I first saw a Cirque du Soleil show on DVD when I was 7 years old and its effect was immediate. My fledgling career plans, which at the time vacillated between becoming an actress, lawyer, and writer, were quickly discarded. There could be no doubt, I realized, I was destined to become an acrobat. Sadly, for more than decade, a lack of flexibility, not to mention, a lack of gymnastics instruction has made this a dream deferred.
But now, it would seem, there is reason for hope. This past January, Reyie Nal, founded Cirque la Vie, a small, local circus that pays its way by producing shows and offering circus classes for uninitiated aspirants like myself. The circus classes, held on Thursdays and Sundays at FrenetiCore Theater on the east side of town, are grueling two-hour affairs, but they are enough to keep alive the hope that one day I may be able to run away from home and join the circus.
Cirque la Vie
Thursdays, 7 to 9 p.m.
Sundays, 9 to 11 a.m.
During a recent Thursday class the first hour was led by Nal, whose implacable energy was truly inspiring. Interspersing jokes with stories of his days training with Cirque du Soleil, he somehow managed to coerce 12 women into particupating in a painful, hour-long session of stretching and conditioning.
“The conditioning part is basically to get your muscles strong —your arms, your stomach, your back, your legs,” he explained at the beginning of the class. “The reason we do that is because normally if we don’t have the right muscles to do the aerial stuff we give up and we fall down to the ground.”
Circus class, at least at Cirque la Vie, is nothing like a normal gym class, as it turns out. The conditioning exercises ranged from moving a large bouncy ball back and forth with only our feet to balance exercises that require more abdominal muscles than I could ever hope to achieve. The second part of class, however, was much more exciting. As we waited around, Nal and Juan Jimenez, a permanent member of the Cirque and a self-described generalist, hung long black and purple “silks” from the ceiling.
Although one of the group’s understudies, Keri Forster, hung on the silks and knotted and untied herself easily during the group’s practice after class, the fabric was painful. Each of the women in the class (including me) spent an embarrassing amount of time positioning our bodies on a knot in order to perform a twist, which she performed with ease. None of us really managed to excel at the silks knot tricks, but we all managed to climb them and to perform floor acrobatics while Carlos Rodriguez —another veteran group member who mainly does character work, break dancing, and clowning— twirled us into the air.
Several years ago Nal founded the Sol y Luna Dance Company, which counted both Rodriguez and Jimenez among its performers, several years ago. The company fused several forms of dance but eventually started incorporating circus acts, allowing them to push the boundaries of performance.
“The things we were coming up with were very fantastical,” Jimenez said. “They were very playful and at times very dark and so we were trying to fight the dance-like elements with different movements, different ways of working with partners.”
The company added an aerialist and partner acrobatics and kept on evolving until finally Nal was getting calls to travel around to showcase his show, “REVER.”
“I was scared. I did not feel that I could lead a company,” he said. “I turned down the offers and I went to see if I could learn.”
He traveled from Canada to California, training at the Ecole National du Cirque and at The New England Center for Circus Arts and working for a myriad of troupes including Cirque du Soleil’s outreach program: Cirque le Monde. He eventually came back to fill Houston’s need for a local circus
For now, Cirque la Vie—which is searching for sponsors—is still dependent on classes for funding. The classes, perhaps their most stable source of income, are small and all of the women in my class arrived via friends’ referrals. Most of the classmates were recent arrivals, including sisters Jennifer and Teresa Ngo, who were there “for fun and to tighten our butts.” When they’re not teaching, Nal said, Cirque la Vie look for opportunities to perform. Most recently, they put on an excerpt of Tetzepi, a Sol y Luna production, at the Best of Fringe Festival show. Nal said he maintains even higher hopes for the group.
“I started Cirque la Vie in California, but I moved back because no one here has worked for a major circus,” he said. “I’m hoping Cirque la Vie becomes Cirque du Soleil’s main competitor.”