On Saturday, I accepted a last-minute invitation from a trapeze artist to attend another trapeze artist’s 50th birthday party in a warehouse in SoDo.
The unassuming warehouse opened up into the yawning wooden interior of Emerald City Trapeze Arts (Emerald City). Rafters lined the vaulted roof like the palatal rugae of a great beast. Velvet-curtained balconies loomed over a net stretched across the entire middle of the space. The "rig," as the artists call it, curved up at the ends like a smile.
“Will you be flying tonight?” a woman asked me as I entered the space. I shook my head. Though I’d flown here once before and wanted to again, I doubted I’d ever have the chance.
People dressed in leather pants, spandex, mullets, spiky collars, etc. mingled beneath the net. I had not received the dress code.
At 8:00 pm, everyone ascended the stairs. Showtime. We lined up along the balcony, jutting out our heads so we could see, our eyes level with the trapeze bars.
A shirtless, muscled man in shiny red tights took his place at the trapeze bar closest to me. Meanwhile, five women in leather booty shorts, crop tops, permed up-dos, and tattoo tights climbed the ladder at the opposite side to the board, or the launching platform. Guns N’ Roses blared. One at a time, the women grabbed their bar and swung into the air.
They twisted, turned, and flung themselves off the bar, hanging in the air for a heart-stopping split second before the muscled man caught their wrists. The crowd whooped and hollered. One of the performers was Lynn, the 50-year-old birthday girl. Her fellow trapeze artists populated the majority of the audience. They were there for Lynn, but they were also there to say goodbye. The party was a celebration, but it was also a funeral.
“Did you hear they’re closing down trapeze permanently?” Men behind me whispered to each other.
Just over a week ago, owner Shawn Hammer, who purchased the business in February 2019, announced he was shutting down all flying trapeze performances and classes.
This sudden closure—a result of pandemic-induced financial stress and a hard pivot into event hosting in search of solvency, according to Hammer—sent shockwaves through Seattle, but also across the country and the world.
What Seattle loses is a vibrant community, a school for students of all levels, and a destination and literal home for trapeze artists.
The Flying Pastor
My invite to the party came from Nathan Nelson, a 32-year-old pastor at Bethany Community Church in Green Lake. He reached out to me last week when he heard of Emerald City’s fate.
Five years ago, Nelson and his wife, Maci, a Seattle Public Schools teacher, went on a double-date to trapeze class. They left with their heartbeats pounding in their throats and adrenaline flushing their cheeks. “My wife turned to me and said, ‘This is going to be the thing we do,’” Nelson told me. Nelson now coaches beginner classes at Emerald City.
“I have literally no experience with anything even close to this,” Nelson said of flying trapeze. As a prolific athlete in his early life, he loved sports, but competition would “usually sour the experience” for him.
Trapeze appealed to him because there was no “me against you,” he said. It’s all about trust and teamwork.
To make a flying trapeze act work, there’s a flier; the catcher who catches the flier as they crest out of a number of flippy, twisty tricks; a person on the ground calling out the timing; and people on the board readying the bars, the platforms, and catching the flier upon their return from flight.
“The drama of trapeze is so epic,” he said. “It’s the full range of emotions. It answers the question of ‘What can the human experience be?’ and we all want to maximize that together.”
Heather Brincko, or just “Brincko” to her trapeze teammates, is 45. She measures how long she’s been doing flying trapeze based on how old her son is.
“Let’s see, my son is seven,” she said, thinking, “So, I’ve been doing trapeze for six years.”
Brincko started flying to dig herself out of postpartum depression. She told Nelson once that trapeze saved her life.
“When you’re doing trapeze you can’t mentally think about other things,” Brincko said, “Everything just falls away.”
And when the feelings don’t quite fall away, there’s a supportive community there to catch them.
When a flier ascends the ladder up to the board, a coach will ask if they need anything from them. If the flier is all set aside from some nerves, they’ll say “hold my feelings” in a sort of transfer of that nervous energy. “It’s goofy,” Nelson said, “but it’s so sweet.”
“The community and friendship circles that have formed,” Brincko said, “I dunno, I envision them being front row at my funeral.”
I met Nelson and Brincko in the SoDo Macrina Bakery the week after Hammer announced flying trapeze’s imminent doom. Fresh from trapeze class, Brincko wore pinstripe black-and-white leggings. Brincko usually practices twice a week, but with the impending closure she went every day this week. Though she was too sore to even fly that day, she still went to practice.
The announcement came on a Thursday night, but Brincko didn’t hear about it until she walked into practice Friday morning. Everyone was crying. There was also this "determined energy," she described.
For weeks she and Lynn had been trying and failing to “throw a double,” a trick where fliers flip their body two full rotations before the catcher catches them. On the Friday of Hammer’s announcement, both of them nailed the trick.
“Everyone needed a deadline,” Brincko said. “Everyone’s hitting their tricks.”
Nelson pointed out that this caliber of talent for amateur flying trapeze students is not the norm. Students can progress through multiple tiers of classes and have the opportunity to perform in a variety of shows, from student shows to professional shows.
“There’s very few, if any, circus schools around the country with students at the level that Emerald City has,” Nelson said. “It’s a testament to the high level of coaching we attract because of the uniqueness of the space.”
The Monkeys and the Monkey House
Emerald City Trapeze has a one-of-a-kind rig, Nelson said. The net and the space go hand-in-hand. The balconies running alongside the rig give audiences a unique intimacy unlike any other place in the world. Viewers are close enough and at the same level as the action, so they can make out the fliers’ facial expressions. It heightens the drama and the excitement. Everyone wants to fly there.
