intuitively, do not think about it – turn, spin, pull, and maintain the eye contact to make the action dramatic and watchable.
  • Make your partner move without touching them.
  • Each movement must live truthfully. Where does it go next?
  • It is the gesture that is compelling, not the trick.

When combining the spoken word with circus performance, think of how physical action becomes an extension of words and vice versa. Which is the overlay? Actors sometimes hold back their emotions, afraid of overwhelming their partner, but you must give them enough to work off of, provide a challenge. Circus theater connects the extraordinary skill level of circus gesture, connecting internal impulse to an external, compelling, watchable skill set. The future viability of circus tradition could well lie within the combined realms of circus and theater, providing an exciting and moving audience experience. Examples of circus theater recommended by Dr. Syssoyeva:

  • Circo El Grito
  • James Thiérrée
  • Choreographer Austin McCormick


Tales of Divinity, Desire, Violence and Transformation

a collaboratively devised evening of mythical-aerial Circus–Theatre–Cabaret

Directed by Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva

Rehearsal and development: May 9-July 18

Produced by Circus Center

Production: July 19-20

To get involved, e-mail Kathryn at syssoyeva [AT] gmail [DOT] com.

Celebrate Lu Yi’s 75th Birthday

Everyone knows that, in Master Lu Yi, we have a living legend in our midst. But did you know that he is celebrating a major milestone this year? That’s right — on August 25, our beloved Master Lu Yi turns 75!

Lu Yi came to the US after 33 years with China’s celebrated Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe, with a dream of bringing this important part of his culture to American audiences. He joined Circus Center as Master Teacher and Artistic Director in 1990. Teaching has always been an important part of his career, which has also included performing, judging competitions, and directing performing companies. Nothing brings Lu Yi more joy than seeing his students perform, and we have been extremely fortunate that he chose Circus Center as the vehicle for imparting his experience and wisdom to the next generation of circus performers.

To honor this big birthday and his years of leadership in the global circus community, Circus Center is planning a 2-part international celebration:

  • Montreal: Labor Day Weekend 2014
  • San Francisco: Early September 2014

We are in the planning stages for both events right now, so keep on the lookout for more announcements. What we know for sure, though, is that both events will offer lots of opportunities for you to make your unique contribution to honoring this amazing man and his circus legacy: performances, volunteer help, donations, and more.

Keeping Our Promises

Recently, we made you, our students and our community, some promises. We promised to bring more performance opportunities to you. We promised to invest in the high-quality equipment that is essential to your training. And, perhaps most important of all, we promised to add sections of popular classes to meet growing student demand. My note today is about how we’re doing our best to make good on those commitments to you. Classes: by popular demand, we have already added or restored several classes to our schedule, including:

  • Rope 1 with Jeremy Sheets, Wednesdays 7:30 – 8:50 pm
  • Tissu 1 with Heidi Button, Fridays 6:00 – 7:20 pm
  • Hand to Hand 1 with Lu Yi, Mondays 12:00 – 1:20 pm
  • Stretching for Contortion with Catie Brier, Thursdays 10:00 – 11:20 am
  • Intro to Contortion with Catie Brier, Thursdays 6:15 – 8:00 pm
  • Contortion 1 with Catie Brier, Mondays 10:00 – 11:50 am
  • Trampoline 2 with Jim Donak, Tuesdays 6:00 – 7:20 pm
  • Mini-Trampoline with Jim Donak, Tuesdays 7:30 – 8:50 pm
  • Intro to Tissu & Rope with Kendell Evans, Fridays 2:00 – 3:20 pm
  • Acrobatic Contortion with Veronica Blair (subbing for Xia), Mondays & Fridays 2:30 – 4:00 pm
  • Handstand 1 with Jives (subbing for Xia), Tuesdays 2:30 – 3:50 pm
  • Aerial Conditioning with Elena Panova, Wednesdays 6:30 – 8:00 pm

We know that there is still more demand for some classes, and we’ll be announcing even more new classes in the days ahead. Keep an eye on the announcements board in the lobby and our website for more details. Equipment and rigging upgrades: you may have already noticed the new red rope hanging in the gym. This additional point expands our capacity for classes, private lessons, and space reservations for our individual users. We’ve also purchased new yoga blocks, stability balls, and tension bands. Other upgrades, like recovering our ropes or replacing safety lines, may be less noticeable, but are every bit as important to maintaining a safe, high-quality experience for our students. Finally, performance opportunities: I’ve said a lot about this in recent newsletters, so I’ll just make two quick observations. One, I was delighted to see how much interest there was in Dr. Kathryn Syssoyeva’s circus-theatre-cabaret production happening this summer. Many of our most talented students have signed on to the project, so I’m more excited than ever to watch it progress. Two, this Saturday is the first in our monthly series of work-in-progress showings. A few folks have signed up, but we have room for a few more — and I urge you to seize this opportunity. After all, Circus Center is investing in the quality of our programs — why not make the most of them?

