Dedication, talent, discipline, and a whole lot of heart—in the world of the circus and illusionary showmanship, these pillars of humanity reign supreme.
Three Bellingham Circus Guild instructors—Richard Hartnell, Laura Gwendolyn Burch, and Dream Frohe—talked with WhatcomTalk about their craft and the road they travel as part of a community pulsing with inclusive love and devotion to age-old theatrical brilliance.
Richard Hartnell, co-founder of Bellingham Circus Guild, international performer, and grand student of the renowned multidisciplinary juggler Michael Moschen, first mentions the four historical arts that go back to Roman times: acrobatics, clowning, equestrianism, and object manipulation.
Hartnell is an accomplished performer and instructor of object manipulation, which includes juggling, hoop dancing, fire dancing, yo-yo, Chinese yo-yo, and manipulation involving different types of props. “When you hear circus people say ‘manipulation,’” he says, “they mean all of the prop-based arts.”
At the Guild, Hartnell trains new artists on his craft between performing and, in the past, traveling. To him, his talent is a passion and a gift he can share with emerging artists in the field.
When speaking of the legendary Michael Moschen, Hartnell describes the inspiration and discipline behind his own circus practice. “I’m in his lineage as someone who does ball-rolling tricks, but there’s also the aspect of contact juggling that uses something more like stage magic and mind techniques to create illusions that go on top of the juggling tricks.” Hartnell can roll a ball around his chest or neck, but also do tricks that would convince you the ball is levitating or floating, immune to the laws of physics. “It’s sort of half juggling, half magic.”
When instructing his students, Hartnell believes in teaching more than just a single prop skill. “We also dive into other props based on other principles of motion we’re working on,” he says. “It’s a style of communication.” Hartnell knows the impact a talented mentor can have on an emerging artist and is proud of the students he’s brought up. “I’ve had a couple of protégés that have really taken the flag and run with it, and it is reassuring to me that I can teach someone to learn this skill well. If your students aren’t getting better than you, then you’re not doing your job as a teacher.”
Laura Gwendolyn Burch
Bellingham Circus Guild is also home to circus creatives that take their artistry airborne. Award-winning aerial circus artist Laura Gwendolyn Burch is a hardworking talent with 10 years’ experience at an art form that bends both the body and mind.
As an artist, Burch’s strength, dedication to mastering her craft, and understanding of the emotional process in creating sets her apart from other aerialists. “It’s definitely been square peg round hole,” Burch says with a laugh. “It takes me a long time to pick up skills, and as an artist you spend so much time working on something. You go through such an evolution of emotion, and then you finally come out on the other side of that, and it feels really good.”
Putting in the work to be successful and lifting others up in the circus community seems to be a pillar of Burch’s personality. “I love coaching,” she says. “I taught yoga for 10 years, and then I transferred into teaching circus as well. I am a performer first, but I do very much consider myself an instructor.”
When describing the circus community, a deep affection for her fellow artists shines through in every word. “Personalities in the circus are so diverse and everybody is a character in their own way,” Burch says fondly. “It’s harmonious and it’s not always perfect, but for the most part it’s this group of wildly different, insanely talented, incredibly driven humans who create beautiful pieces for the community while also existing as our own community.” Burch feels at home within the Bellingham circus world and puts an emphasis on the sheer amount of talent she sees locally.
For more than a decade, aerialist and Bellingham Circus Guild founding member Dream Frohe has devoted herself to instructing and performing aerial dancing with an emphasis on the intricacies in dynamic and artistic movement.
“I think of aerial as anything using an apparatus that isn’t touching the ground, so anything that is hung from some kind of structure,” says Frohe. “I think of it as one of the many disciplines—and there is a lot of movement and dance in circus—but I think aerial is maybe one of the things that adds spectacle and danger with art.”
With a background in gymnastics and passion for dance, Frohe’s chosen art form in aerial circus art makes perfect sense. “What appeals to me most is the way it combines dance and expressive movement with physicality and what you have to be able to do in aerial,” she says. “It is similar, in that way, to gymnastics and there is a lot of freedom of expression in it.”
When instructing, Frohe cherishes the moments she can make a difference for those just starting out in the art of aerial. “I love working with beginners,” Frohe says. “It’s one of my favorite things to take people who have never done something and, in one lesson, help them accomplish a skill they didn’t necessarily know was possible.”
Frohe emphasizes that the Guild is a welcome place for new artists to hone their skills and train in their disciplines. “The circus space is first and foremost a training facility where people work on their art,” she says. “We want the art to be the priority and in order to expand our teaching program we would need more square footage to keep the training space as wonderful as it has been. People are drawn here because there is space to really dive into your art.”
The circus world is filled with mystery and illusion, remaining a beloved institution in the arts worldwide. Bellingham Circus Guild continues an ancient tradition with finesse, welcoming members to push their limitations and create from the heart. Richard Hartnell, Laura Gwendolyn Burch, and Dream Frohe represent a wealth of talent and knowledge for the emerging circus artists of Bellingham and local communities.