Cirque School was founded in 2004 by Cirque du Soleil veteran Aloysia Gavre, who quips that her vision was to allow "anybody with any body" the chance to join the circus. Our troupe of wannabe trapeze artists, contortionists and acrobats consisted of two adults — in fairly good shape but not limber at all, as in the last time I did the splits was in sixth grade — and two boys, ages 6 and 9. We'd signed up for an hour of individual attention that took us from acrobatics to aerial tricks to tumbling.
We entered through a small alley in East Hollywood — less than a mile from the theater at Hollywood & Highland where Cirque du Soleil's "Iris" is now playing — and there it was: a 6,000-square-foot studio with trapezes, crash pads and gauze curtains just like in Cirque du Soleil.
There was a wire to walk on, and a hoop suspended in the air. And there was a beautiful man with a perfect body ready to train us. His name was Sagiv Ben Binyamin, and when he's not teaching classes for ordinary, inflexible people like us, he is a performer in Troupe Vertigo, a theatrical circus troupe made up of Gavre and other teachers from the school whose performances feature trapeze, aerial silk, contortion, acrobatics, hula-hoop and hand balancing.
We had signed papers saying we would not sue if we broke our necks or fell from trapezes. Still, I was amazed at what Ben Binyamin encouraged us to do.
We ran around and warmed up, and then we stretched — a lot. I am so tight from my desk job that after my first backbend I wondered if I would complete the class. Ben Binyamin had us do regular somersaults and cartwheels followed by dive somersaults — no arms, just launch into the air, tuck and roll — onto a crash mat. We dove, then somersaulted, through a ring of fire — well, an imaginary ring of fire.
Benji, my younger son, flew through the ring like a boy shot out of a cannon but forgot to somersault and landed on all fours. Theo, my older son, dove through, tucked and rolled, and landed like a pro. Jonathan, my husband, and I were awkward — but delighted with ourselves.
As we struggled, others around us perfected their tricks. A girl hung from a hoop by her neck and spun around. A man climbed to the ceiling on a ladder of gauze. A woman practiced walking on a wire with bamboo sticks to support her.
"He is a nurse at Cedars," Gavre said pointing to one man.
"And she is a mother of two," she said, pointing to a lithe woman swinging on a trapeze.
Gavre said she wants Cirque School — beyond providing fitness and fun — to create a sense of community often missing in this sprawling city without a center. "They are experiencing things that are very scary all at once," she said of the amateur performers all around us. "It is very bonding."
Ben Binyamin swung up onto a trapeze; we climbed up onto ours, tried to copy him and watched ourselves in the mirror so we could correct our form — and admire ourselves. We learned a succession of moves — such as bird's nest (back arched, chins up and smiling) and mermaid (hanging sideways, one arm flung out in a dramatic flourish), and progressed to an upside-down straddle, no hands.
The rope dug into my ankles, then my legs. It hurt. Ben Binyamin nodded.
"In Cirque, we say the more beautiful, the more painful," he said.
We looped gauze around our feet and hands and suspended ourselves in fabric from the ceiling. I barely knew what I was doing. Ben Binyamin wove me in and out and upside down through the fabric as if he were tying an elaborate nautical knot — and suddenly I was hanging upside down with my legs spread wide, gauze supporting my lower back in the air. I couldn't have escaped if I tried. I extended my arms, and my boys used them to do a flip as if I were a jungle gym. Wow. That was an excellent spinal stretch.
We all had had weak spots, moves we feared might snap our aging bodies or simply blow our minds with the effort required. Ben Binyamin encouraged and spotted, but never pushed. He seemed to have a sixth sense of what might be too much or where we might get stuck — forever.
We ended up on a hula-hoop-sized ring suspended from the ceiling. Once again, we climbed on and threw ourselves sideways in a mermaid, then hung upside down in a no-hands straddle, playing to the imaginary crowd that was crying out our names. Ben Binyamin jumped on the hoop and spun so fast he was like a gyroscope — a blur of perfect beauty. I copied Ben Binyamin, pushing my legs out to spin slow, pulling them in to go fast. It was thrilling, and nauseating. I got off and stumbled like a drunk; Ben Binyamin told me to jump up and down to stop the dizziness. I was queasy for an hour.
Still, it was heaven. To flip. To spin. To swing on a trapeze and sail through a hoop. No matter what you look like — and really, beginners, you do not want to see yourself — it is a thrill.
At the end, Ben Binyamin gave us a private show. He shimmied up the fabric to the ceiling. He wrapped himself up in the fabric like an angel, then spun his way back down to the ground like a falling star. To see that kind of beauty up close takes your breath away.