Outside the A-WOL warehouse at NE 9th and Flanders, Franz trucks idle and rumble, waiting to load up bread from the nearby factory. The sound of the trucks and the night's chilly temperature only add to the dissolute bohemian scrappiness of the scene inside the warehouse, where 20-odd members of Circus Artemis have gathered to prepare for their upcoming show. A girl on stilts teeters across the concrete floor, clutching an accordion; a woman walks a wooden snail toy back and forth across the stage, testing its wheels on different surfaces; and in the corner, the band Pie for Breakfast practices, strings warming an otherwise frigid space.
The high-ceilinged warehouse is the full-time home of the A-WOL aerial dance company—above the stage, an assortment of ropes, straps, and swaths of fabric hang from the ceiling, like a bondage dungeon as envisioned by Barnum and Bailey. For three performances this weekend, Circus Artemis will overrun the warehouse with an all-women assemblage of contemporary circus acts, including trapeze artists, stilt walkers, and clowns. The kicker, though? Not only are all of the performers women, but the crew is as well, from the lighting technician to the graphic designer to the photographers who will document the show.
Circus Artemis' three founders conceived the idea for an all-girl circus at the Oregon Country Fair, where for years they've participated in a similar event called the Girl Circus. Portland has a sizeable community of performers who could be considered circus acts, thanks in part to the presence of Southeast Portland's Do Jump!, a performance space and school that teaches physical theater, juggling, trapeze, and more. But while there's no shortage of performers, performance opportunities are often limited to bars and 21+ venues—venues that come with certain expectations for female circus performers, in a town where both stripping and burlesque are omnipresent.
"Although I had been performing my whole life, all I was seeing in Portland was 'dark circus,'" says Artemis co-founder Kari Jones, who hula-hoops under the name Revolva. "Sexy circus. Circus that formed in a city with a strong history of stripping. I don't have a problem with people performing topless or being sexual onstage; there's room for everything in the world. But my numbers are comedic, funny, and clothed, and I want there to be room for me, too. Yet I was surprised to show up here and feel—noticeably more so than in other cities—that I was being treated like a sex object. I'd come on stage to do technical, gymnastic moves with multiple hoops, and I'd be introduced by the emcee with comments about my body."
"I'm a fan of sexy, but there's so much more that we can do," concurs trapeze artist Daniela Steiner. "There's a real range of stuff you'll see in the show."
Shireen Press, another of Artemis' co-founders says that role modeling for younger girls is one of the most rewarding aspects of performing. As she puts it, "It's great watching the young girls go from 'I'm so cute' to 'I have actual skills.'" To that end, Circus Artemis' show is resolutely kid friendly—elephant ears, cotton candy, and popcorn have all been promised. As far as what to expect from the show? "We're not Cirque du Soleil," Press says emphatically. Translation: Expect a rowdy, homegrown night of performance from a circus community you didn't know we had.