“Every day when I wake up, this is all I want to do with my life,” says strongwoman Tera “Supernova” Zarra. “I have no other choice.” A seasoned strongwoman, aerialist, and acrobatics performer, Zarra is no stranger to the lively world of circus arts or to Clowns Without Borders, the international performing group for which she’ll perform on Saturday, Feb. 19, at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre.
The Alberta Rose show, called Back on the Boards and featuring some of the Pacific Northwest’s most talented and well-known circus artists, comedians, musicians, acrobats, and magicians, is the 23rd annual Portland fundraiser for Clowns Without Borders, the group that travels the world to perform for people in crisis zones.
Money raised from the Alberta Rose performance will go, in the organization’s words, toward “serving the children of communities in crises and to respond to the psychosocial needs of communities experiencing some form of forced displacement.” The United States sector of Clowns Without Borders, started by Moshe Cohen in 1995, came to life after he traveled to perform in the Guatemalan refugee camps in Chiapas, Mexico, and South African township schools. More than two decades later, Clowns Without Borders has grown to become a worldwide organization with one simple vision: “to create a world where all people can experience laughter, play, and feel hope, especially in humanitarian crises.”
The group’s next international tour, to Iraqi Kurdistan, will be this March, when it will perform for Kurdish refugees in camps. Planning for it began last November, when human rights lawyer Tara Azizi returned from a trip to the camps, in which many families have lived for generations. “The children were constantly worried that a new bomb attack would hit,” she reported, “making it hard for the kids to focus on something else. It was hard to find a child who laughed.” Clowns Without Borders hopes to set up a multiyear program in the camps.
All performers who work with Clowns Without Borders donate their time to the project, and the company has been known to attract some of the West Coast’s premier artists in the field. Among them in this show are Tempos Circus physical comedy artists Zena Walas and Kraig Mea; performance artist and shoehorn musician Michael Conley Shoehorn; jazz pianist Dan Gaynor; JuggleMania’s Rhys Thomas; producer David Lichtenstein as Leapin’ Louie, “the most explosive Lithuanian Jewish Cowboy Comedian to ever come out of Oregon”; aerial performers Larke and Bentley; fire dancer and aerialist Alicia Cutaia; and professional strongwoman, acrobat, hand-balancer, singer, and aerialist Tera “Supernova” Zarra.
This week, I was able to talk with both Cutaia and Zarra about their experiences as circus arts performers and their hopes for the future of the field.
ArtsWatch: How did you get started in the circus arts?
Zarra: I first came from martial arts. I had a couple of black belts in Aikido and Aikijutsu. I had worked on the Oddities and Curiosities Expo in San Diego doing acrobatics with sword swallower Sideshow Sy, who got me into Renaissance fairs. When I moved to Portland, I found an Aikido studio to attend, and at the end of one of the classes, someone did a handstand. I thought, “wow, I want to do that!”, so I started taking classes on Monday nights at Do Jump, now Echo Theatre, at the age of 22.
In terms of circus artists, I started late, but I fell in love with it immediately. I knew this is what I wanted to do after the first class. The teacher there was the former Austrian National Sports Acrobatics Team coach, Stefan Furst, and I self-trained with him as well as celebrated jugglers Curt and Mike. Curt is the one who really encouraged me to become a strongwoman, which started with ripping telephone books. I had to get really strong hands and trained as much as possible doing exercises like squeezing a tennis ball until it became soft. I later got hired by Do Jump after doing a holiday show with them, and have been performing ever since.
What most inspires you about working with other circus arts performers? What do you think draws audiences to the art form?
I think it’s about connection and community. I like training alongside artists that do a variety of disciplines because I like the influx of different ideas. If an audience of people from different backgrounds, orientations, and political viewpoints can sit together and gasp at the same stunt or laugh at the same joke, I think that’s at least a start … we’re on to something.
I also adore collaboration. With Clowns Without Borders … it’s a tremendous thing I feel that I can get behind. I’m completely on board with positive organizations that help people.
What are the major differences that you have noticed between performing for a production like Game of Thrones or Red Dead Redemption II vs. performing for a live audience?
You miss the energy of the audience, and if it doesn’t work perfectly, you get to try again. Sometimes I actually like it when it doesn’t go perfectly. I was extremely shy as a kid and was petrified of making a mistake. There’s something strangely freeing about accepting that no matter how much you train and rehearse, every show will always be different. The worst show you ever perform and best show you ever perform will both end, and will never again happen the same way.
What are the biggest or most common challenges or misconceptions faced by someone in this field?
People seem to assume that I lift weights, but almost all the training I do utilizes my own body weight (it’s hard to take weights on tour).
I travel almost half the year to perform. It’s something that I sometimes almost don’t enjoy at all if not for the time spent on stage doing my show. The travel gets old but is worth it just to have that half an hour of pure bliss with the audience.
