Beneath the Big Top: Interview with a Circus Artist

Have you ever been dazzled by the shining lights and daring feats performed beneath the big top? Have you ever, even just for a moment, wanted to run away with the circus? Having done just that, Alia Ripley, touring circus performer, actor, and aspiring director, joins Generally Gothic to discuss the role of social commentary and horror in her performative circus art.

With Permission | © Ted Wilson

Clowns and all, the circus arts are a serious subject, which Alia has and continues to train in extensively.

“I have trained at Versatile Arts in Seattle, Womack and Bowman: The Loft and The Aerial Classroom in Los Angeles, Mendocino Center for Circus Arts in Mendocino, The Aerial Lab in Grass Valley, and with several instructors in New York City and Las Vegas including Brenna Bradbury, Sarah Romanowsky, and Leysan Gayazova.”

Outside of the circus world, Alia has an equally impressive background having studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, American Conservatory Theatre, and the San Francisco Film School, amongst others.

Though for her the circus was not a family profession, Alia has almost always been a performer, and whilst she started flying young, she did not immediately soar…

“I had seen circus shows as a child, and my first memory of training circus was when my mom took me to a flying trapeze class when I was about 8 years old. I was and still am terrified of heights so I didn’t do very well, though the second time I did better [laughs], and eventually I just didn’t go back.”

Years later, whilst rehearsing as an actor for a stage show, a friend mentioned aerial silks classes in Alia’s local town in California, USA.

“I was in a different place, older, and I thought it could be fun. I took my first class and from there I was hooked.”

Clearly now a natural fit, Alia continued to tackle her fear of heights head on, casually continuing:
“After that, I began training lyra (aerial hoop) in addition to aerial silks, and after moving to LA I picked up fire eating and fire dancing, as well as Spanish web (an aerial rope with a hand loop attached that allows the aerialist to be spun around), and the rest is history.”

Though the circus may not have been in this fire-eating aerialist’s blood at birth, it certainly seems to be now…

With Permission | © Sam Manila

Training across the cities of the US, the multi-talented performer has collected states and connections, contributing to her personal accomplishment of visiting all 50 united states and the professional achievement of joining a circus!

“[I]n 2016, I was given the opportunity to apprentice with and perform Spanish web in the opening number for Flynn Creek Circus during their summer tour.”

When asked how the reality of running away with the circus compared to any previous expectations, Alia humbly admits:
“I can’t really distinguish between the two, as I was excited to have the opportunity to tour and work under a Big Top and with world class performers” – none of which she’d imagined would truly happen in her life.

Describing the experience as “extraordinary”, Alia speaks fondly of the friends she made and things she learnt, from pitching up the big top to behind the scenes business dealings.

“The owners, Blaze Birge and David Jones, collectively known as the Daring Jones Duo, were the best employers I have ever had, and it was a treat to get to learn from some of the top duo trapeze artists in the world. In the end, it was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life, and I can literally say I ran away with the circus [laughs].”

It absolutely sounds like reality beat out expectation on this occasion and the circus is the place to run to!

With Permission | © Ted Wilson

With her first flight far behind her, Alia graces stages across the country creating a variety of spectacles. There is, however, one recurring factor: horror. When asked about the relationship between darker or generally gothic themes and the circus arts, and what draws her personally to such themes, the artist explains:
“I grew up watching horror movies with my dad, so the appreciation for the macabre has always been a part of me, and has carried over to my art. It was also nice to see female protagonists in these films who broke the mould and pushed beyond the damsel-in-distress stereotype. Additionally, I feel there has always been an air of mystique and the unknown with circus, and part of its allure is that it requires a lot of hard work and mastery of a specific skill set that has an inherent risk to it. For me personally, as an aerialist and fire performer, technique and safe practices are everything.

