With thousands of sometimes-unruly students, cyclists who trek unfathomable hills and buses that buzz around half-paved roads, the city of Ithaca can sometimes feel like a circus. But during the first week of September, Ithaca will actually be a circus. Circus troupes from all over the world will make Ithaca their stage, featuring shows, outdoor performances and interactive workshops.
The Hupstate Circus Festival, which runs from Sept. 1 to Sept. 4, started three years ago when three arts groups coincidentally performed in Ithaca at the same time. “I have a lot of love for producing festivals that bring people together. It’s fun to be able to do that in this local place,” said Amy Cohen, founder of Ithaca’s Circus Culture and the Hupstate Circus Festival.
Cohen explored the idea of making a bigger, recurring event, allowing one of the headlining shows titled “Stars Above” from Hideaway Circus to return in 2022. Cohen said it was so well-received that she decided to expand the festival for this third edition.
With over 10 years of experience organizing festivals as executive director of the American Youth Circus Festival, Cohen said she is excited to bring that experience to Ithaca.
Earlier this year, Cohen released an international open call for circus artists, which received 75 submissions. Around 12 to 15 shows featuring artists from Ecuador, Canada, Ireland, Ithaca, Rochester, Boston, Chicago, Vermont and more will perform at a variety of Ithaca venues including The Hangar Theatre and Cherry Artspace.
Cohen stressed the importance of building support for the festival for its return this year. She told The Sun that the organizers received funding from the Fairgame Grant, Hotel Ithaca, a Tompkins County Tourism Program grant, a Audience Building Project grant and many more local organizations who pitched in to ensure that the circus can thrive here in Ithaca. Ticket sales and donations also help fund the festival.
However, putting together a circus festival has its challenges. Cohen said there is also an advocacy component to the organizing of the event, from funding to advertising.
“Circus is an art form, but not always understood as an art form, especially in the United States … and so there’s also a lot of advocacy that we do,” Cohen said. “A lot of our funding partners and the city have seen what we do, and they are just increasingly supportive.”
Of the several shows slated for September, two will be by local performers from Circus Culture. A group based out of Boston called Cirque US will be giving a free performance at the festival.
Founded in 2016, Cirque US has stopped in Ithaca during their tours four times. Doug Steward, founder of the group, also expressed how the sense of community he found in Ithaca brings his group back to the city.
“It feels like we’re performing for our hometown crowd. We perform for the same people year after year after year,” Steward said. “It’s really exciting because people have seen how our shows have grown. They’ve seen how we’ve gotten better. They’ve seen how we’ve added artists to our roster. And it’s really cool to see how our artists and audiences have grown.”
Cirque US’s upcoming act, “Circus Stories,” centers on storytelling.
“Our story is really trying to teach young audience members that you can be whoever you want to be — that you have the power to write your own story.” Steward said, “And so through circus, dance, comedy and aerials, we really try to inspire the audience that you can do whatever you want and no dream is too big.”
In collaboration with the Hupstate Circus Festival, the Cornell Juggling Club will be hosting the Big Red Juggle Fest on campus during that weekend. The festival is returning after a long hiatus and will offer free workshops, performances and talks.
As organizers of the festival, the Cornell Juggling Club seeks to showcase variety and innovation in juggling, which is often not seen by the general public.
“Juggling isn’t just one pattern [of] throwing balls — we have so many different props,” said Cornell Juggling Club president Eliza Hong grad in an interview with The Sun. “People will be able to try out different props during the festival that other people bring in [and] share patterns and different methods for learning new things. So it’s a creative collaboration too.”
Prof. Allen Knutson, mathematics, who has researched the math of juggling, will be hosting a talk on Sept. 1. On Sept. 1 through Sept. 3 there will also be open juggling sessions at Barton Hall open to the public.
“I’ve never seen any other hobby that is so collaborative and creative at the same time. And it’s like you’re creating something together when you juggle with other people,” said Cornell Juggling Club treasurer Orion Smedley grad. “This is art that you make together with other people in real time.”
The circus community in Ithaca is coming together during a weekend to entertain all of Ithaca’s residents, an effort which Cohen described as an aspiration to bring bigger events to a small city like Ithaca.
“To feel like we can create a festival that should exist in Rochester or Philly … is something that I think a lot of locals really crave,” Cohen said. “A lot of students come [to Ithaca] from literally all over the world. A lot of people come from bigger cities with expectations of more stuff to do. We really want to try to make [them] feel like that cool thing is happening here.”