If you attend a festival on Vancouver Island this summer and see a figure stilt-walking in a spectacular costume, chances are you’ve encountered a member of the Vesta Entertainment circus crew. And in Nanaimo, where the community of spinners and circus performers is only beginning to build a profile, Vesta owner and “ring mistress” Karina Strong’s presence makes up for the lack of strength in numbers. Even her civilian outfits include leather corsets and hypnotizing contact lenses, the colour of which she chooses “depending on the day” and the clothes she wears. She will hug a stranger with the same sincerity as a dear friend, explaining that “that’s how we do it in circus.”
Strong originally imagined herself as a social worker. She worked for government organizations for 10 years, but the experience with the bureaucratic system left her craving another way to make a difference in people’s lives.
Circus and performance has been Strong’s hobby for a decade. She occasionally experimented with amateur performance and sang at festivals until she eventually started her own full time entertainment business. Named after the Roman goddess of fire and hearth, the Vesta Entertainment group now performs at numerous festivals and large events, making the list of the Vancouver Island Music Festival in Courtenay, Victoria International Busking Festival, and Vancouver Island Exposition, among many others. Although the bulk of the company’s work is within the local Island scene, the company occasionally ventures out to international tours in Asia and the US. The other spectrum of Vesta’s activities centres around classes and workshops, such as the Flying Circus which will take place from March 23-28. Strong talked to The Navigator about the upcoming workshop and shared her views on joy, inspiration, and perseverance.
What can we imagine under the term “circus?”
There’s a lot of history to the term ‘’circus,” and it’s very subjective. People tend to think of elephants and tigers, the ringmaster and clowns—that’s circus to them. Other people think of aerial: tight rope walking, silks, that type of thing. But what we do and teach in the circus community is “flow arts,” which is dancing with props, and prop manipulation. Basically doing stuff with things.
What does circus mean to you?
It’s a way for me to interact with people and children and to bring joy, play, and laughter. Because of my history in social work and child protection, I’m a strong believer in play therapy and how healing laughter can be. Having a business based around entertainment and teaching allows me to do that important work that drives me.
What can flow arts and circus offer to people who have other interests or a different “drive” in life?
It’s not competitive in any way. We start with where the student is. With poi, [performance equipment] for example, it’s about just being able to spin it next to you without hitting yourself. We’re encouraging and supporting each other in our classes to celebrate our successes. Because, in circus, it never gets easier—the tricks just get more complicated. The feeling of struggling is always there, trying to make the object you’re manipulating to go where you want it to go. It’s not about what you do, but about the feeling that you can do it. What we teach children is that it’s a journey between not being able to do something, the perseverance to stick with it, and the success when you can do it. That’s the essence of why I do what I do.
Do you still hit yourself with poi?
All the time. Because I’m learning more and more complicated patterns and work with partners now.
How has Vesta developed over the five years it has been in business?
I have a really strong team that works for me. And I’m still learning. My technical level of prop manipulation and performing is different now than five years ago. I’ve got much better, but it’s not the skill level—it’s the way it’s delivered to the audience, how we teach and interact while we’re teaching. And there’s the whole world running a business—marketing and strategic planning are my main challenges. I’m very happy with the shows we’re producing now. We’re always doing better and bigger shows, and we’re always doing more things and making our routines more complicated. My performers don’t usually have a dance background, so we’re working with choreographers who show us different ways to think about movement on stage and how to move our bodies instead of just working with the props.
What background do your performers come from?
They’re all so different. All of them are pretty young, though. Kat, who’s doing the Body Talk program with me, started off in the company as a juggler. But he has a background in chemistry. He’s very science-minded, like a mathematician—very analytical; not a dancer. But crazy, amazingly good at breaking down a movement and explaining how it works.
How do you help and inspire people through circus?
It’s about supporting kids to find their passion and surround themselves with positive people who do the same. The best way to do that is by modeling how you live and what it is that we’re doing. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have an amazing team to do it with.
I love working with the youth. We’re funded by Artstarts, a not-for-profit education organizations, to visit and teach in schools as artists-in-residence. We also team up with the police-based drug prevention team to work on DARE, which is a show for schools.
Your daughter, who is 11, also performs with you.
She stilts and has started hula hooping, and she’ll perform depending on the show.
If she decided she wants to do what you do for a living, what advice would you give her?
Do what you’re passionate about, what resonates through your soul. It’s specific to this field and to life. We all struggle through life trying to find something that makes us happy. It makes me happy to inspire and help people. For her, that might be something different.
What are your performances like?
Which type of performance are you asking about? Fire show? Stilting? They’re all different. The fire shows are definitely the ones that give you the “rock star” feeling. We do these six people fire shows with propane canons and pyrotechnics. They’re so much fun! We also do variety show acts and they’re pre-packaged story shows with a theme. But the fire shows really awe people. I like stilting because it’s more interactive and we talk to people and I’m very social so I love being able to talk to kids and play with them.
How do you make yourself approachable to the youngest audiences?
My favourite part of the fire show is after, when you talk to the kids and they bring you cards to sign. That’s my opportunity to connect, and thank them for clapping and supporting us during the show. It’s important for me to make them feel important.
Is it any different from working with adults?
No. It’s not different at all. The skills we teach are sometimes more advanced, but the basis is still the same. Adults are ok, but teenagers can be hard sometimes. They don’t want to appear foolish in front of their friends. They may pick up a hula hoop, try it once, and when it falls down, they’re out. They won’t try it again because of the fear of judgement. So that’s something we really work with them on—that nothing comes easy.
The Flying Circus is designed by and around teenagers. How will you accommodate their interests and challenges?
The type of choreography I’m planning with them is not individual. It’ll be all about partnering and working together as a group to make shapes with hula hoops, so it’s not competitive.
The concept of Body Talk is to bring two dance genres, present them in a workshop, and then fuse them into one hybrid genre in the final performance. What are you planning for the joint show with Aerosia?
We’re working on choreographing one or two group poi pieces based on what we will teach in the workshop. The group pieces are very different and for all skill levels. Then Kat and I will demonstrate some advanced techniques. And in the finale, we’ll perform with fire.
The Flying Circus workshop will take place during the spring break week between Monday, March 23 and Friday, March 29. To register and/or buy tickets for the high flying performance finale on Saturday, March 28, visit www.crimsoncoastdance.org or www.climbromperroom.com. Vesta’s current drop-in classes take place every Sunday at Nanaimo Gymnastic Centre with two up to six people per class. Children practice from 10-11 am ($15) and teens and adults are 11 am – 12:30 pm ($20). For more information, visit Vesta’s website.