As a child, Isabella “Bella” Diaz never dreamed she could make a living doing somersaults.
A Chicago native, Diaz grew up doing gymnastics at Peterson and Harrison parks and studied dance at Western Michigan University. He has been performing for the past seven years, and most recently with the non-profit organization Midnight Circus, a unique combination of theatrical and circus arts that has offered outdoor performances in parks around the city for nearly two decades.
But Diaz is grieving, along with about a dozen artists working in the circus. the recently announced cut schedule for this summer. According to Park District officials and Jeff Jenkins, circus director and general manager of the Chicago Park District, the organization had to reduce its schedules from six consecutive weekends to one weekend due to a change in eligibility requirements for arts programs to receive Chicago Park District funding and resources. circus.
The only performances of the season will take place September 8-10, with six shows scheduled at Welles Park in Lincoln Square.
“It’s devastating because there are so many communities in Chicago that are really benefiting from the city’s public support and arts funding,” said Diaz, who grew up in the Austin neighborhood. “This is how we deliver art to these communities that cannot reach art on their own.”
Jenkins founded Midnight Circus with his wife, Julie Greenberg, in 2007. The duo focused on making circus art accessible. In 2013 they expanded their circus program from parks on the North End to the South and West End. Jenkins said they’ve increased ticket prices from $5 to $25 depending on what people in the community can afford. Community partners worked with them to set their own pricing.
Jenkins said Midnight Circus aims to bring world-class circus performances to every corner of Chicago during the summer months. They take some of the circus funds and give it back to the Park Advisory Council to volunteers who will help strengthen the parks.
“That’s why it works,” he said. “Because everyone has a stake in it. Everyone. We do it, the volunteers, the local sponsoring businesses, and the Park District do it.”
According to Jenkins, the group’s efforts to expand the programming across the city have been a tremendous success. Part of the Midnight Circus expansion The Park District’s Night Out in the Parks programIt helps fund free and accessible performances and events in 77 communities across Chicago, according to Chicago Park District spokesperson Irene Tostado.
“We’re not NASCAR, we’re not Lollapalooza, we’re not Riot Fest, and I say that with great pride,” Jenkins said.
However, Jenkins said they were not eligible to be included in this initiative due to a gap in entry fees this year: “It is the very initiative we inspired.”
In a statement, Tostado said in order to receive Park District funding and resources, artists cannot charge fees for participation in the event. “Midnight Circus’ 2023 plan did not meet the eligibility requirement to receive support as part of this initiative,” he said.
In a statement, Tostado said the Park District teamed up with Midnight Circus to plan a hybrid model where some performances would be offered free to the community, but Jenkins and Greenberg chose to continue with ticketed events at Welles Park.
Jenkins said it’s important to charge a little (not too much and on a variable scale) for Midnight Circus. It helps them pay artists and provide high-quality performance.
“When Chicagoans are willing to pay a reasonable price to see a magnificent work of art or culture in their park, wouldn’t you want to take advantage of it? Wouldn’t you like everyone to have a stake in it?” He asked.
The Midnight Circus was the first American company to be invited to the prestigious Montréal Complètement Cirque Festival. The 2022 season brought together more than 15,000 Chicagoans to celebrate the circus arts.
Besides general aerobatic work, Diaz has been working with Midnight Circus for the past two years, doing everything from Chinese pole to hoop diving. He was working on a cruise ship called Virgin Voyages when the pandemic started, and he was living in New York and went home for the first time since college. She saw Midnight’s performance in 2020 and was enchanted.
After doing gymnastics as a little girl, she attended Chicago Art High School where she found it easier to pursue a career in dance. She said that contemporary circus art combines her two passions.
“I feel like there’s a little wall between you and the audience at the dance,” she said. “And in the circus you try to get everyone to laugh or clap at the same time. You’re trying to get everyone on the same team.”
If Diaz hadn’t been around artists in high school, he wouldn’t have known this was a viable career path. He said that the circus performance allowed him to try new forms of art, to force himself to express himself on stage in new ways.
“I did not receive any classical education. But this encourages more of a sense of play. And I think that sense of play is really contagious,” he said about the circus.
Diaz said she was at home when she got a call from Greenberg, and Greenberg tearfully said they were going to cut down on their summer performance. She said she is interested in Midnight Circus for the services it provides to communities in Chicago, and that the current program is not truly fulfilling its mission.
He said all artists who plan to stay for the duration of the tour despite the interruptions will be performing at Welles Park.
And meanwhile, Diaz is trying to get used to the weekend shows instead of months. He’ll take side jobs and give private circus lessons. Soon they will have performances with a Montreal-based company called Seven Fingers, which is performing nationwide.
Jenkins said there were always moments during the tour when an audience member realized they were seeing the circus for the first time.
“And you could see the eyes of these kids shining,” he said. “They couldn’t believe they went to school in the morning, then when they came back they found there were purple and blue tents. Then you go in and there are superheroes.”
Brooke Rourke, a longtime circus watcher and resident of the North Center neighborhood, said her four children have benefited from seeing great circus performances in their backyards over the years.
“The best part is that they finally have a dance party and all the kids get in the ring and dance together. They feel like they’re putting on a show. “They’re dancing on stage,” he said.
The circus is coming to their park, but that’s not the case for many, he said.
Jenkins said he and his wife want Park District and City Hall leaders to support Midnight Circus on a realistic level so that it reaches kids and families in every corner of Chicago once again. They want the city to allow Midnight Circus to get affordable ticket prices to raise money for community partners.
They’re committed to making their services accessible, and they even added a special performance on Saturday for more than 500 children and adults from the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, as well as 200 newly arrived families from across the city.
“Emotionally this is a punch to the gut. We’ve invested so much that I think our community partners (these kids and families in Chicago) all deserve better,” said Jenkins.
Tickets went on sale for the weekend in September and sold out in a matter of hours, with more than 5,000 people planning to attend, Jenkins said.