Interview: Circus Artists Hannah Robinson and Sarah Kathleen Hluchan on TSNY-DC’s All-Aerial Student Showcase

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What makes a circus act great is it looks humanly impossible. Yet, Trapeze School New York (TSNY) Washington DC regularly trains students to do the impossible on a daily basis. Their next student showcase is this Friday. It’s a great chance to check out some local circus and maybe get inspired to try out the impossible yourself. I had an opportunity to chat recently with two of the performers, Hannah Robinson and Sarah Kathleen Hluchan, about training, performing and Florence and the Machine.

How long have you been doing circus and what got you started?

Sarah: I like to say that I started circus on a dark and stormy night in 2009 – literally traveled through a thunderstorm to get to my first ever flying trapeze class back when TSNY was in Chinatown. I had just finished grad school and was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do and if I was staying in DC. Flying trapeze became this wonderful distraction as I started a new job and rejoined the “real world.” I work as a consultant in the federal sector doing grants and financial management. Circus literally helps the work/life balance situation.

Hannah: I started nine years ago at TSNY DC when they set up in Chinatown. You could say my gateway circus was flying trapeze.

Do you still fly or have you switched over to aerial completely?

Hannah: I do still fly. I’m probably better at flying trapeze than I am at aerials.

Sarah: Hannah is amazing at flying trapeze! I fly a little bit – lyra is my main thing. I’ve had a lot of shoulder/back injuries and found lyra while I was rehabbing one of those and fell in love.

Do you have a performance background?

Sarah: I grew up horse showing and competed until I was 24. So I think finding a “thing” outside of work comes very naturally to me but horse showing and circus are so different. Horse showing is just like everyone else but better – circus is more about doing my thing, my way, and trying to share that.

Hannah: Zilch! Nothing since a few cameo appearances in high school. I’d say that my favorite aerial performance thus far has been duo dance trapeze with my aerials partner Christine. We did a bullfight routine where she was a graceful matador and I was the vicious bull. I’ve learned so much from her. There’s a lot of the lessons she modeled for me in my current performance. I conceived and choreographed much of that piece, and she was just a great partner to bring it to life.

What apparatuses do you use? Whats your favorite and why?

Sarah: Lyra is my primary focus – single point mostly right now. I’ve done a little bit of everything. When I was rehabbing from my shoulder surgery, I had a coach who was also rehabbing who taught lyra and talked me into taking a class. I was pretty sure it was a horrible idea – I’m not flexible, and you think of lyra as this thing graceful, bendy people do (also people complain that it hurts!) and I was really intimidated by that. Meghan was a great teacher and really made it accessible for me and I fell in love. I’ve been lucky to have some really great coaches who weren’t boxed in by what’s expected.

Hannah: Oooh, that’s a tough one. I’ve performed on solo static, doubles static, solo dance trap, duo dance trap and now straps. I’m also cleared to train on lyra, but it’s not necessarily my jam. Meghan was a very accessible teacher to those of us who don’t have natural aerialist backgrounds i.e. dance or gymnastics.

Can you tell us a little bit about your act for the show?

Sarah: I think this new piece is going to be my new favorite – which is a high bar for me right now. I think it really shows what I’ve accomplished in the last year. There are a few things in it I may have told my coach, Jim Domenick, that I’d never do, much less perform.

Hannah: It’s phenomenal.

Sarah: It’s kind of funny when I’m drilling my opening and stressing about form and then I think, “Wait, this terrified me last summer.”

Hannah: My act is one of those things that every aerialist must do one day – a Florence piece.

Florence like Italy? Hurricane? Henderson?

Sarah: And the Machine! We joke that’s an aerialist rite of passage. It’s kind of amazing one of us hasn’t done one yet. We actually almost used one for my piece and then we found the current music and it stuck.

Hannah: Yep. Florence and the Machine are aerials standbys. Although now I’m picturing a group dance trap piece to the Brady Bunch theme.

Sarah: I need to talk for a minute about how amazing this entire cast is! We have 11 acts including rope, doubles and single trapeze, Spanish web, silks, hammock (and lyra and straps of course!) and each one is unique and we’ve all put so much work into this. It’s been a great group to train with and I’m consistently awed by these ladies!

What is the process of putting an act together? How long does it take? How do you decide music, choreography, costuming…?

Hannah: I generally get inspired by a piece of music and then something will happen and I’ll see a sequence, an image, a pose that goes so perfectly that I have to start building out from it. I’ve actually workshopped this Florence piece for three years! It was originally a dance trap piece and I pulled it out of the closet last fall for a possible straps performance in the spring. It’s one where certain phases, if you will, were really clear in mind.

Sarah: It’s different every time. I tend to like a lot of run-up time – although I’ve definitely done shows where I’ve run the piece like twice before, that’s fun! I knew I wanted to do this show and I wanted to do something really dynamic. This was really a collaborative effort with my coach Jim. We made a list of things we liked and how they went together.  We had a list of possible songs, and one day we were putting stuff together and he put one on and that was it.

What has doing aerial taught you about life?

Sarah: To enjoy the process – that being somewhere doesn’t mean you have to stay there, and wanting to improve doesn’t mean where you are isn’t valuable. I want to be doing this for a long time so staying in the moment, training smart, and taking care of myself are essential.

Hannah Robinson. Photo courtesy of Hannah Robinson.
Hannah Robinson. Photo courtesy of Hannah Robinson.

Hannah: I learned that I’m an interdisciplinary learner. For a long time, I’ve been accused of being a dilettante in many aspects of my life, flitting around and never settling in on one thing and certainly, I’ve had that levied at me in my circus career, where people often set on one apparatus and become expert in that. What I’ve learned is that every time I move on to a new apparatus or circle back to an old one, the experiences and lessons I’ve learned from elsewhere have made me better and more connected to whatever I’m doing in that moment.

Do you have long-term goals with aerial?

Sarah: Besides continuing to do this for a long time, I want to keep looking back and realizing I’m doing things I was afraid of. Also performing – I’m not your typical lyra artist and I like being able to do things my way and show people things they haven’t seen and tell a story. So I want to keep pursuing opportunities that let me do that.

Hannah: To keep learning! There’s so much I don’t know that my body and brain can do. This piece I’m doing is so far outside of what I would have thought I could do nine years ago, or even two years ago!

What advice do you have for aspiring aerialists?

Sarah: Go to class! Don’t wait until you’re “strong enough.” Just go and try, we were all beginners once. We don’t bite…usually. It’s a really welcoming community. Also Arnica for the inevitable bruises.

Hannah: Yes! To all of that. That said, when you are ready, do your conditioning. It will make things go so much smoother for you.

Sarah: Yessssss! Do your pull-ups.

Hannah: Or, if you’re me, do your active flexibility training.

Sarah: And point your toes. Always.

TSNY’s All Aerial Show is this Friday, September 28, 2018, at 7:00 and 9:00 PM at TSNY-DC – 1299 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the door or online. (Please note if buying online you’ll go through the same process as picking a class. Once you’ve selected your show click the button that says “show attendee”).

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