Karyne Steben, the lead aerial instructor at Kinetic Theory Theatre in Culver City, won't hound you about your unpointed toes. She won't correct the posture in your tango turn around the trapeze ropes, nor will she insist that you keep your legs straight when you straddle up on the aerial tissu for a double-star drop. She will only insist that you have a heart, and allow your audience see it in your face.
After, that is, you do five sets of 15 crunches and two sets of 20 pushups, then submit to a pull-up contest with your peers until one of you hits the wall. Next, Steben will ask you to climb the aerial rope three times, pretending with each ascent and descent that it's someone you love, or hate. (“Have a relationship with the rope,” she insists.)
It used to be that the only way to learn the skills of circus professionals was to be born into a family full of them. Now Greater Los Angeles has some sort of aerial setup in every quadrant, each with different qualities to recommend it. Hollywood Aerial Arts in Inglewood charges reasonable prices for two-hour classes taught by working professionals, who emphasize serious, hardcore skills. FocusFish (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I teach), holds family-oriented classes skewed toward play and fitness over professional finesse. Absolution in West Hollywood will teach you how to be a spy in addition to perfecting your single-foot hang on the aerial hoop. At the New York Trapeze School on the Santa Monica Pier, they fly.
The classes at Kinetic Theory, by contrast, are all about self-expression. Steben, half of the twin-sister team that created and performed double-trapeze routines in Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanco and O, leaves time at the end of every class for a short performance session; afterward, she critiques her students like a director giving notes at a dress rehearsal. Spectacular tricks earn fewer rewards than vulnerability in the air; perfection matters less than emotion. Her harshest critique: “I didn't see anything in your eyes.”
Steben's method is in keeping with the philosophy set down by Kinetic Theory's owner, Stephanie Abrams, who founded the studio less than a year ago to nurture performers of all ages and levels of experience. In her airy, clean and mat-lined studio, Abrams teaches classes in contortion, stretching and, yes, even mime (it's back!). She also trains a select troupe of serious performers, culled from her classes, and holds daytime and afterschool sessions for children.
“I want to redefine the way people train for circus,” Abrams says. “So many people think it means spending all day in a gym, training like an athlete. But if you don't learn the performing element, you're not really learning circus. What's the point if you're not going to show it?”
Abrams' philosophy does not make classes easier than a gym workout. Performing requires endurance and practice until a five-to-10-minute routine feels like second nature. But self-expression, as it turns out, is a wonderful distraction from pain and exhaustion, and an excellent motivating force — we're all hams at heart. “I'm always surprised at the number of people who come to the conditioning classes for a workout and end up asking what it takes to perform,” Abrams says. “Once they see what they're capable of, they want everyone to see it.”