Oregon Cultural Trust

The Circus Project stitches together a bigger tent

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Zoe Stasko is entirely at peace as she winds her body up the black aerial straps suspended from the ceiling. Even as she unravels rapidly downward she emanates centeredness amidst all the momentum. She rolls, twists, and spins in dizzying circles. From below, her creative director, Mizu Desierto, shouts “Find your limit!”. Stasko then holds a dramatic, strenuous pose for an impossible amount of time. She lets her feet find the floor and places her hand over her heart. With a triumphant smile, she finishes a rigorous run through of her newest aerial straps act.

“Yesterday was my first day off in four months,” Stasko says, panting as she makes her way off the rehearsal mat, “but I love it.”

Internationally active aerialist Zoe Stasko returns to her roots with Portland’s the Circus Project in the show “Change(d) Together.” Photo: Isometric Studios.

Zoe Stasko is a jewel in the crown of The Circus Project, an organization that “uses circus arts as a catalyst for personal and collective transformation.” Stasko trained in 2012 as a student in the Circus Project’s Summer Performance Intensive program. She then proceeded to graduate from one of the most prestigious circus schools in the world, Ecole de Cirque de Québec. Now as a professional aerialist, her skills take her from London to Dublin, France to Scandinavia.

But she is back in Portland, ready to debut her new aerial straps act at the Circus Project’s tenth-anniversary celebration: Change(d) Together.

On October 12th and 13th, The Circus Project will convert the Peter Corvallis Warehouse (2204 N. Randolph Ave.), into a “wonderland of trapeze, silks, lyra, ropes, and straps.” The multimedia performance will feature world-class acrobats and aerialists, many who, like Zoe Stasko, got their start in Portland. Students will present stories of individual transformation and Change(d) Together will celebrate the Circus Project’s evolving identity as an organization.

The Circus Project began in 2008, founded by Jenn Cohen, a process psychology therapist and a circus performer herself. The organization’s primary mission was to empower youth experiencing homelessness. After being thrust into the highly disciplined world of circus training, many students transitioned into more stable living situations. The strength, flexibility, self-care, and trust at the core of circus training helped students step on the path to sobriety and higher education.

“Finding strength, stillness, and the courage to train in these ways helps transcend daily conflict and even trauma.” creative director, Mizu Desierto explains, “this training can provide healing in deeper ways than words ever could.”

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The success of the original program put the Circus Project on the map as a pioneer in circus performance in the Pacific Northwest.

Almost a decade later, the Circus Project has grown and restructured its social outreach programs. Ten years of knowledge gained from engaging with marginalized communities has given birth to the Pathways program. Pathways forms partnerships with local non-profits already working with underserved communities, including, but not limited to, youth experiencing homelessness.

Pathways partners with Outside In, an organization that, among other services, offers counseling to young adults with complex trauma, mental health and substance abuse issues. Outside In aims to move youth and other marginalized people toward “improved health and self-sufficiency”. Pathways also partners with Native American Youth and Families Center, or NAYA. For over 40 years NAYA has worked with Native American Youth and Families to use “traditional values to regain sovereignty and build self-esteem.” Through these partnerships, Pathways offers weekly classes and private mentorship.

The Circus Project’s programming has evolved partially in response to a broader demand in performing arts for equity, diversity, and inclusion. In 2017, Pathways offered more than $23,000 in scholarships to students in need. But those interested in pursuing circus performance face more than financial barriers. Childcare, transportation, food, and access to athletic gear can be insurmountable obstacles. The Pathways program provides resources to help participants overcome them. The program has even grown to include translation services.

Through their metamorphosis, the Circus Project’s commitment to personal and collective transformation through circus arts has endured.

Zoe Stasko’s new aerial straps act is more than a display of her prodigious acrobatic talent. It is a presentation of her gift for visceral poetry and story-telling. It is the story of the growth of her skill and character. Achieving high technical skill has required Stasko to persist through failure, and this revolutionized her relationship to impatience and doubt.

“I used to be an anxious person.” Stasko says, applying powder chalk to her hands, “The Circus Project taught me how to step back and breathe. It taught me how to let go and believe that things will work out.”

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As she readies herself for a few more hours of training she gazes up at the aerial apparatus hanging from the ceiling.

“I’ve learned that you have to find your limit,” she says, stepping onto the mat, “and it’s always further than you think it is.”

“Change(d) Together” will be preceded by a fundraising gala on October 11, at the Peter Corvallis Warehouse. Two performances will follow at the same location Oct.12th and 13th at 7:30

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Chris is a producer/journalist/playwright based in Portland. He has produced segments for Oregon Public Broadcasting's daily talk show Think Out Loud, and episodes for the science and environment TV show Oregon Field Guide. As a reporter, his stories have been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He has also published work in The Oregonian, Portland Mercury, Oregon ArtsWatch, Willamette Week, and Street Roots. In his spare time, he enjoys writing and producing plays and short films. He was the recipient of the James Baldwin Memorial Scholarship Fund for Playwriting at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His next short film, Wren LaVelle, has been commissioned by Portland Playhouse and will premiere in summer 2023. He recently served as artist in residence at CoHo Theater in Portland, and before that, the School of Contemporary Dance and Thought in Massachusetts. He is currently working as a writer on Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s new show The Americans.
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