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Spring Sing 2022: Cirque de ’LA safely soars on aerial silks, debuts duet despite obstacles

Draped in aerial silks, Cirque de ‘LA founder and fourth-year bioengineering student Elsa Dubil (left) stands next to fourth-year human biology and society student Johnny Tu (right). Tu and third-year economics and psychology student Katie Shanahan will represent the club in its first Spring Sing appearance Friday. (Photo by Anika Chakrabarti/Assistant Photo editor. Photo illustration by Ashley Shue-Lih Ko/Daily Bruin staff)

By Laura Carter

May 17, 2022 3:38 p.m.

This post was updated May 19 at 1:05 a.m.

Cirque de ’LA is flipping Spring Sing on its head.

The student circus arts group, started in 2018, will make its Spring Sing debut at the Los Angeles Tennis Center on Friday. During the show, the performers will be using aerial silks suspended from a structure above the stage to perform a choreographed routine, said Cirque de ’LA member and fourth-year human biology and society student Johnny Tu. The Spring Sing performance, put on by two members of the club, will include the first pair to perform a circus arts act at the event, Tu said.

“We’re definitely one of the more unique acts out there,” Tu said. “Although we are categorized as interdisciplinary, it (circus arts) – like a lot of dance – is just another form of expression through movement.”

The club started in 2018 when fourth-year bioengineering student Elsa Dubil wanted to create a space for aerialists to practice and bond. After its creation, Dubil said she would teach a handful of classes to anyone who was available and wanted to learn, but with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the classes remained on the smaller side. At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, the club started taking off, with around 400 people expressing interest, and Dubil said she began sharing her teaching responsibilities with other instructors.

[Related: UCLA student plays with fire as member of performance group The Firemingos]

Despite the club’s recent increase in membership, getting Cirque de ’LA official club status has been a challenge, Dubil said. The main obstacle the group has encountered has been demonstrating to the school that club members would not be at risk of serious injury, she said. After proving liability would not be an issue with aerial technique, Dubil said club interest increased significantly.

The other member of the Spring Sing duo, third-year economics and psychology student Katie Shanahan, said performing at Spring Sing has been hectic to coordinate. After finding a song to perform – “Heart Cry” by Drehz – the pair began choreographing, but finding time to rehearse during their schedules was difficult, she said. Some of the choreography parallels what the lyrics in the song represent, Shanahan said. When a lyric about reflection plays, the pair mirror the same position.

“Part of the beauty of circus arts is that it’s not something that most people think about every day,” Shanahan said. “It’s not something most people think about as like, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do that.’ We want to showcase that to the UCLA student body and get people thinking, ‘Could I do that?’”

Using aerial silks, Tu hangs upside down and supports a hanging Dubil. The Spring Sing performance will be set to "Heart Cry" by Drehz, and its employment of aerial silks calls for Tu and Shanahan to be intentional in their choice of clothing. (Anika Chakrabarti/Assistant Photo editor)
Using aerial silks, Tu hangs upside down and supports a hanging Dubil. The Spring Sing performance will be set to “Heart Cry” by Drehz, and its employment of aerial silks calls for Tu and Shanahan to be intentional in their choice of clothing. (Anika Chakrabarti/Assistant Photo editor)

For costumes, Shanahan said there are a few elements that are necessary for an aerial performance to go smoothly. She said long pants are important to prevent performers from getting fabric burns from the silks they perform with because some of the moves in aerial technique involve sharp drops. Tightly fitted clothing is a costume’s other important must-have because if there is any loose fabric, she said, the performers risk getting caught in the silks. Making sure the performers are safe during the performance and avoiding any costume mishaps are major concerns for the group, Shanahan said.

The silks themselves are also a major element that the group had to coordinate, Tu said. Aerial silks come in a variety of colors and fabrics that affect how well performers can grip the silks. With different strengths, he said, choosing the right fabric depends on the nature of the choreography. The aerialists will opt for a fabric with more flexibility for choreography with more sharp drops so the performance will feel more comfortable, and there is a little bit of bounce at the bottom of the fall, he said.

[Related: Kayla Tange channels emotion and Asian community in ‘Sacred Wounds’]

During the performance, Tu said the silks will be suspended by either a mobile rig or the stage, depending on which one is more stable. If they opt for the mobile rig, the performers will connect the rig to a large carabiner that is then connected to the fabric, he said. Aerial silks are typically one long piece of textile folded in half, Tu said, meaning the performers have two strands to suspend themselves from. For the Spring Sing performance, the group will opt for a dark royal purple silk that has a bit more give, he said.

In the future, Dubil said she hopes Cirque de ’LA can perform at other events outside of Spring Sing. Though the club had some difficulty gaining traction because of questions about safety from the school, she said she is excited the group has secured attention from the student body.

“I’d like to have as much space as possible for as much variety in entertainment at UCLA, so I’d like to use this as an opportunity for other unconventional art as well,” Dubil said.

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