gymspaceWomen & Circus interviewed Suzanne Kenney for the fourth article in our series, ‘Entrepreneurs of Circus’.

School: Pendulum Aerial Arts

Location: Portland, Oregon

Director: Suzanne Kenney

Status: Not for Profit

Students: 100

Women & Circus: How have you managed to succeed at running a successful circus business, and what do you think has contributed to your success?

Suzanne Kenney: I started in 1996 with my first aerial company called Aero Betty. At the time, there was really only Cirque du Soleil and maybe five other[circus] companies in the United States. Aero Betty was one of those five companies and was the first of its kind in Portland, Oregon. This alone played a big part in our success. We had the opportunity to be pioneers in circus arts. In the beginning, the model of what I wanted for my business and artistic focus was truly a blank canvas.

Another certain reason for my success was, and continues to be, Pendulum’s partnership with the French-American tumblr_nnxp58EKyb1to0hv7o1_500International School (FAIS). Pendulum has been artist in-residence at FAIS since 1999, and the school offered their gym to us as a generous donation to the development of our vision. The space operates as our training facility, it supports our after-school program, and can be transformed into a black-box theater. This partnership has enabled me to put substantial funding into bringing a very high level of instruction into the program. Individuals such as Tanya Burka, Elsie Smith, Frederique Deb, Martin Frenette and several ENC graduates have all contributed to Pendulum’s success. I have been really fortunate to work with some of the most talented people in circus today and in the past decade.

I also think that success comes from sticking to your vision, even if it is unconventional. From the beginning, I wanted to develop a program that offered a space for students to find their passion and to start young and “grow up” with the company. Students often start their training around the age of 9- 12 and stay with us anywhere from five to ten years. They enter as students in the recreational program, and at 14 or so, if they are still serious about circus, they begin our extensive three year professional training program. There they receive anywhere from 20-30 hours of advanced training and act development. Once they graduate the program they are offered the opportunity to become junior company members and eventually full company members. Pendulum offers these students a non-competitive, generational and full circle approach to training. I’m really proud of this, and I think that it contributes to not only the success of the school, but the success of the students, as well.

W&C: What have been the biggest challenges in running the school?

SK: As with almost any non-profit organization, a main challenge has always been money. However, Pendulum is not just any non-profit, it is a circus arts non-profit. When I first started submitting grant applications, I received confused and often negative responses such as, “We don’t know how to classify you. Dance? Multidisciplinary?” Or, “We won’t fund that, it’s too dangerous!” We quickly learned that using the word “circus” to describe our art form wasn’t going to get us anywhere. At the time it was a ‘dirty’ word, and circus arts didn’t fit in as a respected art form. When grant organizations would hear the word “circus”, they would picture animals and entertainment driven side-shows, perhaps a driving reason for the use of terms such as “aerial arts” or aerial dance”. The first eight years of the business was very hard. The only grants we received during that time were from the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland, OR, and for those we are eternally grateful. As director of a school and non-profit,  you must love the art and appreciate its positive impact in order to stay inspired. If this was ever about money or any other superfluous thing, I would have been pressed to quit a long time ago.

Another arts-born challenge has been producing shows. Producing shows is both the vein of your existence, but often at the largest financial expense. Given the limited funding for cirus arts, we cannot always afford to pay our professional company members the full rate that we wish we could, and we all have other jobs to supplement our income. This satisfies our financial needs, but also limits the window of time we have to work together. We never want to sacrifice the quality of the work we produce, and as such, we work long days in order to produce shows we can walk away from feeling proud.

Suzanne Kenney & Luis Torres

Suzanne Kenney & Luis Torres

Despite the joy of being an artist myself in this company, it is still a business that needs to be fed, and, for at least twenty years, I have been doing the job of four. Luckily, over time I’ve had a series of women who have stepped in as office managers.  We have developed our board of directors and I now have a marketing person who is also involved in the company as a coach and performer. As a company grows, you need your infrastructure to grow to support it, and together we’ve developed a small team that has really come together to make this company thrive.

W&C: How have you managed to balance the demands on yourself to have multiple jobs in order to keep the company running. What have been able to do to carve out your own time?

