Cirque Valise: Homegrown Circus Show Brings DIY, Experimental Circus Art to Corvallis

Tonight at 7:30 p.m., a DIY experimental circus show will be taking the stage in downtown Corvallis at the Old World Deli. First of its kind, free, friendly to all ages, and featuring a lineup of all local performers, there will be tap dancing, belly dancing, puppetry, clowning, acrobatics, and more – as well as an opportunity for audience members to get up and perform after the show.

Titled “Cirque Valise: Homegrown Circus Art for the Willamette Valley”, the show is organized by Chris Durnin, co-founder of Corvallis Experiments in Noise, and Serena Kapuler, a local burlesque performer, costume designer, and show organizer. One of the inspirations behind this show – and the hopes for similar endeavors in the future – was a variety show that Corvallis Experiments in Noise had organized at the Whiteside Theatre in 2019, a hodgepodge of experimental music, bands, drag performances, burlesque performances, installations, interactive arts, visual arts, a zine-making workshop, etc., from artists who were all based out of Corvallis.

“We were trying to stitch together all these different scenes in Corvallis by putting on a show at the Whiteside that brought us all together in one space in the hope of building more community, more collaboration, and more cross-disciplinary kind of creation and things of that nature,” said Durnin. “I got to know a crew of aerialists that were out here, I got to know Serena and her friends who did burlesque, and Haus of Dharma drag performers. And I also know other people on the periphery just by doing experimental art shows in town.”

While a local circus scene has not been previously established, over the past few years there have been touring circus ensembles that have performed/put on shows in Corvallis. In July of 2019, FLOTSAM!, a “troupe of musicians, circus performers and puppeteers traveling from place to place on a handmade raft”, journeyed along the Willamette River and gave a free performance at Michael’s Landing behind the Old Spaghetti Factory. In August of 2021, UP UP UP, Inc., an ensemble that performs hand-cranked crane circus shows, put on a free show at Avery Park’s Thompson Shelter.

“Particularly after UP, UP, UP, I told Serena that I was going to make it a priority of mine to try to curate a local circus scene with nothing but Corvallis and Corvallis-adjacent performers to hopefully create not only a community in that artistic endeavor,” said Durnin, “but also to start to build a scaffolding of sorts for other performers and friends of mine that are involved in circus scenes around the state and abroad so that they can come through and tour, and then we can start to create variety shows or things of that nature where we can slip them in for whatever their act may be.”

All Cirque Valise performers have previously participated in local noise, art, and variety shows organized by Corvallis Experiments in Noise. This is one of a few methods by which Durnin hopes to bring more experimental, interactive art to the circus world – with Corvallis as its stomping grounds.

“There is no DIY circus scene, as far as I know; I’ve talked to a number of people who are involved in circus communities, and that seems to be something no one’s heard of or tried,” he said. “So I really wanted to take my love and passion for the DIY scene – growing up in that, being a part of that, organizing through those principles, and bringing about artists who are also affiliated with those principles and that lifestyle – and apply it to circus and just kind of see what happens.”

For both Durnin and Kapuler, who has been interested in growing a circus scene in Corvallis for the last several years, Cirque Valise would be a first step in this direction.

“Circus is a very, very refined art, and it shows in what performers do in their acts, which are very rehearsed,” said Durnin. “I would like to bring a more surrealist, kind of experimental vibe with that, because reaching back into experience with the noise scene and experimental music and arts scenes, I like the idea of trying to create a space for people who don’t have to worry about doing it perfectly, or don’t have to worry about whether it’s good enough.”

From Burlesque to Clowning

While Kapular still associates herself with burlesque, she wanted to try branching out into different genres and mediums, and found clowning and physical comedy to be something she was most interested in exploring.

“I recently had somebody very surprised that I was getting into clowning, because I’ve never really associated myself with being funny, but I think that feeling or idea of being funny is very approachable in the way of me creating a character,” she said. “As a burlesque dancer, I previously performed under the character ‘Starena Sparktacular’. Starena was a space dancer who had a goal of coming down to bring her light to this area – and she did it. But once the pandemic hit, I just felt that persona disappear. I feel like she went back to space, dancing among the stars, and that I was ready to move on from the risque, sexy elements. The motivation behind my performance style now is that I want to do things that make me laugh, that make others chuckle a little bit just because of all the negativity and struggles we have in life – and I just want to cultivate a fun, silly character.”

Kapuler’s background in burlesque allowed this to be an easy transition, both in terms of the bodily intelligence, positivity, and empowerment that the style offers, and the do-it-yourself mindset of inclusivity as well as full creative liberty and autonomy.

“Burlesque in and of itself is a very inclusive performance style, because you can do any type of dance and you can choreograph your own act and costume for yourself, so the performer has a lot of control over their own performance, whereas with a lot of other dance styles, there’s usually a choreographer that tells the dancer what to do, and they don’t have as much creative control,” said Kapuler. “Going to dance classes for years, you’re of course being told what to do in order to learn the dance, and I always felt very awkward and uncomfortable and didn’t really know how to be in those classes. So that’s such a beautiful thing about burlesque, to have so much freedom, and now being able to take that freedom and transform it into a different style that maybe includes some burlesque elements – like a surprise costume change in the middle of an act, or maybe a little bit of a tease, but not enough to make it uncomfortable for a younger person to be there. Knowing about burlesque and being able to have done it for so many years, I can move those elements into a different art form, and maybe create something new.”

Come for the Show, Stay for the Circus Playtime

After the main acts have finished, there will be a “circus playtime” where props and toys will be available so that people in the audience will have an opportunity to take to the stage and put on their own performance.

“We’re always going to be wanting to bring more and more people into the idea that I’m more interested in, which is, who’s the person who’s just kind of tinkering around in their bedroom or in their basement who hasn’t toured the world, who hasn’t toured the country, who doesn’t have this super refined pitch-perfect act that hits all the marks and checks all the boxes?” said Durnin. “I want to reach out to those people and give them a space like we have in the past with our shows here to try out their art, to refine their act, and to build themselves up and grow as an artist. I feel like the pressure behind this narrative of either you hit the big time or you don’t really pushes people away – people who are genuinely curious and genuinely want to try something.”

“One of the beautiful things about having a cool, weird show like this is that anything can be a circus act,” said Serena. “If you dance, we can make that part of the circus. If you play music or sing, we can make that part of it. Anything can be part of the circus, as long as you’re willing to perform in front of people. It’s meant to bring the community more to the stage, and I would love to see more circus street art and street performances like this, but Chris and I really feel like we have to start somewhere, and in order for other like-minded people to know that we want to do it, we have to have a first show.”

“People are looking for opportunities to perform, and the sad thing is, a lot of people just don’t open their arms to people outside of their scene, or there’s not enough space for people to put on their own shows,” said Durnin. “So that’s really been a big motivating factor for me from the beginning, which is really trying to curate spaces where people who want to perform can perform. And now we’re just kind of moving from the experimental music and art realm into more of the circus and physical art realm.”

Doors for the show open at 7 p.m., and there will be an opportunity for people to tip the performers at the end (cash is especially appreciated).

“Come for the fun of it,” said Serena. “It’s a free all-ages show; it can’t get any better than that!”

By Emilie Ratcliff

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