THE NEW CLOWN ON THE BLOCK: Susan Carpenter joins the circus (Arthur, 2002)

…AND THEN I JOINED THE CIRCUS

Self-described “desk-bound journalist” Susan Carpenter decided to find out firsthand and feet-first how the females of the species are transforming the 21st-century circus. Now her back hurts. Photography by Lauren Klain.

Originally published in Arthur No. 2 (January 2003). Layout by W.T. Nelson.

Xia Kemin has Ember pinned. He’s got her left leg lodged under a foot-thick gym mat while he presses her right ankle up behind her ear. Ember is crying. Kemin, the former Chinese acrobat who is her teacher, just laughs. He knows that pain is the only way Ember, a 20-year-old daycare worker and wannabe contortionist, will ever become the human pretzel she’s dreamed of.

Ember is a beginning student at San Francisco’s Circus Center, a school that teaches “anything in the air, upside down, backwards and humanly impossible” to aspiring circus performers. The Center is also my first stop before joining Ringling Brothers for a couple days as I attempt to figure out why women are still running away to join the circus–and whether they do anything more these days than sit pretty on a trapeze.

I’ve never been to the circus, not even as a child, but it’s getting harder to avoid it. Circus is everywhere, nudging itself into the public consciousness through books like Katherine Dunn’s carnivalesque Geek Love, movies such as Freaks and the neo-pagan art ritual known as Burning Man. I knew it had reached critical mass last summer when a friend from San Francisco asked if 20 of her friends could stay at my house while their gypsy caravan whirled through L.A. in a flourish of fire wands, wigs and stilts.

Circus used to mean men wrestling snakes while women in glittery unitards flew through the air in front of sticky-fingered children. That all changed when the flashy French Cirque du Soleil came to town in 1987, throwing mimes, bungee jumpers and Chinese pole dancers into the mix and attracting a more adult crowd. Circus hasn’t been the same since. Today, there are not only more circuses–and schools to train for them–but there’s also more women joining the circus, fusing their own sense of style with traditional techniques. The centuries-old art form, it seems, is finally getting a much-needed kick in the pants.

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NOVEMBER, 2002…

Ten years ago — 2002 — right about now: 70,000 free copies of the 56-page Arthur Magazine No. 1 somehow hit the streets across North America.

Thank you to everyone who helped get this train rolling.

Thank you, publisher Laris Kreslins and art director W.T. Nelson. Thank you, adfellow Jamie Fraser.

Thank you, senior advisors Mark Lewman, Paul Cullum and Shawn Mortensen (RIP).

Thank you, contributors Paul Moody, Byron Coley and Thurston Moore, Geoff Mcfetridge, Spike Jonze, Neil Hamburger, David Berman, Ian Svenonius, Dame Darcy, Eddie Dean, Joe Carducci, Camille Rose Garcia, Jason Amos, Joseph Durwin, Daniel Pinchbeck, Alan Moore, Pat Graham, Dave Brooks, Steve Giberson, Mike Castillo and John Henry Childs.

Thank you, all the agents in our improvised guerrilla distribution network across the continent.

Thank you, all the entities that spent money to advertise in our untested pages.

Thank you to everyone thanked on Page 3 of the mag: Brendan Newman, Kreslins Family, Oma, Kristaps, Gary Hustwit, Chris Ronis, Kate Sawai, Janis Sils, Bernadette Napoleon, Vineta Plume, Fred Cisterna, Richard Grijalva, Ned Milligan, Lizzy Klein, Robin Adams, Jack Mendelsohn, John Shimkonis, Prolific, Chris Young, Ed Halter, Mike Galinsky, Jim Higgins, Plexifilm Family, Alie Robotos, Domainistudios, Fistfulayen, Natalie and Zach, Janitor Sunny Side Up, Yasmin Khan, Rachel Stratton, Lady Montford, John Coulthart, Henry Childs and Joshua Sindell.

Thank you, Sue Carpenter.

Thank you, Darcey Leonard.

Thank you, John Payne and Andrew Male.

Thank you, Robin Turner.

Thank you to the bands that played Arthur’s launch party at Spaceland in Silver Lake (thank you, Jennifer Tefft): Fatso Jetson, Chuck Dukowski Sextet… I’m not sure who else.

Thank you, Matt Luem.

Thank you, Steve Appleford, for being a real journalist.

Thank you to everyone who played a role who I’ve forgotten or neglected to post here. (Please be in touch!)

And thank you to everyone who found the magazine, picked it and read it.

We’re coming back.