Hanging with Solstice Circus

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By George LeVines

Circus: technicolor tents with cotton candy abound. Impatiently pacing big cats and the high flying trapeze. Injury prone clowns running circles to a blaring recording of Entry of the Gladiators. And that sweet waft of dung-soaked hay cooking in the summer heat.

Right?

For the local Solstice Circus, not exactly. Big things, or should that be “big tops,” often come in small packages.

The week of winter storm Nemo, just before Valentine’s day, when Cantabrigians swore they might never see another summer, something about the stage at T.T. The Bear’s Place looks off. Barely squeezed in beneath the ceiling, a giant metal rig occupies the right two thirds of the stage. It looks more like a playground installation than a concert setup.

And in some ways it is.

For its part, Solstice delivers a refreshing rehash of the traditional pomp and circumstance. This circus brings elegant performances to non-traditional venues, backed by the local Startenders.

The A-frame rigging is a dry run for their “Love is in the Air” performance, a celebration of Juno Februata, Lupercalia — Google ‘em — and Valentine’s Day.

In preparation for the show, Solstice Circus’ director/performer Christine Newsham checks the distance between the rigging, the ceiling and the adjacent walls. Performing in close quarters can be a challenge.

“We don’t always get to do dress rehearsals,” says Newsham. “We’re working is such a small space, it’s like, ‘Oh you gotta watch out for the wall.’ ‘Oh, my foot’s stuck on the ledge.’”

Newsham’s life sometimes resembles the circus’ many acts. She works piecemeal in a number of Cambridge restaurants, is a photographer for the Reading-based Trapeze School of New York, coordinates events and travel for a Panama resort and once assisted local artist and MIT research affiliate, Joe Davis (“Globe: Earth Sphere”, Kendall Square)… Oh, and she runs a circus.

Solstice started in 2010 when Newsham, who was working at the Plough and Stars on Mass Ave., excited the owners with the idea of launching a circus in the intimate bar and venue. She assembled a troupe and used her long standing relationship with Startenders’ lead singer, Cris Driscoll, to gather live musical backing.

Newsham’s circus experience dates back 10 years to the moment when she first caught the “flying” bug at Club Med — “flying” is industry speak for flying trapeze. From there she went on to study with trapeze legend Tito Gaona, whose repeated flawless triple somersault catches caught the eye of Sports Illustrated in 1974.

Come Valentine’s Day — or Juno Februata, or Lupercalia, if you prefer — the rigging at T.T.’s makes sense. Instead of a swingset it holds aerialist performers, including Newsham, who grace the air with poetic acrobatics set to songs from the swooning Startenders.

People come and go, says Newsham of the nomadic nature of circus folk, but for the most part, Solstice is a core group of thirteen, including Happy the Sad Clown (Wendy Kinal) who provides welcome doses of adult humor, a number of aerialists and The Sun — better known as local comedian Andy Ofiesh.

“The circus community is like a family. There’s a lot of trust involved,” she says.

With a degree in art history and a minor in painting from UMass Boston, Newsham does what she can to involve the local artist community.

One particular call for art with a circus or autumnal theme led to submissions from all over the world, some of which stayed on the walls at The Plough and Stars.

Asked about the possibility of moving on to a bigger act, Newsham says, “This is my big act. I’m really happy.”

Solstice Circus performs every solstice at the Plough and Stars and tries to fill the gaps with events like the Valentine’s Day show and private functions.-Photo by George LeVines

The Solstice Circus will have its Midsummer show on Friday, August 2, at TT the Bear’s.

This story appeared in the July/August issue of Scout Cambridge. Get your copy here.

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