SK: When I first started Pendulum I really wanted to have a place where I could perform and take tell stories from with my own artistic voice. That being said, the company is also largely based on collaboration. Every show has several artists’ hand in it. Once, a coach said to me, “These kids need to do their own research and come up with their own ideas,” and ever since, I’ve let that be part of how new works were created. Amongst all of the directing, managing, and decision making, performing has been my treat. It is the one part that I really truly enjoy, and it brings me back to the passion that brought me here in the first place. Performing is why I started, and becomes less and less possible to do, as the company grows. It has been challenging, but I still perform to this day, and I love it. I’ve worked with the same dance partner, Luis Torres, on and off for twelve years and we have an amazing friendship. There have been many iterations of Pendulum with different company members and staff but he’s been there since the beginning.

W&C: How do you satisfy recreational students who come through your door.  How do you approach your students differently depending on what their aspirations are?

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Sarah Hardy and her tiniest of fans and students.

SK: Everybody has different needs and desires when it comes to circus. Pendulum has established a very consistent program that allows room for all levels of interest. That being said, we also made the choice long ago not to settle for anything less then a 19 week commitment. We do have students who come one-day a week for stress-release or as a hobby, but we still require them to make a semester-long commitment. We require that students come for the full term, because our program is cumulative. If we allowed drop-in classes, then the person who has been coming for three months has to start over when a new kid comes to class. It would create a very different dynamic and focus level.

We’ve found that having a clear commitment from our students, whatever level they are at, creates the most room for growth and success. A  kid that comes only one day a week, for 19 weeks will still  get stronger, will have better flexibility, will feel much healthier and will make a lot of really great friends.  Even with a 19 week requirement, the main thing is that it needs to be fun and inspiring for the kids because at eight or nine years old it is unlikely that they have landed on circus as a career. Our jobs are to inspire them first, and then, on their own, they can choose a more focused path in circus if they decide they want to become professionals.

W&C: What are some goals that you have within the next few years for your business?

SK: I’m going to be creating a whole new show for 2017. It’s a very different show than I’ve ever done, and I’m really excited about it. The show will be sourced from the Portland community, eventually presented outdoors, on a special installation made specifically for the show. We plan to install it in different parks all over the city as well as in some more rural parts of Oregon. I’m collaborating with a lot of my favorite people who I love to work with, which is a good thing, because it’s going to take us two years to create. I’m kind of re-inspired in that way because there is so much circus out there. I ask myself ‘Why is it important to do another show?’ because the market is completely over saturated. In Portland alone, there must be at least six companies and we’re a tiny town. For me, it can’t be about me just wanting to do another show; it has to be strategic. It has to be something I believe in and a story I need to share.

tumblr_nmt7sinFjD1to0hv7o1_500W&C:  You mentioned that all of your students are taught how to teach throughout the program, can you tell me how you develop that for your students who want to be a teacher or a coach down the line?

SK:  I think teaching is a really important skill to have as an artist because it’s a way to supplement your income and remain in your industry. Teaching others also helps you grow as an artist. In the second year of our junior training program, students start learning how to teach. When guest artists visit, they always offer their expertise with teacher training. They show them how to teach handstands or basic tumbling, and to learn how to spot. We also have resident staff who give teacher training to the kids. Generally, around the age of 16 they finish the training program and enter the junior company. At this time they start being paid as employees to teach the younger rec-students.

W&C: What do you believe the mission of a circus arts studio in the US needs to be?

SK: I’ve seen the industry change so much in the last five years, and even in the last three years. Circus has become the latest fad and there has been an influx of circus studios. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re maintaining the integrity of the art form, which I hold really close to my heart. I know that a lot of people are trying to create curriculums and standards. There needs to be commonality in the way we approach things as far as how we teach people. Flexibility and body awareness need to be integral parts of what we teach. For example, it’s a challenge to keep your shoulders open and still be able to climb. I’ve learned from my mistakes and I try to impart that upon my students because I don’t want them to come up with the injuries that I’ve had.  I feel like studios really need to know what it is that they’re trying to accomplish, who their demographic is and not spread themselves so thin trying to please everybody. You can’t be a “jack of all trades, master of none”.  We need to know what it is we’re trying to teach and why we’re trying to teach it, and it needs to be taught by someone who has actually had real training. We need people who have gone through very thorough training programs. I hope that the people that come out of my school are really well versed in all components of what it takes to practice and to teach circus.

Please visit the Pendulum website to find out more information about the school. 

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