Stage & Dance

Local circus set to take flight in Lexington this weekend

Paloma Paulin, center, during a dress rehearsal of “Utopia,” presented by Sora Contemporary Circus, set to run June 1-3 at the Downtown Arts Center in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, May 31, 2017.
Paloma Paulin, center, during a dress rehearsal of “Utopia,” presented by Sora Contemporary Circus, set to run June 1-3 at the Downtown Arts Center in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, May 31, 2017.

In a theatre surrounded by a black ceiling, walls and floors, a dancer twirls and flips. Long silk ribbons flow beneath her as she moves her body to the music, but she’s not moving her feet across the stage.

Aerial artist Jessica Johnson is 10 feet above the floor, twisting her body as she holds on to the silk fabrics hanging from the ceiling.

It’s the beginning of “Utopia,” the inaugural show by Lexington’s Sora Contemporary Circus company about a character named Gray, played by Johnson, owner and artistic director of the company.

“It’s an exploration of finding balance within the human psyche,” said Johnson, who wrote the script and much of the show’s choreography. “The main character is Gray, and it’s kind of her journey in finding her utopia, which is balancing these two opposing forces in order to find that equilibrium.”

The circus company had its dress rehearsal Wednesday night at Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center in the Black Box Theatre, where the show will be performed this weekend. Dancers wore glittery costumes and black and white face paint, playing to the show’s theme of darkness and light.

The Cirque du Soleil-style company is the latest manifestation of Johnson’s career in aerial arts.

Johnson began learning aerial arts seven years ago at age 22 when she lived in Cincinnati and worked as a special education teacher. A friend asked her to try out a class with her at Bella Forza, a fitness and aerial arts studio.

She began performing in student showcases and soon found out she had a passion for the art.

When she moved to Lexington a few years later, Johnson saw an opportunity to begin a studio of her own. She opened a sister studio to Bella Forza Cincinnati in Lexington in 2013, where she taught aerial fitness classes on skills including aerial silks, aerial hoops, pole fitness, yoga and trapeze.

Johnson said this year she decided to transition from Bella Forza to Sora Aerial Arts, and held auditions for the circus company in January. She plans to put on one professional show like “Utopia” every year, as well as one amateur show by Sora students.

“I definitely think the aerial arts and circus arts in general are just really awe-inspiring,” Johnson said. “But my goal for the company isn’t just to be a circus that does a trick and then the audience claps. I really want to relate to human psychology and really touch audiences with the stories, not just cool tricks.”

Johnson said the company has 16 performers, made up mainly of instructors at the studio. Performer and instructor Lis Sanchez said she got involved with Bella Forza a little over 2 1/2 years ago when she found a Groupon for a fitness class.

“I didn’t know you could do (aerial arts) for fitness, and I definitely didn’t know just anyone could do it for performance,” Sanchez said. “I thought you had to be born into a circus.”

Sanchez started taking a class, and “the rest is history,” she said. In “Utopia,” she plays a character called Lorelai, who represents Gray’s darkness.

Sanchez’s daughter, Lily, said she used to come with her mom to the studio to watch practices and try to figure out how to do the moves. Lily is in the junior company, which will perform the preshow this weekend.

“I’m kind of living the dream,” Lis Sanchez said. “It’s something I never thought I could do. I love being a mom, but as a mom I never thought I could ever have this whole other side of my life.”

While some students at the studio take aerial fitness classes as a hobby, Johnson said many of the younger students hope to make performing their career, some with dreams of joining Cirque du Soleil.

The youngest performer in the professional company, Kate Girard, 16, said she began as a student at Bella Forza after seeing Johnson perform out of town and finding out the studio was just three minutes from her house.

Girard, a senior at Bryan Station High School, said she had grown up trying different art forms with encouragement from her father, an art professor.

“I never really found something I felt like I related to and could stick with,” she said. “When I found this, immediately I knew it was for me. This was the art form that I was really in tune with.”

Girard said she hopes to perform long-term and jumped on the opportunity to audition for Sora Contemporary Circus company.

Johnson said it had been a dream of hers to begin a professional company since she began Bella Forza. While “Utopia” is the company’s first show, individual performers often travel to different gigs around the country. The dream, Johnson said, is to one day travel with shows as a company.

The word “sora” originates from Japanese culture, Johnson said, and means “sky” or “void.”

“It just represents the never-ending creativity in human potential in the bodily sense and in the mind,” Johnson said. “I thought it was really appropriate for what we do.”

Emma Austin: 859-231-1455.

If you go


What: Debut original production by Sora Contemporary Circus

When: 7 p.m. June 1 and 2, 2 p.m. June 3

Where: Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.

Tickets: $25

Call: 859-425-2562