The Host of Sparrows troupe. (Photo courtesy Host of Sparrows, Barbara Shore Photography)
The debut full-length theatrical presentation of Richmond’s homegrown circus, produced by Virginia’s first aerialist troupe, commences Oct. 14, and founder Heather Bailey will be up in the air about it. Literally.
When I caught up with her by phone, she was running to a hobby shop to procure pompoms for clown outfits. “I’m sewing like a madwoman,” Bailey says. She and her Host of Sparrows troupe started show preparations back around the time of Mardis Gras. “The Big Top in the Little Easy” runs two weekends, Oct. 14-15 and Oct. 21-22, and is for all ages. The production costs were in part raised through GoFundMe. Proceeds will go toward other shows and the Dogtown Dance Theatre.
The Host of Sparrows numbers a fortunate 13, men and women, who’ll sail through the air with the greatest of ease as they portray animals, clowns and acrobats. Even the musicians are up in the silks. Multi-instrumentalist and composer Brett Zwerdling brings the tunes, from sitar to African drums.
“It’s a traditional circus in a contemporary style, except our animals are people. But we’ve got purple elephants,” says Bailey. The story line follows circus janitor Sammy the Sparrow cleaning up and finding a music box with magical properties.
Bailey started Host of Sparrows in 2010, and the group is comprised of performers who began with her as students.
On the Sundays of the performance weekends, free classes are offered, 3:30-5 p.m, one in partner acrobatics and another in aerial silks. Because if you’re admiring the way they seem to move with effortless grace and think you’d like to try, then, Bailey says, “If you can bring your can-do attitude, you can do that.”
Bailey performed in television and film projects in Hampton Roads before moving to Richmond to study theater at Virginia Commonwealth University. But her first love was dance, and she became interested in performance art. “I got more dance in the theater,” she says. As a member of a cabaret troupe, she performed for static art shows. She got into aerial dance, she says, “because the inspiration was the Richmond arts scene.” Back when Chop Suey Books was in its first location on West Cary street, and the annual Musicircus took the place over with its clamor, musician Brian Jones’ drum ensemble “Chaos Theory” brought her a vision: performers dancing in the air as though they were parts of a mobile suspended over a child’s bed. In 2005 she went to Washington, D.C., for instructional classes by the Trapeze School of New York.
“In order to create this kind of performance here, I had to recruit and train people who wanted to get up into the air,” Bailey recalls. “When I first started teaching at Dogtown Dance, not that many people came. But word of mouth started, and here we are.” Now she’s finding engineers to assist in bringing that original mobile-dance idea to life.
Heather Baiey (left) and Hannah Elvington of aerialist troupe Host of Sparrows (Photo courtesy Host of Sparrows/Barbara Shore Photography)
The physicality of aerialist dance requires a certain fitness, although the upbeat Bailey says, “We have a pole vaulter, a gymnast, but [also] people from other backgrounds that aren’t athletic-based.” Besides, the training is a built-in workout plan.
“The Big Top in the Little Easy” is a 90-minute program with intermission, though the first weekend's performances will go slightly longer due to a preshow presentation by the Barefoot Puppets of the Wriggling Bros. Circus, The Best Show on Dirt.
Thus audiences will be transported from the earth to the sky.
The Host of Sparrows presents “The Big Top in the Little Easy” Oct. 14-15 and Oct. 21-22 at Dogtown Dance Theatre (109 W. 15th St.). Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children. More information