“Most of all though, I think the relationship between darker, gothic themes and circus arts is the same as the relationship between darker themes and life. To me, a big part of the allure and appreciation for gothic themes and style is that there is so much mystery surrounding death. In fact, all we know for certain is that it is a natural part of life and it is destined to happen to all of us. However, this is not a bad thing, and what I have found is that an intrigue for the dark and unknown, and what we typically associate with death, helps me feel more connected to, and appreciative of life. I think horror fans tend to get a reputation as being outcasts or disturbed, but I have found the horror community to be the opposite, and it is one of the most welcoming, accepting communities. People come together and share in their love of the gothic and macabre, while being kind and supportive to one another, as well as celebrating what it means to be vulnerable, afraid, and ultimately human.”

Horror films, strong female representation, respect for the craft, and acknowledgement that the gothic exists in life? It sounds like everything that Generally Gothic celebrates is culminated in Alia’s macabre theatrical performances. As an audience member, the aerialist goes on to explain, you can expect to enjoy appearances from familiar characters…

At a screening of The Crow (dir. Alex Proyas, 1994) in Sacramento, for example, Alia had her live, stage debut Spanish web performance, which included segments on violin and duo aerial arts. Describing it as “an amalgam of a lot of different art forms I loved,” the circus artist enthuses that “[m]ost of all, it was an honour to get to pay tribute to Brandon Lee [… –] one of my biggest idols both in life and in art.”

You need not take our word for the success of the show, however, as hidden amongst the crowd sat James O’Barr, creator of the gothic fiction comic book series The Crow, from which Brandon Lee’s cinematic portrayal was born. O’Barr “had nothing but positive feedback” for Alia’s performance, which is understandably the one she “hold[s] closest to [her] heart.”

With Permission | © Ted Wilson

By this point you will be forgiven for assuming that we’ve now covered the extensive skills of this circus artist/actor/aspiring director, but there’s also a science to her art. Declaring her equal, and lifelong, passion for theatre and astronomy – both of which she is educated in – Alia’s next project revolves around the symbiosis of these two disciplines.

“I am currently writing a theatrical show that I hope to tour soon. It is a social commentary piece, and will revolve around the idea that art is equally as important to society as science and technology. There has been a lot of criticism of the arts and their relevance lately, and it is my hope that this show will illustrate their benefit, and share with others what many of us are so passionate about, as well as provide some scientific education and appreciation.”

If you’re worried that it sounds too much like a science lesson (and for whatever reason that isn’t your thing!), the circus artist/actor/aspiring director/and now, scientist shares her vision for the show “as an amalgam of different art forms, including circus, with a combination of a historical and future setting, with a gothic twist. It will be just as much about education and entertainment as it will be about rebirth, overcoming adversity, and taking a stand for what you believe in.”

Whilst Alia naturally doesn’t want to reveal too much at this point, the premise is enthralling. In their own rights the arts and sciences are both fascinating subjects, but together, as evidenced by early gothic science fiction like that of Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells, they can offer so much more.

With Permission | © Inma Thompson

Whether soaring through the air, flirting with fire, or studying the celestial, ultimately Alia is an artist and a storyteller. She defines herself:
“I am a social commentary artist […] sharing a message with every performance.”

A firm believer that “art has the power to change the world for the better,” the circus artist’s appreciation for her audience is palpable:
“Alone, I will always be an artist, which is wonderful in itself, but the audience lets me be a performer.”

She revels in offering a period of pure escapism, perhaps influenced by the enjoyment and education she experienced during her own time with the circus.

Currently in the process of forming her own production company to “create many films and stage productions that incorporate social commentary, as well as entertain,” Alia is open to collaboration. She can be reached by email, and her updates can be followed on Facebook.

With a strong belief that “passion, hard work, and dedication lead to success,” which she has already proved through her many accomplishments, Alia is “excited for what’s to come.” As are we!

For the duration of June, The Circus of Horrors is here at Generally Gothic. Keep reading with an interview about historical found circus photography, and the RWA’s Angela Carter exhibition

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