COVER STORY: Kids who fly — Thrills and spills at S.F. circus school

Like a Bernini fountain sprung to life, three young beauties hang suspended from a triangle-shaped trapeze. Fifteen feet above ground, Andie Crug, Maya Miller Kesselman and Stacy Metcalf toy with gravity and dimension, their entwined bodies twisting, spinning, arcing in slow graceful turns.

From below, coach Jenn Cohen coos gentle encouragement. She doesn’t tell the girls what to do; she doesn’t have to. They know. The three are among the top aerialists at the world-renowned San Francisco Circus Center.

Moreover, Crug and Kesselman, as well as Cohen, are three of several Jews active at the Circus Center, a professional training ground.

Jews in the circus?

Apparently, one of the tents of Jacob doubles as a big top.

Philip Rosenberg, 17, a Brandeis Hillel Day School alumnus, has attended the Circus Center for the past six years. Like Andy and Maya, he, too, is Jewish and among the school’s best and brightest.

“When I was doing gymnastics, I really enjoyed it,” says Rosenberg, “but I hated competing against other people. I just wanted to be creative. Now I’ve been doing handstands, floor-tumbling, pole-climbing and other Chinese acrobatics.”

Such skills represent a new style of circus pioneered in North America by Cirque du Soleil. It’s no longer about elephants, ringmasters and cotton candy. Rather, says Circus Center creative director Dominique Jando, it’s about “proving we can overcome physical limitations. Man can fly, and with the greatest of ease.”

And not just “man.” Kids are flying at the San Francisco Circus Center.

Its grads have gone on to brilliant careers with circuses around the world, including Cirque du Soleil, Canada’s Cirque Eloize and Switzerland’s Circus Knie.

Housed in a stolid ochre-colored building (once the gymnasium of the now-defunct Polytechnic High School near Kezar Stadium), the Circus Center is part teen hangout, part P.E. class and part human corkscrew factory.

At any given time, the facility’s two cavernous gyms are filled with airborne children, practicing their tumbling routines, doing one-armed handstands, climbing 30-foot poles upside down, or hurling themselves through space as casually as they might change the channels on a TV remote.

It’s like a hangar-full of Jackie Chan clones.

Jando looks on approvingly. “Studying circus arts is one of the most rewarding things for kids,” he says in a lilting French accent still intact after 21 years in America. “They gain self-esteem, self-confidence — and they learn teamwork.”

That certainly applies to Crug, Kesselman and Metcalf, who have been working together as a trio for the past three years.

Each puts in more than six grueling hours of practice every week (even more before performances), and all have grown as close as sisters. “The only thing that keeps me going is coming here,” says Kesselman, 14, also a Brandeis Hillel graduate and now a freshman at Burlingame High School.

Adds Crug, 11, whose family belongs to San Francisco’s Or Shalom Jewish Community: “Jenn is a wonderful ‘mom,'” she says of her coach. “She takes good care of us.”

That’s a responsibility Cohen, 27, takes seriously.

A native of the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Cohen discovered trapeze at age 13 while on a Club Med vacation with her family. “I fell in love,” she recalls.

After a couple of summers assisting a trapeze teacher at a West Virginia Jewish camp, Cohen knew she’d found her calling. She scrapped that long-planned Ivy League education and quite literally joined the circus.

Now a confirmed San Franciscan, Cohen has since toured as an aerialist with several circus ensembles as well as having taught at the Circus Center for a number of years.

While Cohen never has trouble connecting with her students, she has sensed a little something extra with her Jewish charges. “The familiarity is amazing,” she says. “Teaching the girls brought back to me a lot of my own Jewish background.”

Sometimes the kids themselves take the lead, Jewishly speaking. A few years ago, Rosenberg and a fellow Circus Center student were performing at the Theatre Artaud as part of an extended run. Because the shows coincided with Chanukah, the kids took it upon themselves to bring along chanukiot and do the candlelighting ceremony backstage between sets. They even got the other young non-Jewish athletes to sing along with them.

Being the parent of a circus kid is, in most respects, not all that different from being a soccer mom or a Little League dad. The two most important requirements are conveying a supportive attitude and having a valid driver’s license.

“There was a lot of picking him up and dropping him off,” says Larry Rosenberg, father of Philip. “He’s at the gym two to four hours a night. But there’s a lot of nachas involved. When I see him perform, and people tell me he’s fantastic, I’m kvelling.”

