Clementine Jacoby and the Art of Aerials

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If you’re ever biking up the row, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a girl flying through the air.

Her name is Clementine Jacoby, and she is the Upper Row’s resident aerialist. She trains in a tree near her house by securing a massive piece of blue silk to a rigging system, pulling the fabric into the air, and then climbing up it like a monkey. With impressive ease, she twists the heavy silk around her body, flips upside down, and drops, the intricate layering of the fabric the only thing stopping her from plummeting to the ground.

“The mixture of a little bit of fear and a lot of adrenaline with this kind of expressive power that [aerials] has is really very addicting,” Jacoby said. “I’ve gotten so much stronger doing it – which is a personal thing also – so it’s been really empowering. You can express almost anything you want to.”

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But her tree hasn’t been Jacoby’s only performance space. She took last year off from Stanford to join Crescer e Viver, a professional circus in Brazil, where she trained an average of six hours a day, six days a week. After hours of handstand training, dance, trampoline, solo acrobatics, hoop, and aerials (not to mention juggling and unicycling lessons), Jacoby taught aerials to a group of underprivileged Brazilian youth as part of the circus’s social circus program.

“Circus is really something where you learn to trust people that you’re working with. You can die if you don’t,” she said. In the social circus program, trust becomes a way to break down gang barriers while teaching economically disadvantaged kids from violent neighborhoods “a physical and emotional sense of trust and a whole lot of discipline.”

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Jacoby’s interest in circus also started young. When she was 13, Jacoby met a fireblower who was performing in Cirque de Soleil’s show “Alegria” in London, where her father was teaching a study abroad course. She thought he was beautiful; he introduced her to an accordion teacher. The woman only spoke French and the two had a “beautiful communicating through music thing.”

“I thought, this is the life I want, but I’m not six and I’m not Russian so I tabled it and learned the accordion and forgot about the acrobatics,” said Jacoby, whose imagination was captured from then on by the magic and beauty of circus.

By the time she came to Stanford, Jacoby was proficient in accordion and tumbling and fluent in Portuguese and Spanish. As a freshman, she met a group of people doing aerial fabrics, which has since become her primary medium, and began to train with them. However, while she was in Brazil, Stanford’s aerial fabrics program was shut down, a disappointment that Jacoby has found hard to swallow.

“When I was training in Brazil, circus was everything for me and for the people I was with. Here it’s a cute, quirky thing that I do,” she said. “I know there are people doing amazing and fabulous stuff in the arts at Stanford but I don’t know how we got disenfranchised from that.”

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The student-run Stanford aerial fabrics program began in 2008 under the umbrella of Stanford Outdoors, but was discontinued after five years. When Jacoby began at Stanford, there were two teachers and a small group of students, but by the time she left for Brazil, 100 students were registered for classes and over 40 were waitlisted. Despite the university’s safety concerns, no students were injured during the life of the program.

Jacoby has written an op-ed for the Daily, petitioned the University, and spoken to officials from SAL, the athletics department, and Stanford Outdoors, but the conversations was lost in a bureaucratic maze. She is currently working with the d. school’s Michael Sturtz along with a professional rigger to bring the program back in the fall.

The lack of support at Stanford echoes the lack of opportunities for circus performers in the United States. “It’s a really bizarre economy, which is why it was liberating to get out of the United States and do circus for a year,” Jacoby said. “There it was much more professional. We were treated a lot more like artists than we are here. They were giving us something to live on.”

While she worked at the social circus, many of Jacoby’s friends would clown or juggle on street corners. Two of her closest friends had made a living doing circus since they were 13. “When you’ve been a clown for that long, they’re just incredible expressive people and so unbelievably fun to be around,” she said. “Life for them was going to training and hanging out at stop signs all day and trying to entertain people for 50 Brazilian cents, so like 30 cents.”

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After spending a day at the massive blue tent in the middle of intercity Rio, Jacoby would go to the beach, sleep, or attend protests. She lived with two Brazilian girls in an apartment near Maracanã, Rio’s main soccer stadium.

“There were protests every other day. That was what we did after circus – me and my friends would go protest at whatever ridiculous thing that was happening that week,” she said. “It was a really good life.”

Jacoby spent five months in Brazil until she contracted dengue fever and went back to the States in order to recover. After a fast recuperation, she decided to join an all-aerial troupe – this time in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she began to focus more on aerial hoop as well as fabrics because of the troupe’s choreographer.

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“She forced me to try and be beautiful and not just strong,” Jacoby said. “My routines tend to be very highly physical. Personally as an artist I like things that move very quickly, are very high energy, and are very forceful.”

Jacoby’s strength is evident from the effortlessness with which she crawls up the fabric. She can hold a casual conversation while hanging from her neck, the silk wrapped tightly around her waist. When asked what it feels like to be up in the air, she admits that it’s mostly just painful. “You lose nerve endings where you need to, and it’s all happy from there.”

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Especially painful is the Clementine Drop – her signature move – where she wraps silk around her legs and feet in a particular pattern before diving into the air. Luckily, she’s not afraid of heights.

Other moves are called the Full Monty, the Waterfall, the Birthday Cake, the T-shirt Ripper, and the Jack Knife.

While circus could be considered a cross between theater and dance – training with the circus is similar to being part of a large theatrical company – Jacoby thinks of her art as more athletic.

“Like dancers, some circus performers are really concerned with character in their acts and others are much more interested in showing physical prowess and in expressing something just with their bodies,” she said. “Others are interested in lines and geometry. It’s something that has to be experienced to be understood.”

Jacoby’s decision to come back to Stanford for her junior year means that she most likely won’t be pursing circus full-time once she graduates. However, she has considered doing a professional training program in the United States, going back to Mexico, or joining another circus abroad. “But I’m also working for Google this summer so I’m clearly ideologically confused.”

Google or no, Jacoby will be flying wherever she goes.

 photo credits: Diana Barthauer and Clementine Jacoby

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