Becoming More Responsive to You: New Rates Announced

Dear Circus Center Community,

As a non-profit organization, Circus Center exists for our community, especially for our students, and it’s become clear that we are not serving our students as well as we could or should. The primary problem is simple: students are unable to get into the classes that they want. When I put myself in your shoes, I can imagine how it feels: You can’t get your classes. You put yourself on countless waitlists, holding those times on your calendar in the hopes that you get in — and you often don’t. You have to stay up until midnight on the 15th of each month, when there is a “land rush” for classes, and if you miss it, you’re generally out of luck. When you can’t get a class at the appropriate level, you schedule a lower level class just to get some time on your apparatus, but your classroom experience is not as focused and productive as it could be. Frustration abounds.

People often ask me the obvious question: why don’t you just add more classes? The answer is that, while the Unlimited subscription model has some definite positives, its financial structure does not allow us to be as responsive to our students as we want to be. Under a subscription model, students pay one flat rate per month; if we add more classes, the amount that students are paying per class goes down, making our financial position worse. The unfortunate truth is that the Unlimited model is not only not working for students, but it also is not financially sustainable. If we didn’t fix it, Circus Center would eventually find itself on a road to financial peril that we’ve been down too many times before.

So, in order for Circus Center to be more responsive to the needs of our students, to make sure that you get the classes you need in order to meet your goals, to keep the Center alive but more than that, to keep it growing and improving the quality of our classes and the experiences of our students, we are announcing a new rate structure for our adult training program, effective April 1. The Rates page lays out the details, and this week the staff and I are reaching out personally to students to talk it through with you; here are the highlights:

  • We are moving away from a monthly subscription model to drop-ins, sold singly and in packs.
  • We are introducing lower drop-in and pack rates for all introductory and conditioning classes.
  • Advanced classes will continue to be priced at the same drop-in and pack rates already available.
  • Because it requires three instructors and a lot of gym space, beginning flying trapeze classes (Open Flying on the weekends and Flying 1) will have a slightly higher price point than our Advanced classes.
  • We’re also updating our cancellation policy, increasing the late cancel window to 24 hours before class time.

This new system will offer you quite a few advantages. First, you’ll be able to schedule classes as far in advance as Circus Center has posted its schedule — currently, that’s through August 31! No more uncertainty — you’ll have a guaranteed spot in the classes you need to achieve your goals. Plus, you’ll be able to schedule everything online — no more having to go through the Front Desk. Second, if a class is popular enough, we’ll be able to add a section of the class! This should reduce frustration with lack of availability.

Finally, as a non-profit, Circus Center’s finances are not driven by profits, but rather by reinvesting in our mission, in the quality of our classes and the experience of our students. This change will enable us to:

  • keep a low student-teacher ratio,
  • improve our curriculum,
  • provide personal guidance toward achieving your training goals,
  • furnish better equipment,
  • produce more performance opportunities, and
  • offer more of the classes that you want.

If you haven’t heard from us yet, you will soon. Meanwhile, if you have any questions about this change, I invite you to contact me directly — call me at Circus Center at 415-759-8123, e-mail me at, or just stop by my office. Like the whole of Circus Center, I am here to serve you, and to lead this organization into an ever greater ability to be responsive to your needs and goals.

