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Above the Fray: Seattle Trapeze Artists Raise the Bar for Innovation

By Wendy K. Leigh

Those who subscribe to the notion of trapeze artists flying through the air “with the greatest of ease” should probably think again. Aerial performers like the ones at Emerald City Trapeze Arts in Seattle are devoted and disciplined professional athletes spending countless hours perfecting their skills, choreography, acrobalance, hoop work, aerial techniques and more. However, Kari Kirkland, co-owner of the massive 20,000-square-foot warehouse training facility, theater and event space in the SODO district, insists that anyone can learn the art of trapeze. Really?

Kari Kirkland, co-owner Emerald City Trapeze. Photo courtesy of Emerald City Trapeze.

Kari Kirkland, co-owner Emerald City Trapeze. Photo courtesy of Emerald City Trapeze.

“Age and ability actually make little difference for someone who wants to give it a go,” explains Kari. “We’ve had beginners and advanced learners as young as age six and up into their 80s take a swing on the flying trapeze.”

Fortunately, those who greatly admire dedicated performing artists from a distance can still get in on the action. The Emerald City warehouse doubles as a unique venue for corporate events, product launches and company parties that include accomplished performers twirling, flipping and flying overhead. They also offer team-building packages with appetizers or catered meals on the balcony and a full high-flying trapeze performance, as well as options for unlimited flying trapeze group lessons. The hands-on experience gives an entirely new meaning to the lofty ideals of lifting employees out of their comfort zones and building trust.

Private event at trapeze warehouse. Photo courtesy of Emerald City Trapeze.

Private event at trapeze warehouse. Photo courtesy of Emerald City Trapeze.

“We find that trapeze is a great vehicle for creating an environment in which vulnerability, connection and relatability can all come together in a mere two-hour session,” explains Kari. “There’s a huge element of trust and believing in oneself, as well as supporting others in their journeys through fear and anxiety.” 

In addition to smaller local companies coming in with groups as small as four, larger corporations get in on the team-building action with as many as 200 employees at time, including Amazon, Microsoft and Google. A list of holiday parties, annual celebrations and product launches held at Emerald City reads like a who’s who of cutting edge high-flyers such as Wongdoody, AVVO, Allovus, Docusign, Alder Biopharmaceuticals and dozens more.

Flying trapeze practice. Photo: Wendy K. Leigh.

Flying trapeze practice. Photo: Wendy K. Leigh.

Emerald City occupies the former Canal Boiler Works building, with 40-foot ceilings now draped with nets, silk ropes and hoops – but this is by no means an old-fashioned circus environment. Rotating performers and instructors hail from famous touring troupes such as Cirque du Soleil, and the facility in SODO is on par with the most high-tech spaces in the industry.

State-of-the-art showbiz lighting and sound systems utilize the latest technology, with audio equipment such as a 32,2000-watt, 240v, three-phase PA system, Presonus StudioLive 164.2 digital mixer, and various speakers, monitors, subwoofers and wireless mics. A full-sized lighting console works together with dimmable stage wash lights, LED strip lights, yoke lights with gobo wheels, pinspots and more, as well as special effects like fog and haze machines, lightning/strobe lights, bubble machines and an Ultratec radiance hazer.

Duo flying trapeze performance. Photo: F2 Photography.

Duo flying trapeze performance. Photo: F2 Photography.

The people behind Emerald City (or above, as the case may be on any given day) are certainly no slouches themselves. Owner Gary Kirkland founded the company seven years ago, then swept his now-wife Kari off her feet (literally) during her first lesson. The couple got married at the trapeze warehouse a year later, and the wedding was featured on TLC’s “Four Weddings” show. In addition to being an Ironman triathlete, Kari now runs the business and teaches flying trapeze and bungee.

Numerous instructors, both male and female, specialize in teaching the various aerial art forms, including flying trapeze, cyr wheel, acrobatics, conditioning, trampoline, silks and hoops and even pole dancing. Classes are quite literally for anyone brave enough to say “why not?” and put themselves in the quite capable hands of teachers such as Avery Young, an aerial arts instructor whose background includes a dizzying array of uncommon art forms such as Spanish web, trip rope, teeterboard, pas de deux and spinning cube.

Event performance at Emerald City Trapeze. Photo: Sanderling Photography.

Event performance at Emerald City Trapeze. Photo: Sanderling Photography.

In keeping with the company’s commitment to community involvement, instructors Ivanna Wei, Meredith Starnes and J. Von Stratton hosted the 2016 Magic Wheelchair event at the warehouse in October. Costumed aerial performers entertained wheelchair-bound children, but also presented them with custom-created costumes of their own for the Halloween season.

“It’s really important to us to donate our time and experience in the circus world to reach out to the community at large,” notes Kari.

Emerald City works throughout the year with educators and charity leaders to bring young people from all walks of life into the studio for a day at the circus. Through its L.I.F.T program, they team with organizations such as the Low Income Housing Institute to provide free summer camps for homeless and low-income children. Other camps at Emerald City include ones for pediatric oncology patients, deaf children and kids with developmental challenges.

Many people harbor secret dreams of joining the circus or flying through the air in the ultimate act of freedom. Those who actually do it rarely go back to being completely “normal” again, according to the airborne bedazzlers at Emerald City Trapeze Arts. They have some good company as well:

Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return,” stated Leonardo da Vinci many centuries ago.

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