Under the Redbird Big Top

by Amy Chovan
photos courtesy of Gamma Phi Circus

Gamma Phi Circus has been clowning around since 1929, mesmerizing audiences with their artistry in aerial acts and teamwork in tumbling routines.

At six o’clock on any given Sunday, Monday or Thursday, the Horton Field House at Illinois State University buzzes with activity as members of the Gamma Phi Circus arrive for practice. As the performers fill the gym, a sort of structured chaos ensues. A group of guys bounce on a trampoline on their backs while ladies strike poses on large, suspended hoops. Meanwhile, erstwhile clowns perfect an act that takes place on ceiling-high silk panels, and would-be acrobats practice just where to place their hands and feet as they roll tucked inside large metal wheels.

Getting Their Acts Together
Cornell Freeney, a junior elementary education major, starts his evening out on the German wheel, his first love. As act captain, he leads this act, and by the time he arrives for practice, he has already spent time contemplating the choreography. Demonstrating it for the other seven performers, he is open to suggestions for improvement. This is a collaborative environment, after all, and it’s what brought Freeney to ISU.

Freeney is a young man from Chicago’s inner city. As a preteen, he found himself heading down an unfavorable path. Determined to dedicate his time and energy to something constructive, he ended up at CircEsteem, a youth circus in Chicago, where he learned the skills that would propel him into a contract with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. One of the best at German wheel in the nation, according to Gamma Phi Director Marcus Alouan, Freeney took his solo act to sea after graduating from high school, and continues to do so on college breaks. The love for circus he developed at CircEsteem is what led him to Gamma Phi.

Nena Woo, a senior public relations major, heads over to the lyric hoop, a suspended ring that showcases a performer’s grace and poise. As co-act captain, she collaborates with her partner and eight other performers to find the delicate balance of each one’s skills and highlight them through choreography. “It’s a lot of exchanging of ideas and making decisions,” said Woo.

A dancer by trade, she originally planned to join a dance organization on campus her freshman year. But one day, while walking through the quad, she was handed a flyer for Gamma Phi and told to “come check us out.” Not knowing what to expect, Woo fell in love, instantly attracted to the acrobatic nature of the various acts featured by Gamma Phi. “When I came here and saw what they offered, I knew I wanted to do an aerial act because that was similar to dance,” said Woo. “I just liked how it felt being in the air.”

Tyler Silva, a sophomore arts technology major, has a more chaotic practice than most. Two of his four acts practice simultaneously, so he’s forced to split his first hour between them. He begins with the five other guys involved in the wall trampoline act, taking turns bouncing on their backs, performing tricks against a wall as they propel themselves to new heights. Half an hour later, he heads over to the men’s aerial silks act, for which he serves as act captain. Taking a more comedic approach, Silva said this act will feature clowns in addition to aerial specialists in efforts to poke fun at the traditional silks act.

The chaos is something Silva is willing to put up with, as he has developed a deep love for Gamma Phi Circus. As a child, he was enthralled with the circus and always wanted to be in the ring himself. Not knowing how to get there, however, he had since given that dream up. But, as a freshman at ISU, Silva, too, was invited to check out Gamma Phi, and finally found his way into the circus.

As these students perfect their performances, others pick up shiny clubs and begin juggling, first as individuals, and then, as more make their way over, as a group. Soon they have upwards of six to eight people tossing clubs back and forth.

After the first hour of practice, circus-wide conditioning begins, and the entire Gamma Phi family comes together. More than 70 student performers are led by Alouan in exercises aimed at keeping everyone in shape. The tricks these students perform require great athleticism, and maintaining flexibility and strength is key to preventing injury, one of Alouan’s top priorities.

A Family Affair
Seemingly every member agreed that its family atmosphere is part of what makes Gamma Phi so special. “I really like the relationships, the people I’m around, and how we are inside and outside of circus,” offered Woo. “For such a large group, we get along incredibly well.”

To join this family, one must be a full-time student, faculty or staff member at Illinois State University and try out at the beginning of the school year. Members can try out for as many acts as they want, but Alouan tries to limit each person to a maximum of four acts in Gamma Phi’s year-end show. Each act has different strength requirements that must be met. On lyric hoop, for example, prospective performers must be able to do three pull-ups and perform a certain number of specified tricks, in addition to an optional trick of their choosing. Jugglers must be able to juggle clubs for an allotted time and perform pass patterns with other jugglers.

During tryouts, Alouan and his assistant director, Kyle Murray, keep an eye out for up-and-coming performers. “We have to really gauge potential in a lot of the new people,” explained Alouan, “because if we don’t allow [them] a little bit more time to grow into their roles, we’d never have any new people, and we’d die out in a very short time.” Having a good mix of experienced and new performers is key to Gamma Phi’s success.

That combination also allows for the development of leadership skills, another of the organization’s aims. “We are geared to be a leadership training program, and we use circus skills to do that,” said Alouan. “We’re not necessarily trying to produce 70 professional circus performers when they finish here, but we want them to be the best teachers, CEOs—whatever it is that they pursue—and use the skills they learned as circus performers to do that.”

For each act, Alouan assigns one or two students to serve as act captains, experienced leaders with the skill, desire and time to keep the group focused and develop choreography for the act. They also select the music and work with the costume committee to create appropriate costumes for the year-end show. Not only does this showcase student-leaders, it keeps the shows fresh each year as new captains come in with novel ideas.

A Venerable Tradition
The oldest collegiate circus program in the nation, Gamma Phi has remained completely self-sufficient over the years, relying on donations and ticket sales from the spring shows to fund the group’s programs, including its summer camps for children.

At one time, there were more collegiate circus programs in the United States, but today, only two remain—Gamma Phi and the Flying High Circus at Florida State University, which was actually started by a Gamma Phi alum in 1947. 

A Gamma Phi alum himself, Alouan has had a special place in his heart for the circus since he watched a friend perform in the spring show during his freshman year. “I didn’t really care too much about performing at the time,” he said. “I just wanted to be in the gym and try all these things. And I couldn’t believe they would let me try all these things.” Not long after he attended his first practice, Alouan fell in love with performing for the crowd, and his passion for the circus only grew from there. He now spends more than 30 hours each week overseeing student practices, on top of the hours of administrative duties his position as circus director requires.

“This year has been an exceptional year for new people,” said Alouan. “Not only did we have amazing numbers come in this year, the talent is personally the best I’ve ever seen.” With more performers slated to perform in the spring show than ever before, 2011 promises to be a banner year for Gamma Phi Circus. a&s


Redbird Arena at Illinois State University will turn into the big top for Gamma Phi Circus’ annual Home Shows on Friday, April 15th at 7pm, and Saturday, April 16th at 1 and 7pm. Featuring over 20 acts and a troupe of more than 70 performers, this is an event you won’t want to miss.

 

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