Above: Amy Christian perform on aerial silk during a Circus Luminous production. Photography by Kate Russell.
BENEATH THE MASK of an industrial warehouse on Santa Fe’s south side, a garage door rises to reveal the fantastical world of Wise Fool. The community arts organization’s headquarters sticks out amid the construction personas of its neighboring buildings. A unicycle rack stands against one wall, and a cat’s cradle of trapezes, harnesses, and Crayola-colored aerial silks dangle overhead. On one wall, the wizened papier-mâché face of a puppet, her arms spread wide, gazes down as Amy Christian calls her acrobatistas to the tumbling mats for an evening class.
Christian leads the warm-up, demonstrating with her lithe limbs, scars marking her knee beneath cut-off sweatpants. The students—from teens to Baby Boomers—pair up, contorting one another into Cirque du Soleil–esque poses that leave their legs trembling from effort and their eyes alight as they conquer moves just moments ago judged impossible. “Always fighting that feeling you’re going to fall: That’s the journey,” Christian advises, weaving through the students to gently tuck hips or reposition a foot for better balance.
Some people dream of running away to the circus. Christian started one. She tumbled into circus arts from activism, looking to combine absurdity and bold physicality with social change. For the past 20 years, as artistic director of Wise Fool New Mexico, she has ignited imaginations while building a wholly unique community. Wise Fool’s training grounds, she says, are a “brave space,” where learning how to be an acrobat, stilt walker, or clown becomes a tool for self-discovery. Stepping outside your usual domain could open a gateway to finding yourself, she says, and build bridges with other people. Students do just that, in weekly classes and during the transformative six-week Bust! Circus Camp for adult women.
Professionals guide novices and hone their own skills by leading parades, traveling with outdoor performances like SeeSaw, which has toured the United States and Colombia, and starring in the annual Circus Luminous, a Thanksgiving weekend tradition for many Santa Fe locals and visitors. The acts vary to fit the vision of that year’s director. Stilt walkers clad in metallic fabric tumble into seemingly impossible acrobatic routines. Tutued aerialists swing from hoops 20 feet in the air. Jugglers toss glow-in-the-dark objects, and the occasional whimsical clown wanders through on a unicycle.
As dazzling as such sights are, consider this: You could go from watching it one year to performing in it the next. Take fortysomething Oriana Lee. She never imagined herself studying circus arts, but got involved after her teenage sons took classes and Christian nudged her. Lee found “a place where everyone can be unapologetically themselves. The people were open, and the space was open. There’s a feeling of being able to accomplish anything.”
Wise Fool New Mexico’s DNA developed three decades ago, when Christian lived in the Bay Area and brainstormed with fellow activists about how to convey the meaning of Hiroshima Day and its peace actions. The solution arose in the form of 20-foot-tall puppets that engaged spectators, got them asking questions instead of shutting down, and smoothed the way for conversations on difficult issues. You could call it pageantry with a purpose, and the loosely formed Wise Fool Puppet Intervention soon started traveling to other Bay Area events. (The name celebrates court jesters and Shakespearean knaves—common folk who used their wits to outdo noblemen and others.)
In a quintessential tale of New Mexico, Christian followed her lovestruck heart to Santa Fe in 1997. She rebooted her organization as Wise Fool New Mexico and first focused on mounting circus performances in backyards and the intimate Peñasco Theatre, 50 miles north of Santa Fe. (One of Christian’s co-founders, Alessandra Ogren, now leads the thriving Peñasco Theatre Collective.) Love may have fizzled, but Wise Fool grew. Christian learned new circus arts, growing from dancer to clown, stilt walker, acrobat, and the seemingly impossible combination of acrobatic stilt walker. Each new performer who joined the collective added skills. Soon Christian and the half-dozen staff teachers and coordinators began teaching as much as performing.
From its first small studio in 2001, the troupe grew into a larger class and rehearsal space in 2005, and its largest space in 2015, the one it now occupies on Siler Road. It expanded beyond these walls, too, creating the Circus Comes to School program in 2012. Ever since debuting Circus Luminous at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in 2003, the collective has graced stages grand and small. It’s tapped big-name funders locally and nationally, including the Santa Fe Community Foundation, New Mexico Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts—though its pace often threatens to outrun its bucks. “I’ve seen the books,” says board member Katy Medley. “I don’t know how they do it.”
In part, it’s through Christian’s oomph. “Although she didn’t do it alone and she would never take credit for ensuring the company’s survival and growth, she’s an incredible driving force,” Medley says. “She’s frighteningly resourceful.”
True to its roots in community activism, Wise Fool’s spectacle of puppets and stilt walkers still calls attention to issues ranging from immigration to inequality. It became one of the first 11 companies in the national Social Circus Network, which holds that circus may be the medium, but community building is the mission. Except that Wise Fool breaks even that mold by also focusing on personal transformation.
Circus arts, Christian says, slowly pull away “layers of who we think we are and what we think we’re capable of, to see a little more what’s possible.” As the 2,000 children Wise Fool teaches every year confront their fears and undeveloped skills, they learn to rely on one another. “There’s this concept that asking for help is a sign of weakness, or you’re not enough,” she says. “In circus arts, there are things you just can’t do without another person. It’s not a burden on the other person; they want to help.”
For all the intimidating heights of aerials and precarious balancing of acrobatics, Christian says clowning presents the hardest-won lessons. It requires students to take one of their own personal qualities—an oversize nose, wild hair—embrace it, and raise it to the ridiculous. “You have to own the thing and your fully unique self,” she says. “But it’s the scariest, because we’re afraid of being vulnerable.”
At age 52, Christian herself faces new vulnera-bilities. Although she clowned at the 2016 Circus Luminous, a fragile knee and the magnitude of her artistic director duties have forced her to perform less. But new performers are ready to take the spotlight, and that’s given her room to find her way back to the company’s roots in puppetry and activism.
In July, Wise Fool represented New Mexico and the broader Southwest in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, marching a pink-haired, pigtailed puppet down the National Mall, bedecked with banners, one of which said simply, LISTEN. It was a high point in Christian’s career, but after 20 years of performing in New Mexico, she is most gratified that the grassroots group has simply survived when so many haven’t. “We’ve changed and flowed, and continued to create a container for these epiphany moments.”
Back in class, Christian guides students through a Frankenstein-like move that tips a flier from horizontal to standing, perched on the base person’s hands. “Great!” she says, clapping, as one pair accomplishes the trick, glee and astonishment flashing on the flier’s face. “Now do it again. Five more times.”
JOIN IN THE CIRCUS
Wise Fool’s Circus Luminous hits the Lensic’s stage in Santa Fe on November 24–26. For tickets and showtimes, visit ticketssantafe.org.
Students and pros collaborate on the Holiday Cabaret, December 30. For tickets and info on Wise Fool, including recreational classes and the next edition of Bust! Circus Camp, visit wisefoolnewmexico.org.