Acrobatic Conundrum Soars OCircus! to New Heights

In 2004, Terry Crane graduated from Oberlin College with a Dance and Environmental Studies major. The following year, he auditioned at École nationale de cirque in Montreal — which is arguably the most famous circus school in the world. He went on to lead a very successful solo aerial rope career, touring with various circuses around Europe, before settling back home in Seattle to found his own circus company, Acrobatic Conundrum.

In 2007–2008, after Terry had graduated, OCircus! was founded by an adventurous group of students, and soon Oberlin became known for the club. In the past week alone, I’ve been put in touch with two prospies who wanted to talk about it.

Even though OCircus! came after Terry’s time, I consider him our spiritual predecessor. As one of the best rope artists in the world, he’s contributed significantly to Oberlin’s circus reputation, and every OCircus! alum knows who he is.

Naturally, when we heard that his company was touring, we wanted them to come to Oberlin.

Due to scheduling and budget concerns, it took almost two years of planning, a special combined budget involving two clubs and the Dance department, and a lot of hard work from the OCircus! administrators to make it happen.

Last week, it finally did.

And boy, did Acrobatic Conundrum deliver. There was something for everybody, with workshops over the week open to all levels in dance/acro technique, flexibility, handstands, duo trapeze, rope, and an open contact improv/partner acro class.

Finally, over the weekend, there were two performances of their latest work, The Fig Tree Waltzes.

Now, what pops into your head when you think “circus”? Cirque du Soleil, The Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus? Lions, tigers, elephants? Tightrope over a net that’s on fire? A huge, extravagant, popcorn spectacle?

Contemporary circus is in the midst of a cultural revolution, and Acrobatic Conundrum is part of that. Not just focused on the spectacle of circus, The Fig Tree Waltzes maintained a rich thematic and narrative core, at times feeling more like an experimental theatre or dance show.

To be clear, it was still very much a circus show, with trapeze, silks, clowning, acrobatics, hand balancing, a cyr wheel, and what must be the world’s smallest lyra (aerial hoop).

Each member of the five-person troupe had a chance to shine in a solo, as well as work together in larger set pieces. For me, the incredible character work and flawless transitions between acts were where the show really shined. In other circus shows that I’ve seen, the act boundaries were more obvious, while The Fig Tree Waltzes felt like one continuous show.

So what about the narrative? Based upon the fig tree metaphor in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, the show was about love and loss, embracing your quirks, and the human drive to keep playing against overwhelming odds.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story,” Plath wrote. “From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor… I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest. And, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

It was poetic, and it was powerful. I ended up going both nights, hungry for more.

This past semester, I’ve had a lot of challenges. A mysterious knee injury has forced me to reassess how I train, to reevaluate my relationship with my body, and to face my ambition in acrobatics. A lack of artistic motivation has me scrambling to try and create something for a senior dance recital next semester. The looming graduation has me questioning where my priorities in life lie.

Acrobatic Conundrum and The Fig Tree Waltzes left me feeling full.

After the show, for the first time since my injury, I felt free and creative in my movement practices. Inspired by the work I had just seen, I had so many ideas for my own artistic endeavors that I became excited about my senior project again. Most importantly, I realized that maybe I don’t have to live a nine-to-five life.

Maybe I can run away and join the circus, too.