Always Circus

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Kat Finck. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Aerialist, juggler and circus arts teacher Kat Finck

It’s mid-February, and the big room at Circus Maine at Thompson’s Point in Portland is filled with onlookers. The annual Cupid’s Cabaret features an array of circus artists, whose performances are a blend of strength, flexibility and panache. There are blindfolded aerialists, comic magicians and a hand balancer who contorts her body into various shapes while performing an extended handstand. But it all begins with Kat Finck, playing the role of Cupid. She doesn’t look the part. She has no arrow, no wings. She’s wearing brown Carhartt overalls. She sits down on a folding chair with a can of peas and a fork. “I love tinned peas,” she says, revealing her Montreal roots with the word “tinned.” She devours the peas. The audience is amused and a little grossed out. As the emcee for the evening, Finck returns to the stage between acts to reveal her other “loves.” She loves knitting. She knits while throwing the audience glances of satisfaction bordering on the orgasmic. The audience titters at her intimacy.

Aerialist, juggler and co-founder of Circus Maine and the Maine Circus Academy Kat Finck performs on the lyra inside Circus Maine’s big room at Thompson’s Point in Portland. Photo courtesy of Eric Obery, West Side Graphics

Later in the evening, when she comes out with a snow shovel, the audience laughs. It’s winter in Maine, after all, and a shovel is hard to love this time of year. But Finck doesn’t shovel. She dances. The partners, Finck and the shovel, are graceful and surprising. They spin and dip. When she brings the handle to her chin and elevates the scoop in the air you can hear the audience’s collective inhale. It sways. She adjusts. It is still. She balances the clunky everyday object on her chin and turns it into a beautiful extension of herself.

A juggler, aerialist and circus arts teacher, Finck, now 34, first found circus in her early 20s and assumed that she was already too old for the job. “When I was 21, I thought I was painfully late and horribly old for what it was I wanted to do. I was convinced that 30 was the cut off—that at 30, the dust poured from your joints and you crackled when you walked,” she says. European circus families pass their art to new generations early on. But Finck didn’t benefit from the tradition of starting circus young. What she had was grit and determination.

Perhaps it’s kismet that Finck’s path to the circus started with a child. In 2002, at 18, she moved from her hometown of Montreal to Germany to be a nanny and learned to juggle there. But loneliness consumed her, and she left that job. She hitchhiked through Europe to Spain, and her homelessness pushed her to begin performing as a juggler on the street. “I slept in squats and churchyards, and in the forest below the castle walls in Malaga. I lived on very bad wine and baked potatoes. Not exactly wholesome, but I suppose I learned.”

“There’s no hours where you are a circus artist and hours that you aren’t a circus artist. You just always are circus.”

She returned in 2004 to Canada to live and work in Newfoundland, where she would meet her best friend, Cory Tabino. The move back to Canada saw her making $75 a week to perform regularly, and she had lodging and health care. She spent over seven seasons in Newfoundland, then Tabino urged her to move to Montreal to audition for the National Circus School. There, Tabino introduced her to Josh Oliver, who was enrolled at the school, and who Finck would later marry. Tabino would be the best man at their wedding.

While she trained at the National Circus School, she modeled for art classes at McGill University and at the Montreal Museum of Art to pay the bills. Circus was all-encompassing. “There’s no hours where you are a circus artist and hours that you aren’t a circus artist. You just always are circus,” says Finck. She was performing exclusively when she found herself on the cusp of 30.

She began considering options for her future and decided to take a step away from circus life to pursue midwifery. That choice led her to Bridgton, Maine. It was 2013. “It was really great for me to do something that I thought was really fascinating and engrossing and feel that I was learning something new.”

Josh Oliver was still in Montreal. Cory Tabino was in Florida. Both were performing. When they moved to Portland in 2014 to join the Circus Conservatory of America, which had opened a year earlier, Finck felt the pull of the circus, and her friendships, once again. She joined them at the Conservatory.

Inside the Brick North building at Thompson’s Point, a high-ceilinged space that was once a train repair and storage facility in the second half of the 19th century, Circus Conservatory of America offered recreational classes in aerial and circus arts. The owners hoped to create a degree-granting program for professional circus artists. But plans for the school shifted, and the Circus Conservatory of America closed its doors after two years.

Circus artist Elsa Hall performs on the aerial straps during a Circus Maine media event this winter. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

When the closure was announced in 2015, the school’s performers and coaches were left with gigs on the books and a large empty room inside the Brick North building. Rather than cancel the upcoming performances, Finck, Oliver (now her husband), Tabino and other performers cobbled together equipment—including Chinese poles they made from pipe and hose—and went on with the show.

