Acrobat dreams

Cirque Dreams Illumination recently made one Valley girl's dreams come true

Seems to me I must have fantasized at least a few times as a child about running off to join the circus. And now that I’ve parented three teens, I admit to sometimes feeling as though I’m living in the three-ring variety.

But I hadn’t given serious thought to what it might be like to truly experience a career in the circus arts until chatting recently with a 12-year-old girl from Mesa, who performed with Cirque Dreams Illumination during a November performance here in the Valley.

Cassi Parker-Swenson, a student at Arizona School for the Arts in downtown Phoenix, had just returned from performing at Disneyland when her dad posted some pictures on Facebook.

Turns out an acquaintance who saw the photos had just heard about a “Runaway with Cirque Dreams” contest taking place in October at Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix.

The contest, also dubbed a casting call, was open to the first 100 people in line who could show their stuff with a routine up to two minutes in length — although Parker-Swenson recalls there being far fewer folks there that Friday morning.

“I didn’t have a prepared routine,” recalls Parker-Swenson. Instead, she did “basic handstands, a back walkover” and such. Her mom, Andrea Parker-Swenson, learned by phone the following Monday that her daughter had gotten the gig.

Then, she went through some pretty impressive hoops of her own — keeping the good news a secret until a television news crew could spring into action that Wednesday during a science class at Cassi’s school.

Parker-Swenson recalls feeling “proud and excited” as she got the news amidst classmates who cheered and gave her plenty of “high fives.” Perhaps there is a science report in her future — tackling something like “the physics of acrobatic performance art.”

Like these Cirque Dreams Illumination performers, Cassandra Parker-Swenson has high hopes

Parker-Swenson got to see “Cirque Dreams Illumination” at the Mesa Arts Center on a Tuesday night, Nov 9. Two days later, she rehearsed with the group as they prepared to open a Nov 11-14 run at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix.

“It was pretty easy,” says Parker-Swenson, recalling her time with the company’s choreographer. She’d gotten her costume Thursday but didn’t actually get to put everything together until she “went over all the tricks the day before the performance.”

The young acrobat trains with “Leap of Faith Dance and Performing Arts” in Gilbert — which offers classes for ages three to adult — all with a “committment to excellence and Christian principles.”

Their offerings include preschool dance, ballet, tap, contemporary, break dancing, acro-gymnastics, jazz, lyrical, hip hop, tumbling, musical theater/Broadway and combination classes.

Andrea Parker-Swenson raves about Bruce McGregor, the studio’s acro-gymnastics and tumbling instructor — describing him as both coach and performance partner for her daughter.

Cirque Dreams Illumination is one of many shows that elevate acrobatics to a fine art

She notes that McGregor performed along with Cassi during Sunday’s Cirque Dreams Illumination show at the Orpheum — proving that acrobat dreams belong not only to the very young but also to the very young at heart.

But what of making those dreams a reality? Parker-Swenson, now in 7th grade, says she “expects to do acrobatics as a career.” For now, she simply takes acrobatics classes “twice a week, for several hours.”

She also plays the flute, and has experience in community theater with folks like Greasepaint Youtheatre in Scottsdale. Riding the Phoenix METRO light rail home from school each day gives her a chance to do homework before she begins those busy afternoons.

Parker-Swenson and McGregor pose with fellow acrobats from Cirque Dreams Illumination

Parker-Swenson enjoyed training in gymnastics from age three to seven, but says she left “because it was too competitive” as peers began “training for the Olympics.”

She touts the “teamwork” element of acrobatics, which she learned about from a girl she met at a play who was having a great time doing all sorts of flips and other tricks.

“I like the team environment” says Parker-Swenson. “I like the emphasis on performing rather than competing–it’s really fun.”

It seems this family, which also includes 9-year-old Olivia, enjoys all kinds of experiences related to arts and culture. Olivia Parker-Swenson is a fourth grader at the International School of Arizona in Scottsdale, which specializes in early foreigh language acquisition through immersion.

Scottsdale is also home to the Circus School of Arizona, headed by Scottsdale native Rachel Stegman. This is comforting news to those who worry our only expertise in the circus arts exists in the realm of Arizona politics.

I prefer to focus on the dreams of the aspiring circus and acrobatic performers among us — who take the cartwheels we enjoyed in front lawns way before the advent of the Wii to a whole new level.

— Lynn

Note: “Zoppe: An Italian Family Circus Since 1842” performs on the West Lawn of the Chandler Center for the Performing Arts through Jan 2, 2011 (even on New Year’s Eve). “Diavolo”– a group of dancers trained in ballet, modern dance, martial arts and acrobatics — comes to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts Fri, Jan 28, 2011. “The New Shanghai Circus,” a troupe from China specializing in acrobatic performance art, comes to the Higley Center for the Performing Arts Tues, Jan 25, 2011.

Coming up: More family fun for New Year’s Eve

Update from ASA: “Congratulations to ASA students Zoe Bargas, Alina Chenausky, Halle Nelson, Cassi Parker-Swenson, and Sienna Willis. They will be performing the Pied Piper Fantasie with the Phoenix Symphony this weekend. Come out and support them Saturday January 8th at 8:00pm. For more information on tickets, check out the Phoenix Symphony website.”