Jordan Tribble, a world-renowned flier who’s worked with Cirque du Soleil, spent the beginning stages of his career learning flying trapeze at Emerald City.
“I like to call it the cathedral of trapeze,” Tribble said.
One balcony in the warehouse is used for viewing, but the balcony on the other side doesn’t host audiences. It remains covered by velvet curtains.
Behind those curtains, Nelson told me at Lynn’s party (he was dressed as Freddie Mercury), is where the monkeys live.
Trapeze artists from all over the world come to perform and coach at Emerald City. Part of the appeal is the open secret known as the Monkey House, a legally gray living space where traveling trapeze artists live for stints at a time, earning their keep by coaching Emerald City’s trapeze school, starring in professional performances, and doing other odd jobs.
In a city where, according to a recent survey, 4 in 10 arts and culture professionals are debating leaving the sector or Seattle due to low wages and the high cost of living, having a place to live rent-free in-between gigs at Emerald City was a saving grace.
“For a lot of up-and-coming artists, it’s like college,” Blair Aued, a 14-year trapeze veteran and Tribble’s partner, said, “Everyone’s there to fly.”
With the rig right outside their bedrooms, the artists can fly whenever they want. They literally live, breathe, and sleep trapeze.
Aued and Tribble met doing trapeze in Santa Monica. Years later, they reconnected, fell in love, and founded their trapeze-centered creative arts entertainment company, Pneumatic Arts—though not necessarily in that order. In 2021, they started creating shows at Emerald City such as “Dances in the Sky,” where they set trapeze and circus performances to a live Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra concert.
After those successes, in 2022, Hammer, the owner, asked them to take over the creative direction of the trapeze school and trapeze performances.
“Jordan almost turned down Cirque du Soleil so he could produce shows for Emerald City,” Nelson said.
Everything was going well. Contrary to Hammer’s narrative about financial insecurity, they had even pulled Emerald City out of the red for the first time in years, Aued said.
“It seemed like there was promise for the future,” Aued added. “We had fixed the business model to make it more sustainable, and we were quite shocked at the way that things turned out.”
But, then the news came. Flying trapeze would end come April.
In an interview, Hammer said that flying trapeze could not withstand the financial hardships of the pandemic and that all the chalk produced from it interfered with event rentals, the real saving grace for the business.
“In making this choice, I think there’s a lot of people right now who think I drown puppies,” Hammer said. “I love puppies. I’m not an evil dude.”
He could not keep it alive, he said, and he regrets feeling like he's "failed the community."
“A community of love that breaks through the boundaries of ordinariness”
Hundreds of people came together online from around the world to “fight for flight” after Hammer’s announcement. They staged town halls. The “business people and lawyers in the trapeze community” put their heads together, Nelson said.
For now, flying trapeze’s future in Seattle is in limbo.
The community is strong. It will withstand the loss of space, but it will be hard. The next-best option is turning to the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA), which has the only other trapeze rig in town. However, SANCA primarily serves children, and the rig is, well, small.
In talking about this huge community effort, Nelson the Flying Pastor told me about his favorite priest. Father Henri Nouwen spent the last years of his life following a flying trapeze company, the Flying Rodleighs. Trapeze evoked in Nouwen “the desire to belong to a community of love that can break through the boundaries of ordinariness.”
That struck me. Part of my desire to write this column where I, in some form or another, explore Seattle subcultures comes from a yearning I have for something more, for connection and community.
Nelson’s entire story about his path to trapeze struck me, too. I’d had a nearly identical experience.
Back in January, my boyfriend Harry and I took a trapeze class at Emerald City. Likely, it was the same date-night class Nelson and his wife took five years ago.
Fear coiled in the pit of my stomach as I climbed ever higher up the ladder to the board. Once up there, I noticed how small the platform under my feet was. The floor had to be miles away. My biggest fear, however, wasn’t the altitude. It was whether or not I would be good. Could I translate the quick instructions I received moments ago on the ground into actual movements my body would make swinging through the air?
Before I could sweat the possibility of failure any further, the bar was in my hand and I was leaping off the board. After falling for a moment, my own arms caught me, my own gravity propelled me, and I lifted myself up and around the bar to execute a backflip. Wow, I really did that, my internal monologue asserted prematurely, before I’d even dismounted.
I couldn’t stop smiling as I flopped down onto the net. Adrenaline, endorphins, and the memory of the wind on my face coursed through my veins.
I beamed through the rest of my class’ turns, joking with my instructor, Rex, and cheered when Harry went. At the end of our three turns on the rig, the person working the board, a spritely flier named Gabriel, asked Harry if he’d been a gymnast. He hadn’t. Flying trapeze plus words of affirmations? This guy was a goner.
We immediately booked two more classes with Emerald City, excitedly whispering to each other about how we would absolutely be back and that this was the place we were meant to be.
We will probably never take those classes. I don’t have the heart to ask for a refund.
As I listened to Nelson’s stories and the stories of the trapeze artists he introduced me to for this story, I couldn’t help but feel the ghosts of a life I might’ve lived, the people I might’ve met, and the person I might have become pass through me.
I told Nelson about it.
“That’s in the equation of what’s lost,” Nelson said. “How many more people could’ve joined and been a part of this amazing thing?”
And yet, the community, optimistic to its core, remains hopeful.
“The mood is somber,” Brincko said, “but there’s also this mentality of ‘Let’s figure this out.’”
Any ideas on which Seattle subculture I should explore next? Want me to tag along with you on your favorite hobby or pastime? Send me tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.