That collaborative effort became official shortly after, when Finck, Oliver and Tabino co-founded Circus Maine, which offered classes in circus arts as well as performances by experienced performers. (Last year, the organization divided those efforts under two names: Maine Circus Academy, the teaching arm, and Circus Maine, the performing arm under the MCA umbrella.) “We were performing, we were coaching the classes, choreographing, digging the pit for the trampoline, creating that room,” says Finck.

And the space is beautiful. Sunlight leaps through variously shaped windows throwing swaths of light across exposed brick walls, thick mats and an in-ground trampoline. The light plays on tall poles; it shines through colorful silks hung from the palatial ceiling and bounces off of twirling trapeze bars and suspended hoops. And on all the apparatus, coaches are teaching circus arts to adult and youth students. Finck and her cohorts built the room from the ground up. “I love our room,” she says.

Amid the mats and apparatus, coaches adjust bodies into proper positions, they touch a shoulder as a technique cue or press gently on a back to deepen a student’s stretch. “There are several aspects of circus life that are kind of miraculous,” says Finck, who carries a multitude of titles between Circus Maine—co-founder and producing/casting director—and at Maine Circus Academy—talent director and instructor. “It is deeply cooperative, to the level that you have no choice. You need to rely on the people around you. As students, you cannot accomplish the movement without someone literally holding you up.”

But carrying so many titles means carrying a lot of responsibilities. One day might include 16 hours of carpentry or sewing costumes into the wee hours of Christmas. Another day might be consumed by emails and administrative duties. For Circus Maine, Finck meets with new artists and books them for upcoming cabarets or galas. For the Maine Circus Academy, she coaches young people and adults who want to learn circus arts like tumbling, hand balancing and aerials. “Every day is an adventure,” says Finck. And sometimes, every once in a while, Finck gets to perform.

But between her coaching role and the administrative responsibilities, finding time to create a performance is a struggle for Finck—a struggle that might find her balancing a shovel on her chin at midnight to be ready for an upcoming performance. “When you are so busy, sometimes it’s easy to forget that art is more important than air. So you prioritize everything before the thing that’s more important than air,” she says. “Creation looks like rolling around on the floor. Creation looks like staring at the wall. Creation looks like absolutely bullshit. It looks nothing. It looks like garbage. It looks like a waste of time. So if there are other things that need to get done…”

But she admits that, as she gets older, some things get easier. On stage she’s not as concerned with her costuming or hairstyles as she used to be. Her rapport with the audience is less inhibited. Her experience as a midwife comforting laboring mothers helps her better understand facial and body language. These are lessons that show up in both performance and teaching.

All of her hours of carpentry and collaboration have not only transformed the physical space at Brick North, they have transformed lives. “What we do inherently teaches people how to be respectful and how to be humble and how to be proud at the same time,” she says.

Kat Finck performs a lyra aerial routine with partner, Joshua Oliver. Photo by Casey Jacques

Finck and her collaborators have a lot to be proud of. Their older students are auditioning into companies that require talented and well-trained performers. Children and young adults are in the Performance Troupe and the Professional Program under the Maine Circus Academy. MCA has qualified for nonprofit status and Circus Maine’s application is in progress. The organizations are growing and building their boards of directors.

Finck sees the new board as a positive path to a future when she can share the responsibility and the vision of, as their website states, an “international group of circus professionals expanding the limits of circus arts in North America.” Spreading the obligation for the management of the fundraising and facilities will allow Maine Circus Academy coaches to work on their own artistic projects. It will allow Circus Maine to create more consistent theater with longer performance runs.

It will allow Finck to rededicate herself to something she loves more than tinned peas, knitting and shoveling snow—following a creative path that allows her to express ideas, further the art form and create shows she’s yet to manifest.

Maine Circus Academy
Thompson’s Point, Portland
www.mainecircusacademy.org
Maine Circus Academy offers adult and youth classes in tumbling, juggling, Chinese pole, aerials, trampoline and more.

Circus Maine performances
• Catch the monthly Cabaret: Circus on the Point on April 20–22 and May 18–20
• A Spring Showcase the last week of May will feature both the youth performance troupe and professional-level performers.

Anna E. Jordan (annaejordan.com) can’t juggle or do the splits but she loves writing, drawing, and yoga.

Note from the Editor:
We are sorry to report that like many American arts organizations, Circus Maine/Maine Circus Academy closed their doors at the end of March 2018 due to lack of funding. Kat Fink said in her letter to supporters and students, “Simply put, after five years of valiantly struggling to get the circus program off the ground and growing fast against long odds, the founding owners have decided that there is no sustainable way to continue the company for the time it would take to grow large enough to pay for itself.” Maine Women Magazine wishes Kat Fink and the founding owners well as they embark on the next chapter of their artistic story.

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