The San Diego Circus Center showcased the students from their preparatory program in a weekend show series (December 15, 16 & 17th) called Circus Express in the theater mecca of San Diego, California. It’s 6th year running, this Christmas show is a treasured event to the local community as well as great experience and exposure for aspiring artists. The show was directed by Jean-Luc Martin and co-directed by Derrick Gilday.

Now in it’s third location due to growth and demand, the San Diego Circus Center is run by Jean-Luc Martin(both the founder of the center and director of the show) who has performed in Cirque du Soleil’s original show Alegria, The Pickle Family Circus, Circus Knie and has attended Montreal’s National Circus School. He is known internationally for his in-person and online master handstand training program. Co-Director Derrick Gilday is a graduate of the San Francisco Clown Conservatory and has worked in all aspects of theater, both on stage and behind the curtain. He’s been accepted into the very rigorous database for Cirque du Soleil’s Clowns and character performers. Martin said the Circus Express concept was about “going places, going to your dream.” He also explained how they got the idea to center it around a train because students in the school are only just starting out, so the idea was about the passengers going on a journey to find where they will end up.

About The Show

Some highlights of the show included a duo straps performance, a one hand handstand press on top of a 19 foot Chinese pole, an incredible hand-to-hand skit and an awe-inspiring rope performance. Derrick Gilday and Jean-Luc tickled onlookers’ funnybones, clowning together throughout the show. There are even more skills offered at the center than were seen in the show, such as cyr wheel, slackwire, hula hoops, tumbling, trampoline wall, stilts, Russian bar, columns and banquine, teeterboard, Korean cradle and Icarian acrobatics.

Photo courtesy of Rob Ringen @robrphoto

The performance included clowning, rope, lyra, contortion, hand-to-hand, Chinese pole, single point trapeze, straps, handstands, jump rope, juggling and silks. The age of the performers ranged from 10 to early 30’s. The center, a large warehouse, situated discreetly on a quiet industrial road just on the edge of the bustling downtown San Diego metropolis, is designed to transform into a performance space with full lighting, rigging, a pulley system, curtains, bleachers and all of the necessary apparatus. The annual show is primarily a moment to shine for the the 9 month preparatory program which has a maximum of 11 students and is designed to create well-rounded circus artists ready to audition to obtain their degree in the circus arts from the top international circus schools.

Photo courtesy of Mel Martin @lilshoots

The theatrical training shined in the show through dance, movement and a strong story line. The show was more than just a string of acts, it took the audience through a metaphorical journey eliciting the same human emotions we all experience when we follow our dreams and encounter unexpected life experiences, joy, playfulness, friendship and wonder. The full spectrum of human experience made the show authentic and real. Representing what could be Father time, the conductor led the cast through life experiences as the train made stops. Even as they boarded the train for the first time, there was an element of magic in their decision that made it feel as though they needed to take this blind risk to figure out their lives. Each act was a part of the journey. The hand-to-hand act showed the playful antics of a relationship while the handstand ensemble showed people all dressed alike in the work world almost acting robotic with one person inspiring them to dare to be different. This act also showed how it can feel to be the one that is different and portrayed the optimism that can help someone follow the road less traveled.

Photo courtesy of Rob Ringen @robrphoto

Confusion and unexpected turns of events were shown with the ropes performance when thunder and lighting sounded with flashing lights and the ropes made turbulent waves around the artists. The Chinese pole act showed a healthy sense of competition as well as the virtues such as friendship and support. The show’s journey matured to depict the virtues of wisdom such as camaraderie and trust– leaving the audience on an uplifting note with the whole cast on stage in a charivari ensemble piece with juggling, jump rope and fun antics. During this final ensemble they played the  song ‘Do Something Crazy’ leaving the audience with a hopeful message–the playfulness of the cast having fun together was truly the great vibrant energy that is the core of circus.

Words With The Founder
Photo courtesy of Mel Martin @lilshoots

I had a chance to sit down with Jean-Luc Martin. He shared how he decided to participate in the show this year as a white clown which he said was challenging to him because he is used to playing a red clown. The white clown is a sophisticated character as the red clown is the common bumbling fool with full makeup and distinctive exaggerated features. When I asked which act in the show he was most excited about,  he responded, “I can’t really answer that. I’m proud of everyone and what they do. Everyone brings a particular essence to their act. I give them guidance. I tell the the story line and give them the structure and then I let them go and let them do it their own way, and then they come back and show me and I say ‘Hmmm, it doesn’t quite work. Tone it down and do this.’ So really it’s a part of being a school and not a production. I don’t want to be a production house. I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work because then it becomes self-centered.”

