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Cirque du Street Play

When he's not flying through the air with the greatest of ease, trapeze artist Darren Rabinowitz is running away with Street Light Circus: the greatest show in DC.

By Brad Scriber

Darren Rabinowitz

Darren Rabinowitz is frozen in mid air, dozens of feet above the ground at DC’s Navy Yard, unsupported by any ropes, strings, or harnesses. His shoulders slowly pivot half a turn as his inertia transfers from the parabolic arc that launched him skyward to the arc that will guide him back to the bench-sized trapeze platform where he started. But then—midtransition—his body stops and reverses course, frame by frame.

“You’re like a rocket ship. Don’t change anything,” his catcher and coach says, critiquing a video of their practice swings recorded just minutes earlier.

The flyer in this trick, Rabinowitz, CAS/BA ’15, is honing a maneuver called the Backend Planche. The name means “plank” but the stunt is an order of magnitude harder than the namesake exercise of sea-level workouts.  “It’s all physics,” Rabinowitz says of the maneuver. The clean lines in the bright lights with precision handoffs are the classical components of the circus arts—and the skill it takes to perform them is hard won.

On this cloudy April evening, Rabinowitz, 23, flies to the second trapeze with almost perfect posture: elbows locked, palms down. But he’s diving too soon. He’s reaching for the return bar when he should be soaring just a bit longer, trusting that it will swing out to meet him, just so.

The rigging around him would overwhelm most indoor spaces, but it’s right at home in the brightly lit, custom-built structure that houses Washington’s branch of the Trapeze School of New York, TSNY–DC. White plastic walls have been stretched over a maroon-colored, metal frame that looks like the underside of a giant beast’s skeleton. Squint, and Rabinowitz is Geppetto in gym shorts, sailing a tall ship inside the belly of a white whale.

Rabinowitz first tried trapeze 11 years ago at a summer camp in the Poconos and now teaches it at this rig in southeast DC. And while coaching bubbly bachelorettes and trepidatious teens through the same basic moves is enjoyable, it leaves little opportunity to experiment. That’s why, a few nights a month, Rabinowitz swaps the spotlight for the streetlight, collaborating in the city’s shadows with aerialist Montana DeBor, juggler Christian Kloc, and photographer Dani Pierce Steuber. They call their sidewalk sideshow Street Light Circus.

It was born December, over a blueberry pie Steuber had baked from scratch, when the quartet began to ponder something less constrained. They wanted to leave behind the safety rules of TSNY–DC, where DeBor, Kloc, and Steuber also teach, and sneak the circus out of the tent, into the hidden corners of the city. As DeBor puts it, they wanted something more “risky, sexy, gritty.” They wanted to pose atop concrete blocks. They wanted to suspend themselves from chains. They wanted to juggle fire.

They have done all that and more.

The troupe

Street Light Circus is the name they picked once they realized they were gravitating to this nocturnal light source in their urban backdrops, but before this, Steuber just called the project “Montana’s Dangerous Circus.”

The troupe shares the photos of their outings—mostly shot in moody black and white—on Instagram (@streetlightcircus), but the pictures have also been featured in a gallery exhibit and are on display at an Eastern Market eatery. When a photo is purchased, they agree never to make another print of that image. It’s a decision that connects them to the ephemeral nature of the circus, the “air of mystery that comes into town and then goes away,” as Rabinowitz puts it.

Arranged in stories, the photos capture conversations the group is having with each other and with their surroundings. They are pushing their bodies to improbable poses in surprising environments without any planned routine. There is a contemplative quietness in the photos made more possible by the darkness. They mirror one another’s posture, arrange their bodies into towers that echo the shapes of buildings around them, and extend their arms and legs to offer each other counterbalance. It’s still physics, but it’s physics at play with the world around them.

“I’m drawn to circus artists,” Steuber says. “They are so much fun to photograph. They are not afraid to be in front of the camera because they are performers, but they also do these incredible feats of strength.” Take, for example the photo of Rabinowitz in a spread-eagle, one-armed handstand, his shadow stretched out on the alley below his silhouette, or one of DeBor, back arched, held aloft by Rabinowitz’s feet, while he himself hangs by his fingertips from the support beam of a bridge.

Steuber is learning how the three performers want to look in their photographs, and testing how far she can push them. The troupe is an egalitarian, supportive, and improvisational collaboration, but, during the photoshoots, Steuber takes on the role of ringmaster, alternating between praise and direction: “Good job.” “Do a backbend or something static.” “Yeah, got it.” “I don’t think that’s the right window; we’ll find the right one someday.” “Take one step left and then two giant steps backwards.”  “Not another ‘pushy’ thing. Try something more ‘arch-y.’” “Awesome.”

