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Ithaca is People: Amy Cohen

The #IthacaisPeople Files

Week 10: Life's a Circus - Literally

This week's @VisitIthaca Instagrammer is turning Ithaca upside down! Literally. Founder of Circus Culture, Amy Cohen can be found helping people young and old learn the art of tightwire, juggling, and building massive human pyramids. Follow her all week long on Instagram, and read the interview below to find out why "Ithaca is Circus", and maybe even catch a glimpse of doing what she loves best: balancing large objects on her chin. No lie.

How long have you been "circusing"?

The first recorded circusing of me is when I was six, and I was at a music festival and I balanced a broom on my chin... and I haven't turned back ever since. (laughs)

So when exactly did you start really training, and what was your specialty?

So I balanced this broom, and then my phys-ed class had circus, so I spent a week every year growing up as a kid, and then there was this circus camp... and that's where I really found that circus was my home planet, and I just wanted to be there for that six weeks, and I would just wait all year to go back, so that's really where I think that my training started. But it was very sporadic. And then in high school I did theater, because it was the closest thing to circus, and I was always that girl juggling on the side of the play (laughs). And I did do gymnastics but I stopped doing it when it became competitive because I just really wasn't into that element of it, but I just loved the physicality of it, and circus was very clearly this path to being creative with your physicality and being able to interpret it and not having to be a spitting image of someone else, but to be able to be really physical. Then when went to Ithaca College I started a circus club with a collaborator named Matt Karp and - he and I wanted to do circus more often - so we started this circus club, and that's when I really started to be able to do circus every day, continuously. And then you kind of have to wander all over the world to do circus, because it's not like you go to one place to learn it all. You really have to pick it up from different lineages, and different countries, and different people; and it's a really cool part of learning circus that you have these generations that can really teach you, even if you're not from a traditional "circus family". Like I'm not from a real "circus family" but there's still this element of passing down from different types of people even though it's not a blood relative. It's a joy to learn it and to continue to learn it.

So when you talk about "learning circus", what does that include?

Well my favorite circus discipline has changed has changed over time, but what we do at Circus Culture is most of the circus disciplines including trapeze and aerial fabric acrobatics and also tumbling and human pyramids, lots of juggling and props and human pyramids and lots of juggling, and there's contortion...kind of something for everyone. Personally, I do a lot of teaching aerial apparatus... I like being upside down and in the air. I also like balancing really large objects on my chin, like ladders and tables and things like that - that's my very oddball talent - and I love hula-hooping and I think my favorite thing is choreographic group acrobatics... stacking people up in cool shapes. So, it's very varied. We also have tightwire... that's the really cool thing about circus is that your gravitation can really kind of shift. It's very humbling because there is always something new to learn and someone who is excelling more quickly than you but then you also have your own talent you can share with other people, and it can kind of morph. It really meets people where they are in the different stages of life too, so someone can be a trapeze artist and kind of age out of being a trapeze artist, but they can do something that's less taxing on their body but is still part of circus. So, I like that.

So, then you aren't from Ithaca originally?

No, I am from downstate - the Hudson Valley area, and then I went to Ithaca College. I studied Arts Management, but I always had kind of a "circus lens" on it. I was in the theater department there, and I graduated in 2008. My dream for Circus Culture started about 10 years ago when I was in college. So it was always like, " Some day it's going to happen." I was telling everybody "I'm gonna move back, it's gonna happen." And then... now it's happened! So it's pretty cool!

So did you want to open the school in Ithaca specifically?

Mmm hmm. Yes. I did.

Why Ithaca?

Because I feel like it's such a circus-y place. Ithaca is place where people say "yes" to things. And I think that that is the essence of circus, is saying "yes" to whatever comes your way and interpreting it, and exploring it, and Ithaca is full of that spirit, so it feels like a circus school belongs here.

Well, that leads me into my next question. When people think of the circus they think of clowns, a ringmaster, a contortionist... if you could pick one character from the circus that represents Ithaca, what would it be?

Oooh, that's a really interesting question. See the thing about circus to me is that it is so much about this unity and diversity of types of people. So that's the really Ithaca thing is that it is all these different people with different people with different expertise... the plumber, the lawyer, the farmer, the people who make the community what it is, and circus is a little microcosm of that. Ithaca is really a place that because of the scale, because we're so small, we're so lively, you get people playing all these different types of roles and that's what makes the gears turn in this community. So in circus... yeah, it would be hard to choose just one element. Ithaca is such a place of collaboration, and so is circus. It's all the different roles working together. And that's the most "Ithaca" part about it.

That's fair.

I know that's not exactly what you're looking for!

No, that's a great answer! And the next one is the question we ask everyone. If you could describe Ithaca in one word, what would it be?

Oh... vibrant!

Follow @VisitIthaca on Instagram for more.

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