Aloysia Gavre did not have to run away to join the circus. A physically active child, already doing competitive sports and dance, she simply started taking classes at the circus school a couple blocks from her home in San Francisco.
She learned to juggle, walk the tightrope, tumble, and stand on people’s shoulders, but what really drew her to circus work was the collaboration it demanded. "It was perfect when I was little because I didn’t like competition," she remembers. In contrast to the mentality of a coach shouting at his team to do better, circus tricks required mutual support, whether literally, in a pyramid, or spotting another acrobat during a balancing trick.
For Gavre the circus brought together the strengths of both sports and dance. "It is a perfect infusion of both," she says, "the physical prowess and challenge of sports and the grace and beauty of dance."
Gavre is codirector and choreographer for "Birdhouse Factory," a show by Cirque-Works that combines theater, dance, circus, and machinery, coming to the Trenton War Memorial on Sunday, January 27.
When Gavre got to high school she did dance and theater but was also able to continue with circus as an elective. She also trained in acrobatics, tumbling, group dynamics, and timing with the elite Chinese master Lu-Yi of the San Francisco Circus Center. "He was my biggest promoter," says Gavre, and he recommended her to the Pickle Family Circus.
She had already been accepted by UCLA as a dance major, and she deferred for what she thought would be a year to tour with Pickle around the United States. She loved what she was doing, and ironically people from the UCLA dance program clinched her decision to stay with the circus. After attending one of her circus performances, they advised her to stay with it, saying, "If this is what you want, this will be the best training you’ll ever get."
Their encouragement also helped her explain her decision to her family, who were worried about whether she could support herself as a circus performer. She stayed with the circus and never looked back. "I’m 33 now, and I’ve never had any other job than hanging by my toes," she says.
Gavre’s parents met in the Peace Corps in a village in Peru, where her mother was doing looming and her father was working with metals. In 1968 they got on a Harley in Panama and rode to San Francisco, her mother’s hometown. Her father grew up in Washington, DC.
Her parents named her Aloysia for an opera singer who Mozart loved. He actually married her sister, Constanza, to be close to Aloysia. Gavre’s name also alludes to aloysia verbena, a flower that blooms in August, the month she was born.
Today Gavre’s mother is an early childhood educator, with a master’s degree, and runs a bilingual artistic school in San Francisco. Her father is a metal sculptor. "They were extraordinarily supportive; both were very interested to have me explore all facets of art, but never thought it would become a career," says Gavre. Because they have struggled financially, they were stunned and worried by her choice to forego college. Yet, all is well, she reports, and on the financial side, she is doing fantastically.
Gavre toured with the Pickle Family Circus for six years. The troupe was small and intimate, and the 12 performers were completely collaborative, with the acrobats constantly developing new acts. "It was loving, fun, hippie – let’s make the show together," says Gavre. She performed all manner of acrobatic technique, from trapeze to rag doll, hoops, and poles, and she helped build four shows. She also got to study dance with Tandy Beale and Pilobolus.
After six years, she was ready for something new. Cirque du Soleil tantalized her as the height of her profession, and she tried to join three times before deciding to pull some strings. She finally asked a friend in the company to show her video tape to the decisionmakers. "They called me in at the moment they were looking at the tape," she says. "It’s humongous, and it’s easy to get lost in the machine."
And indeed in some sense being a Cirque du Soleil performer was like being a cog in a machine. Her moves, apparatus, and teammates were all dictated. Cirque du Soleil, which she joined in 1998, was not like the mom and pop shop that she came from. It was more like a Fortune 500 company, where each element in the show had a department responsible for it. And Gavre moved from being a woman of all trades to being simply a technician.
She trained 10 hours a day for nine months before she actually performed her aerial hoop act in "Quidam" for Cirque du Soleil and then repeated the same act 10 shows a week for four years. The repetition allowed her to really hone her stagecraft. "Cirque du Soleil is all about being perfect," she says.
In 2002 at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, Gavre performed the aerial hoop act that earned the Cirque du Soleil troupe a special prize. They had to create the special prize because the work of Cirque du Soleil was so different from traditional circus fare. The Cirque show really opened people’s eyes. "It was about giving the traditional circus world exposure to what Cirque du Soleil is – highly artistic and innovative," says Gavre.
Once Gavre had achieved what she wanted in terms of improving her technique, she left Cirque du Soleil and started to collaborate with Chris Lashua, a Cirque colleague. They started mulling ideas about a potential show around the concept of machinery.