The project has changed the way they see the city, which DeBor notes is “an incredible stage for art and circus.” As they move through their day-to-day routines they are constantly scouting locations.

Rabinowitz now can’t glance at any building’s façade without immediately asking himself, “Where can I hang off of that?” He relishes how the art draws something out of the physical environment. “I can use my body and my talent as an extension of the architecture,” he says, “and add humanity to a place.”

Once they find a location, they don’t always ask permission, but—luckily—they’ve rarely had to ask forgiveness either. When people figure out what they’re doing and see that it’s not malicious, they generally leave the group alone.

Police from a K-9 unit interrupted them one night while DeBor was dangling from a chain clipped under a bridge near the Anacostia River. Over the dog’s aggressive barking, Steuber offered herself up as spokesperson for the group. The officer said to her, “we got a report that there was a woman hanging from the bridge.”

“Oh. She’s alive,” Steuber responded, “she’s a circus artist,” realizing with some horror that a poor passerby had caught a glimpse of one of their poses and thought the worst. The officer seemed relieved. “I thought for sure he was going to have us take the chains down, but he just said ‘that’s fine; keep going,’” she recalls.

They’ve turned enough heads that they’ve begun developing a plan for a live performance. One night, DeBor was perched atop Kloc’s shoulders playing her violin as he juggled, with Rabinowitz moving and posing in the space around them. People slowed down to watch. A family hopped off their Capital Bikeshare bikes and the father hushed them into quiet observation. “That’s it.” Rabinowitz thought to himself, “That’s how we start a show.”

“Circus is inclusive,” Steuber says. “It draws people in.” Once, while shooting photos of Kloc juggling in the metro, she turned the camera away from Kloc to capture the faces of the crowd that gathered around them. The curiosity of the audience had upstaged the performance and also become an important part of it. Afterwards, the crowd stuck around to ask questions and talk. “It opened up this conversation,” she says. “I see that as the role of contemporary circus.”

They’d like to engage people in other cities as well. “We’d love to take it internationally. That’s kind of the dream,” Rabinowitz says.

Rabinowitz, who combined disciplines to create a new major at AU called Performance Art and Power and has worked with circus outreach programs on multiple continents, has described himself as a “cultural diplomat.” It’s a title that connects him to a long tradition of educational and cultural exchange efforts, like Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy or the Fulbright fellowships, which have allowed people to interact across borders even when leaders are wary to do so.

Charles Dickens saw a pattern of empathy and openness in circus culture that he termed the “wisdom of the heart.” Dozens if not hundreds of “social circuses” are leveraging this openness to facilitate peace and understanding in places with painful histories and ingrained mistrust.

Rabbi Marc Rosenstein founded the Galilee Circus in 2003, which has since brought together a few hundred Jewish and Arab kids to collaborate on performances. In Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel, he explained, “circus is a multicultural/international tradition, language-independent, non-competitive, based on trust and cooperation, transcending divisions of class and age.” He sees the opportunities and is undeterred by the limitations, pointing out that “circus will not bring peace to the Middle East. But it can help to make dialogue possible by reducing fears, lowering barriers, and building trust.” He’s proud to say that the connections formed between the kids have spread. There’s now also a parent’s group that plans social events for the families.

Clowns Without Borders South Africa sees play as a vital tool to break through destructive social patterns. In conjunction with the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, they have begun quantifying the impact that clowning and circus arts can have on reducing abuse in communities ravaged by HIV and AIDS. 

“One of the key elements of circus has always been not just the furtherance of diversity but the celebration of diversity,” says Ed LeClair, the director of Circus Smirkus, a professional circus in Vermont that recruits its younger performers via exchanges with more than 30 countries. Smirkus will be performing among the monuments at the 50th anniversary of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2017. The organizers recognize that “circus arts are now experiencing a grassroots revival focused on live human performance and creativity.” 

Street Light Circus is part of that revival, and while they have rehearsed at the Kennedy Center and Rabinowitz performed at last year’s White House Halloween party, they draw most of their creativity from the more anonymous corners of the city, at least for the time being.

Like circuses of days gone by, Street Light Circus may pack up and move away before too long. DeBor is going to spend the next year studying at the elite New England Center for Circus Arts, and Rabinowitz is a finalist for a fellowship that could take him to Budapest.

“I don’t see it as one thing ending. I see it as continuing to learn as an artist,” he says, optimistically.

At the end of the summer, Rabinowitz may find himself launching skyward once again, riding the momentum of what he has done in this past “year of experimentation,” turning to meet the opportunities that are swinging into place, just so.

Street Light Circus