New Orleans’ Flying Circus

By Soren Ramsey

Alcohol wipes sheen the lines of purple ink that show where the shoulder blade stretches the most.  A first-time flyer prepares to suspend from hooks as piercer Michael Peterse pulls up his surgical mask.  A pinch of the skin, and a deep breath in.  An exhale, a smooth, hard shove, a practiced hand studded with body mod slides a titanium horseshoe around the piercing and screws it in place.  No blood, “less pain than a tattoo.”  A second piercing follows after a breather.

The practice of suspension is rooted in Sioux Sundance rituals.  According to suspension performer Chris Mavrick, the rite of passage involved the individual piercing their skin with bone hooks, and hanging from a tree for five days, alone, “in communication with the spirits.”  If one was able to endure the ordeal, they were considered to be “more in touch with God, a shaman.” Participants would be looking to attain bravery and calm in battle, or for religious contact.

The spiritual nature of the practice comes from the cognitive dissonance of the brain deciding to allow the body to suffer trauma without raising the panic response.  The individual confronts the fight-or-flight response with an understanding that neither are possible, and the brain responds with chemical defenses.  “Once the hooks are in, your endorphin levels start climbing.” Mavrick explains.  “When there becomes tension on your skin, your endorphin levels spike.”  This flood of endorphins overcomes any pain response, and gives feelings of calmness, euphoria, and clarity.  The experience triggers neurotransmitter release in the brain similar to psychedelic drugs, which helps explain the potential for profound experiences.  This, combined with the absence of contact with the ground, creates a detachment that can lead to out of body experiences.  An instance where a packed haunted house performance became “1000 bodies with no faces” reconnected Mavrick to his deep performer roots and inspired him to move away from traditional tribal suspension, and into the thriving New Orleans culture of side show hooking.

“You’re using words to describe what we’re doing, aren’t ya?”

The New Orleans circus arts and suspension scene is at a point of critical mass. Renae Atkins, an informal historian of the culture scenes of New Orleans, calls this “the time to get in-it hasn’t exploded yet.”  Atkins describes the New Orleans circus scene as having “taken off”, particularly in the past two years.  “Krewes are spreading out, shows are getting bigger, acts are getting better.”  October performances at the House of Shock, a haunted house in Harahan, brings NOLA Suspension in contact with more mainstream audiences.  Art galleries occasionally enlist hook performers.  Backyard displays are becoming more common.  Atkins feels the subculture is on the verge of hitting widespread attention, followed by a collapse and dispersal to the rest of the world.  “Scenes blow up, then they crash, then something new comes in.  That’s the cycle of New Orleans.  He calls New Orleans “the womb of nations, pushing out culture and music because the center keeps producing.”

The city is an incubator of talent, combining eclectic performers with opportunities to perform and experiment.  “Because there are so many places to perform here, you can put that act together and get it out there” says Atkins.  “People train, train, train, suddenly they’re off at some weird French circus.”  Atkins is connected to the scene through his girlfriend, gymnast and suspension performer Hillary Neeb. Atkins went on to rave about Neeb’s work ethic in preparing innovative movements for her performance.  Her most recent project, months in the works, involves holding her ankles behind her head while fully suspended.  The community fosters this kind of dedication to innovation, as private suspension and circus events are welcoming and open to letting performers workshop their craft.

Development and experimentation are inherent to the scene due to its tight-knit quality.  “The audience is more performer-based than any other scene right now” says Atkins. The clique-like quality of the community means that everybody is aware of what everybody else is doing, so nobody steps on anyone else’s toes.  Neeb compares repeating a part of someone’s performance to copying a joke at a comedy club— “You just don’t do that.”

This mentality lends itself to endlessly blending styles of showmanship in new and inventive ways. New Orleans’ suspension culture takes local color from the variety of its circus performers.  “Mimes, jugglers, human pin cushions, sword swallowers, fire breathers, they’re all in town” says Mavrick.  “The New Orleans factor gives it that ‘we’re all in a circus, we’re all insane here, let’s make this something fun.’” Performers inject comedy into their performances.  Acts will draw from the talent and styles of the local burlesque scene.  Mavrick credits himself on being the first suspension performer to hang in drag in the city, adding character building and theatrical performance to the experience.

Coming from a more gymnastics-based background, Neeb works acrobatics, contortion, and aerial dance into her suspension.  She plans to hang from her back while supporting a trapeze performer— “no trapeze.  Just hooks in my knees.” Anything is on the table. As Atkins puts it, “There’s definitely a weird vibe down here.  Nobody cares.  It’s ok to do off-the-wall shit.”

        Jesse Antivism swings from the arm of a twisted oak in pendulum motion.  The remnants of a massive treehouse hang near the pulley that supports him.  His fingers loop his bootstraps, eyelids half shut in a trance.  Tool throbs hypnotically over speakers, emptying the long backyard of the sounds of the Claiborne overpass.  Every few swings, he runs along the ground to regain momentum.  He doesn’t have a lot to say.  Asked a second time how he feels, “…I’m fucking flying, man.”

While New Orleans suspension has a heavy performance focus, the practice is deeply personal.  Exact motivations for taking part are unique to everyone.  The catharsis is a major motivator.  “It’s the only time I feel totally without anxiety”, says Antivism, more talkative with both feet on the ground.  The calm brought on by the wave of endorphins lasts for hours after the hooks are removed.

Others use it as an opportunity for personal growth and self-reflection.  In a testament to the popularity of the scene in New Orleans, I met Valerie Tyler when she overheard me interviewing Renae and Hillary about suspension.  She had moved to New Orleans in search of a suspension community, as well as a home where the art is legal.  She explains her approach, which is more in line with tribal hanging than performance.

“I do it for myself. I know everyone present.  We usually share a meal, to get that family connection with it.”  This comfort allows her to use the experience to whatever purpose she needs at that point in her life.  During the lead-up to her flight, “I’m talking with my team about what’s going on in my life, why I’m doing it this time.”  She’ll focus her intention around an event, life concern, or other mental focal point. She might write a poem about the reason she’s suspending that day.  She hung as part of the grieving process following the loss of her father.  She also has used it to confront image issues, allowing the placement of the hooks to focus self-love on parts of her body she feels uncomfortable with.  In one instance, Tyler suspended from her stomach, “that negative, nasty part of me that I’m never happy with.”  Despite a difficult hang, the intention worked— “now, I like wearing midriffs.”

People will barbeque or boil crawfish as their friends swing, lending a backyard party atmosphere to events.  People sip drinks, but drunk people are rare, in contrast both to the inebriated club scene in New Orleans as well as to the more traditional and generally straight-edge suspension scenes found elsewhere. The atmosphere is supportive.  Veterans talk the uninitiated through the experience.  People are encouraged to push themselves, but nobody is pressured into anything. The strong sense of community makes suspension feel like a family affair.

        Alfred Kreppein supervises Antivism’s back-and-forth from behind black glasses.  The suspended Zen of the flyer spreads calm through the gathering of friends.  A lazy afternoon breeze blows. There is a sense of peace in the air. “I like to think it’s spiritual for most people.”

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