While circus is not the first thing one normally associates with the Jewish people, the historical record is replete with links between the two. Jando, a former circus performer and honcho with New York’s Big Apple Circus, is also an esteemed historian of the circus, and readily shares his knowledge.

Though the first modern circus originated in 18th-century London as a largely equestrian spectacle, Jando notes the European traditions of juggling, acrobatics and clowning date back to the days of the Roman Empire.

In the Middle Ages, wandering troupes of performers attracted those other great wanderers, Jews and Roma (Gypsies). “Jews in the cities were packed into ghettos,” says Jando. “But the circus was a very welcoming place. There was very little racism in the circus community.”

Europe has given rise to many famous Jewish circus families over the centuries, among them the Blumenfelds in Germany and the Lees in England. In 1880, Albert Solomonsky, a Jew of German extraction, created the venerable Moscow Circus, which remains among the world’s finest.

“There is still a lot of Jewish blood in the circus today,” adds Jando, citing the Sosmans, a French family with Dutch roots, and the Bronnett family, “the biggest circus name” in Sweden.

Curiously, to the best of his knowledge, there is no native Israeli circus, but, says Jando, “with the current global circus renaissance, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a circus school there now.”

His own San Francisco Circus Center would provide the perfect model. An outgrowth of the pioneering Pickle Family Circus (itself co-founded by Jewish circus artist Peggy Snider), the center opened its doors in 1984. Once master trainer Lu Yi, a famed Chinese acrobat, joined the faculty, the school’s reputation soared.

Today, the center offers a wide variety of year-round programs, with a student body hovering around 900 and ranging in age from 6 to 64. Funded largely by philanthropic donations, the center provides a tuition-free circus education to its most promising students, all culled from the pool of eager beginners.

Two years ago, the school expanded its scope by opening the Clown Conservatory under the direction of its director Jeff Raz (also Jewish). It remains the nation’s only professional clown-training facility of its kind.

Although circus stardom is a way off for the Jewish kids at the San Francisco center today, it’s certainly on their minds.

Alec Kauf, 17, is a skilled acrobat, now completing his third year at the center. He loves training because “it’s fun and you get to show off.” But down the line, the Brandeis Hillel graduate and Or Shalom bar mitzvah boy hopes to move on to Montreal’s Circus College, the Harvard of circus schools.

Kesselman hopes someday to make it into one of Cirque du Soleil’s many touring companies. Her own fascination with circus began four years ago when she cashed in a free trapeze lesson, given to her as a Chanukah present.

Soon after she began classes at the Circus Center, Kesselman showed great promise, and was teamed up with Crug and Metcalf. Over the years, the three have perfected an uncanny physical symbiosis, choreographing their own routines with minimal noodjing from coach Cohen. Their latest work, “Triptych,” is an exquisite tableau executed on the triangle trapeze (a device invented by Cohen).

The girls even took their show on the road, performing “Triptych” at the American Youth Circus 2003 festival in St. Paul, Minn., last August to much acclaim.

But they never stop tweaking it. They know there’s always room for improvement.

That explains why, young and sweet as they are, all three have rough calluses on their hands, a souvenir of countless hours hoisting themselves aloft on the trapeze. “Circus hurts,” says Jando. “It’s fabulously difficult, and pain is part of the deal.”

You’d never know it judging from the smiles on the students’ faces. Training seems more like play, and practice time for this group of superior athletes has the boisterous air of an afterschool playground. When they do bang themselves up, they shrug it off blithely. Kesselman and Crug proudly show off the scars on their ankles.

With the setting of the sun, another day’s training comes to an end. Parents arrive to take their children home for dinner and schoolwork. Older teens and adults move in to the gym to set up the riggings for the flying trapeze artists. The work of the circus goes on into the night.

But when Crug and her friends go home, they’re still thinking about their moves. In fact, not long ago, Crug dreamed up a new routine involving Israeli folk music, a blue-and-white Magen David motif, and solidarity with Israel somehow expressed through the grace of the human body.

Leave it to a Jewish aerialist to combine Zionism with the circus.

Physically skilled and self-disciplined as she is, it’s sometimes hard to keep in mind that Crug is only 11 years old. But she is still a child, easily thrilled by simple things as only a child can be.

For example, she excitedly tells a reporter her Hebrew name, of which she is very proud: “Eviva Shoshana,” she says, “which means ‘spring rose’.”

Spring: an appropriate name for a girl who flies.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.