Being an independent contractor without guaranteed work is also a big challenge. When budgets get tight, the first thing to go usually is the arts. Circus performers often live gig to gig, and must be very adaptable to changing financial situations.
Who are the artists (in this field or any field) that you look up to?
Leapin’ Louie, Curt Carlyle, Brittany Walsh, Rhys Thomas, Beau Brousseau, Alicia Cutaia, Aaron Bonk, Acrobatrix, and Kyle Cragle, to name a few.
What do you think is the future of this field? Where is it heading and what do you want the future to look like?
Ironically, I would like to see my work become less important. I hope that eventually, it is not so unique to be a strongwoman, and that people of any gender feel encouraged to cultivate their strength. I want to continue to break free of stereotypes and for the career to become less surprising— to normalize a woman, or anyone of any gender, to be able to be extremely strong and celebrate their strength in any form without it being an oddity.
Circus artists are humans that have accomplished otherworldly things with their bodies through dedication. Having that dedication recognized for what it is would also be a huge deal.
What advice do you have for young performers who are interested in getting started with fire acrobatics, aerial arts, clowning, strongwoman performing, etc. ? Where should they begin?
I would advocate for preparing your body with strength training, balance, and flexibility work before you try to learn skills. For instance, I have heard many people say that aerial is great for building strength. My suggestion is that instead of using aerial to build strength, build strength in order to do aerial.
Any final thoughts that you’d like to add?
One of the most important things is for people to come out to the shows and get to experience it for themselves. On April 9-May 22, the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire will feature many talented circus artists and creatives. The Oregon Renaissance Faire also takes places June 4-12. For booking school shows, organizations can contact Young Audiences, and to book a private event, I can be contacted directly.
ArtsWatch: How did you get started in the fire dancing, aerial, and circus arts?
Cutaia: I moved to Portland from Michigan and got into aerial through a past partner. I learned how to do fire dancing and fans for a New Year’s gig and fell in love with it, and later commissioned someone to make me a leather tutu. That was in 2014, and I knew it was something I wanted to get further into.
In 2016, I started learning aerial harness, which has helped immensely with back injury recovery, in addition to the MUNZ BARRE method. I premiered a piece called The Waltz with BodyVox Dance Company that featured me flying aerial, and more recently went from performing with a partner to performing solo. Aerial allows me to dance in different ways, in addition to concert dance. I danced for my first two years with Clowns Without Borders in around 2017. This year, I will be flying on the harness.
Clowns Without Borders really brings love and laughter to children in countries that aren’t as lucky as we are … they raise awareness and their mission is really wonderful and beautiful.
What most inspires you about working with circus and clowning performers? What do you think draws audiences to the art form?
The broad range of creativity is there and it is interesting because in concert dance you are often dancing in a group and there is a common theme and style – not all the time – but a lot of the time. When you’re a clowning performer, you are your own self and you work on that character. Clowning takes deep research and deep thoughtful learning – lots of discovering yourself and working on yourself. As does balancing and being on the apparatus. It takes a lot of self-practice and training to get to that high level, if you want it, and nobody will be pushing you so self-discipline is key! I think what draws audiences to the art forms of circus art and clowning is that the individuality of each performer is really interesting and fun for audiences to see… you can get drawn into different worlds with each performer. Plus, many of the circus arts have the danger factor.
Clowning is much deeper than a lot of people think and know. It’s not just a bunch of face paint and a nose. There is a lot of depth that goes into the characters and the art created.
What are some of the challenges faced by someone in this field?
Financial stability and getting work that pays the worth of the performer are definite challenges. People forget that what goes into being a performer in this realm takes a lot. It’s a lifetime of training, admin, contract negotiation, liability insurance, costuming, etc. It all has a cost.
Who are the artists in this field that you look up to?
I really look up to Tera “Supernova” Zarra … she eats, sleeps, and breathes her realm. I also look up to Brittany Walsh.
What do you think is the future of this field? Where is it heading?
People are hopefully starting to see the value of the arts … that they can conjure up a variety of emotions. Circus arts and clowning can celebrate the sad, but they can also celebrate the happy so well.
This field can definitely thrive if it has the right support. I want to be creating jobs and bringing work to artists. All artists. I think the field is going to keep growing— and it needs to.
What advice do you have for young performers who are interested in getting started with fire dancing/throwing, clowning, circus arts? Where should they begin?
Begin when your creativity is still there and open. It’s so fun to create a vision of who you want to be as a performer. If you can, start with professional training and go from there.
Any additional comments you would like to share?
I’m very thankful for joining this life. It’s helped me transition to healing my body and lets me be more present in my performances. I really do love Clowns Without Borders… I love what they do and I love everyone who is a part of it.
The 23rd annual Clowns Without Borders benefit show will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19, at Alberta Rose Theater, 3000 N.E. Alberta St., Portland; doors open at 6:30 p.m. Ticket and Covid safety information here.