Photo courtesy of Mel Martin @lilshoots

The young students in the preparatory program look to Martin for guidance. He says, “We all have our weaknesses that we have to work on, obviously me included. But that’s that’s what the program is, and we are constantly growing.” Martin admits, “It’s not easy doing this, and all these guys train pretty hard and sometimes it’s the most difficult because they don’t know why. They just know they enjoy it.”

About The San Diego Circus Center
Photo courtesy of Mel Martin @lilshoots

The center also has a non-profit organization. They are committed to helping the local community through their scholarships, an Autism program as well as a limb difference program. The local circus community has donated to support these programs, sponsors children and help out at the center behind the scenes. Martin spoke of the years of comraderie with the whole team that includes rigging and lighting professionals which has made their rigging system easy to use and better than what you’d see in most shows.

According to Martin, the preparatory program provides students with the three pillars of circus; clowning, dance and circus. He says these are the elements an artist has to be really good at–and out of the nine students currently in the program, four of them will be auditioning to Ecole Nationale de Cirque in Montreal. At least three former students have gone to study at Codartsin the Netherlands. His program is designed to prepare students to audition for any of the top circus schools in the world. They also have an exchange program for international students.

People from all over the world go to the center to train, including adults who are already performers. Martin says what makes their so popular and effective is their system of teaching. He says the other secret is that at 52-years-old, he is not going to perform anymore and this is what he does to keep himself happy. He wants to be there for the students if something goes wrong and he also wants them to see him fail or succeed. His system of teaching is based on the Chinese, Russian and Quebecois training. He especially notes the element of fun in the Quebecois training that is often emphasized even over technique to keep the emotions alive in the performers and for the audience. I noticed this element was infused throughout the entire Circus Expressperformance. Martin explained, how his close friend Daniel Cyr, inventor of the cyr wheel, did a workshop at the center, a parent asked what Daniel’s advice was for her 14-year-old daughter. His advice was to have fun. The San Diego Circus center is what Chinese pole, straps artist and hand balancer and instructor Mark Keahisays, “is a good place to be to get passionate…this is the place to grow. It’s a good one.”

A Look Into The Future For San Diego Circus

As an established theater hub, San Diego sends more shows to Broadway than any other city in the United States. The San Diego Circus Center plans to follow suit and carve out a space for an established professional circus community through this center which opened in 2012.

Martin envisions San Diego as a place for circus people to call home. He commented, “If I had a wish for San Diego, it would be to give San Diego a coffee shop and what I mean by that is for it to be a place for people to get together and talk circus, talk theater, talk jobs, talk this, talk that.  If you go to Montreal, it’s everywhere. When I was there, it wasn’t just about circus, it was about dance, and now it’s even more, but you can’t necessarily survive in Montreal. You survive where you are. And that’s what I want to do with this place. I want to give people some place to go to call home.”

Martin has big plans and humbly says, “There is no reason why the future cannot bring this facility way beyond me and I think it can, it’s just going to take time.” There are a lot of corporate companies in the area and he hopes those companies will see their programs as a return. He believes they will find donors. He has his eye on other local performance venues and plans to launch a clown conservatory and theater group. This clown unit will visit the local Rady’s Hospital cancer victims with characters doing comedia dell’ arte.

When asked where he hopes his schooling will lead him, instructor and performer Mark Keahi says, “My goal is to play for a living. I want to do what I love because it’s so fun and to be able to support myself and the people that I love.” When asked what The San Diego Circus Center is offering to the community, Keahi reflects, “A lot of us here are really dedicated. Jean-Luc is very supportive of helping us grow. So specifically, I think with each individual becoming the best acrobat that they can be, it becomes contagious and that helps the community want to be dedicated, and want to get into this craft or perfect their craft.” As a spectator, a circus artist and a local, I was excited to discover that the interest in circus has been growing each year as class sizes increase and more people travel from around the world to be a part of the circus community in San Diego.

GO TO ARTICLE