Onwards and upwards,


The World is Calling

For many companies, January tends to be a slow time, and I expected that pattern to hold true for Circus Center. Boy, was I wrong. Not only was January an eventful month for me personally with the birth of my daughter Elana, but it also proved to be a month full of new and exciting opportunities for the Center and our faculty. The phone rang off the hook with calls from amazing circus artists and troupes looking for a chance to teach our students and train with our instructors. At the same time, our instructors were traveling hither and yon, sharing their gifts with athletes and performers at the highest levels. Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • Master aerial instructor Elena Panova traveled to Paris, where she served on the jury of the famed Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. This is the same festival where she won a coveted gold medal in 1987!
  • Master Lu Yi continued to bring his expertise to the world of synchronized swimming, providing specialized acrobatic training for the US National Synchronized Swim Team.
  • Circus Center’s Clown Conservatory, under the direction of Joe Dieffenbacher, enrolled a record 18 fabulous clowns for the 5-week intensive that starts on February 10.
  • Aerial instructor Morgaine Rosenthal recently said “so long for now” as she left to perform with Circus Italia in Florida.
  • Trio Anneaux, an award-winning hoop-diving trio featuring Circus Center alumna Maya Kesselman, booked a three-month residency here starting in March, complete with a performance, workshop, and classes for our community.
  • Kathryn Syssoyeva, a rising star in the world of circus-theater, held a short workshop in devised circus-theater creation, and will return to Circus Center for a four-day intensive March 7-10.
  • Famed clown Barry Lubin — the Big Apple Circus’s beloved Grandma — booked at least one workshop at Circus Center to be held in April.
(At left: Elena Panova at the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain with three other gold medal-winning trapeze artists and Big Apple Circus founder Paul Binder.) The main driver of all this wonderful activity is the strength and reputation of our faculty. This is no mystery to you, the students and members of the Circus Center community — it’s why you choose to train here, to see performances here, and to support this organization in so many ways. But it’s also no secret in the wider world of circus, either. Great artists want to travel to San Francisco to work with our students because they know that you’re getting first-rate instruction from top-quality teachers. The discipline and the fundamentals are already there. And although it sometimes may be hard to watch our instructors answer the call from elite circuses and festivals, we know that they carry the Circus Center name with them — and that’s what keeps the phone ringing, even during a cold, sleepy month of January.

The Meaning of #SFBatkid

Circus Center’s participation in the Batkid Make-a-Wish got me thinking a lot about what it means to be a superhero. I was particularly struck by the fact that, of all the superheroes out there, young Miles chose to become Batman. Now, there are lots of cool things about the Caped Crusader — the awesome cars and toys, the brooding alter-ego Bruce Wayne, the outlandish villains to fight. Still, I believe Miles’ love of Batman has important things to teach all of us about what it means to be, not just a superhero, but superhuman.

Many superheroes acquired their extraordinary powers through some form of accident: born on another planet, or with genetic mutations, or bitten by a radioactive spider. Batman, by contrast, is just a regular guy underneath his armored suit. He has mad skills, of course — he’s an excellent fighter, a daredevil acrobat, and he can drive any vehicle like a stunt man. But these are all skills that Bruce Wayne chose to acquire and spent thousands of hours learning. Miles chose to be the kind of hero that any of us could be: an ordinary person doing extraordinary things.

Circus is a little like that, too. Every day, I see people come into Circus Center and learn to fly, or hold an unassisted handstand, or climb a rope 30 feet into the air. Things that seemed impossible, with hard work and great coaching, become possible.

Superheroes also have experienced a trauma or hardship in their lives. Batman lost his parents in a senseless crime that exemplified the corruption and degradation of Gotham City. The superhero’s inner battle involves turning pain into something positive. With his Make-a-Wish, Miles took the pain of his three-year battle with leukemia and transformed it into an empowering experience, a brave statement about his ability to triumph against very long odds.

Finally, Miles and everyone involved in the Make-a-Wish lived up to Batman’s example by making a generous choice. Miles chose to become someone who fights to keep people safe. The Make-a-Wish Foundation, including our own Eric “EJ” Johnston, chose to move heaven and earth to make a little boy’s dream come true. And thousands of people around this city, including the superhumans who teach and train at Circus Center, chose to pitch in and make the experience the best it could possibly be.

Above all, it is our choices that can make us superhumans, if perhaps not comic book superheroes. As we enter first the holiday season and then the new year, I hope that the example of Batkid inspires all of us to make “super” choices — to become better, braver, and more generous versions of ourselves.

We’re Listening: Policy Changes

In response to student feedback and ongoing discussion with the Student Advisory Group, Circus Center is amending three policies: More Ways to Cancel

If you need to remove yourself from a class you’ve reserved, you can now call the Front Desk (415-759-8123) or e-mail them (info AT circuscenter DOT org). As always, you can also remove yourself online through your MindBody account. No Fee if Added from Waitlist within 6 Hours of Class

Students who are added into class from the waitlist within 6 hours of class will incur no fee if they are unable to attend class.  If you are unable to attend, please continue to alert the front desk by phone or email, OR remove yourself from the class online.

No-Show Fee Increased to $25 Several of you pointed out that students who call to late cancel still give other students a chance to get into classes, whereas no-shows do not, so the fees should be different. Students who are enrolled in a class but fail to attend are considered “No-Shows” and will incur a $25 No-Show fee. You may call or email the front desk, or remove yourself from class through your MindBody account, any time before the start of class and incur only the $10 Late Cancel fee. We are continuously looking for ways to improve our offerings, and we always appreciate feedback, input, and suggestions from you!