During Lashua’s six years as a star in "Quidam," he had begun to develop a mechanical contraption he called a trolley. He added other machines, expanded the collaboration to three more co-creators, and the eventual result was "Birdhouse Factory," first performed in 2004.
The five collaborators took on different aspects of the show – the music, the aerial acts, building the machines, and figuring out how they should interact with the human body. They held meetings nightly.
Performers move in and out of "Birdhouse Factory" because it asks a lot of those onstage. "Either you have to have a personality that is going to thrive on that or be too uppity or not at the right place in your circus career to explore and give," explains Gavre. The people who do well in "Birdhouse Factory," she says, are those who want to be on stage helping the other performers, not those who want to be backstage reading People magazine.
Gavre, who is also a performer in the show, is responsible both for integrating new people and their acts into the show’s concept and for choreographing the dance segments. One challenge she faced was to find a conceptual underpinning for three Chinese acrobats whose act involved a contortionist who balances 10 bowls on her head and does handstands in her partner’s hand. "It was visually stunning but a one-man pony show," she says.
She decided to put the act during the factory workers’ lunchtime, when they open lunchboxes and take out bowls of warm soup. The contortionist has no soup and begins to steal bowls with her feet as she stands on her hands. She places the bowls on her head, one at a time, until there is a full stack. "How much fun is that as a creator to have such amazing skill to work with," she says.
The collaboration between Gavre and Lashua is successful, Gavre believes, because they complement each other. Where she integrates acts and concept, Lashua integrates mechanical devices and circus acts. "He’s a mechanical engineer in the brain as well as a circus artist," says Gavre.
The first device Lashua built was a trolley that moves back and forth across the stage, geared by a human-size hamster wheel. He added a winch – a wire and pulley system – that moves the aerialist up and down, using the tension from the trolley’s movement across the floor. "All of a sudden it’s not a solo, it’s a duet – sharing with a machine," says Gavre.
Another example of Lashua’s touch is a table he engineered to display the skills of a contortionist from a 360-degree perspective. His three-foot-high table is supported by two unicyclists who sit inside it and are able to move the table back and forth and spin it so that the contortionist’s lines can be seen from all directions.
At the beginning of "Birdhouse Factory" all is gray, with a menacing boss and factory workers producing widgets. Then a bird flies into the factory, stops the gears, and changes the workers’ hearts. In the second half of the show, the colors lighten to bright orange and yellow as the workers start to use their own inspirations and ideas to create meaningful products – birdhouses – in an environment of happiness and creativity.
One thing Gavre loves about the show is that performers are encouraged to interpret it from their own perspectives, bringing out the diversity in the cast. Where Cirque du Soleil is massive and mostly about makeup and costume and technique, in Birdhouse Factory the audience can choose a favorite character and watch to see how that character changes.
In trying to characterize Cirque-Works, Gavre distinguishes it from modern dance. Dance, she says, generally has a more obvious story line and is more self-indulgent about extending the timeframe of a piece. In the circus, however, the maximum time for an act is three to five minutes, in part because artists are doing "crazy, wild, breathtaking, thrilling things" that the body can handle for only so long, and in part, says Gavre, "because circus acts become banal if they go on for more than that."
Whereas dancers focus on technique, are sensitive to emotions, and are intensely aware of the body’s movement, a circus artist can be very raw. They are thrill seekers, says Gavre, and form is not of paramount importance to them. The ideal, she believes, is to take modern dancers and put them into the circus world.
Gavre is already looking to the future. She met her partner 15 years ago at the Pickle Family Circus, where he was stage manager, and they are thinking about having a baby. With this in mind, she recently started a circus school in Los Angeles and West Hollywood (www.cirqueschoolla.com).
Gavre attributes her career success in large part to the extensive audience created by Cirque du Soleil. "The exposure of Cirque du Soleil to every family has changed opportunities for circus actors worldwide," she says. "It has given us an audience – people bring their families to see us. It’s not just Ringling Brothers, and I have to thank them for the opportunity to have a career as a circus artist. If I had been born 20 years earlier, the opportunity wouldn’t be there."
Cirque-Works’ Birdhouse Factory, Sunday, January 27, 3 p.m. Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Founded by former Cirque du Soleil performers, Cirque-Works’ Birdhouse Factory combines circus, machines, theater, and dance. $22 to $35. 609-984-8400.