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Things are looking up for circus aerialist Ben Sota. But his biggest gravity-defying feat may be getting his Zany Umbrella Circus off the ground.

The day Ben Sota invented juggling, it was raining. He was 11 years old, stuck inside his parents' house in Millvale, and wondering whether he could learn to throw a baseball with his right hand as well as his left. One room had 15-foot ceilings, and Sota messed around with high tosses. Soon both balls were in constant fluid motion. "I just came up with it on my own," he says. "I thought I'd figured out the coolest thing in the world."

Cooler yet, Sota eventually followed those floating baseballs into the air, where he learned trapeze skills to complement his juggling. What's more, both in the air and on the ground he learned to perform enough feats of daring and dexterity to start his own circus. In February, Pittsburgh's Sprout Fund awarded him $10,000 to do just that. And starting Fri., June 4, the Three Rivers Arts Festival will host the official world premiere of Sota's Zany Umbrella Circus.

Zany Umbrella is what's known as a "theatrical circus," which in part means no animals. Like a scaled-down Cirque du Soleil, it builds its acts into a narrative with artistic, even poetic, ambitions. The jugglers, clowns, aerialists and musicians don't just want to amaze you; they want to move you and make you think.

It's all pretty heady stuff for a 23-year-old from Millvale. Starting a circus, after all, isn't done every day. It's a high-wire act all its own, one in which your balance can be shaken by a stray breeze or tight finances, an unsteady grip or the press of too few hours in a day. There's more up in the air, in other words, than a few juggling pins. But you don't even think about falling.

World on a String
Ben Sota emerges from behind the curtain, peering at a full house in the Brew House Theater. His deep-set eyes and the large, expressive mouth that consume most of his longish face register pleasant surprise at the presence of so many onlookers. Sota, dark-haired, wears pants fashioned from brown burlap. Accompanied by musician Jeff Berman on the udu -- a gourd-like Nigerian instrument whose rubbery signature note suggests a medium-sized whale gulping a school of plankton -- Sota eases into his act.

Without a word, he strips off his white tube socks and starts twirling them, one in each hand, doing a little exotic dance. Glancing up and to his left, he spies a suit jacket minus its sleeves; it's draped on an oversized steel clothes-hanger hung halfway to the former brewery's 40-foot ceiling. Sota makes a couple perfunctory leaps for it, then decides to climb the long white sheet that's tied to the hanger. Suspended in the air -- and still not talking -- he executes another dance, now using the hanger (his own invention) as a trapeze, then making elegant, gravity-defying stage pictures by winding his wiry 140-pound frame in the sheet, slinging himself in its folds.

It's all by way of retrieving the jacket, but Sota's silent clown never seems covetous; his is a childlike pantomime of admiration, rooted in an innocent knowledge that this jacket -- though sizes too big -- is, in fact, made just for him, and wouldn't look half so good on anyone else.

Offstage, there's no sense Sota is bragging when he says he's done hundreds of street performances, from San Francisco to Amsterdam; he's also attended circus schools, and clowned for tips in the Virgin Islands. But he credits Pittsburgh with teaching him most of what he knows, and his breakout performances here came this past March, just after he was awarded the Sprout funding, at the Sprout-backed AMP series, hosted and organized by the Brew House Association at its South Side home.

He spent the first year of his life a five-minute walk from here, but grew up in Millvale, went away to college and came back to study architecture at Pitt -- and to live again in that same South Side house, near 17th and Carson streets. He graduated last year, a seasoned performer ready to leave for the West Coast, where some circus types make a living at their craft.

The only reason he stayed, he says, is because when he approached the Three Rivers Arts Festival about doing a circus show this summer, the festival said sure, if you help fund it. The Sprout Fund said sure to that. And suddenly Sota had a circus to assemble, from recruiting the cast to building the set. Seasoned Thyme, scripted by San Francisco-based aerialist (and Pittsburgh native) Samantha Bird and performed by Sota, Bird, dancer/aerialist Albert Mundy and musician/clowns Berman, Alberto Almarza and Mitchell Kulkin, premieres June 4 at Point State Park.

"This is probably the first time I've ever been stressed out in my life," Sota said in late April, five weeks from the inaugural performance of a circus then still mostly in his head. "Because I've been given all the resources....Everything's there." He muses, "What do you do when whatever you dream about is what you get to do?"

If the audiences at Sota's two AMP performances were any indication, he can just keep heading in the same direction. His hanger act gave way to some juggling; first with pins, then -- while balancing atop a homemade kitchen sink-cum-teeter-board -- with long shiny knives. From the crowd, gasps and applause. Then rapt silence as Sota concluded with his rope act, an aerial display that ends with him plummeting head-first from a height of 25 feet or so, with only a casually tied knot cinching the rope around him at the last instant -- a calamity prevented by a small piece of handiwork.

School for circus
The last thing Sota resembled growing up was a daredevil. "When he was really young, he didn't want to do a lot of sports because he didn't want to get a boo-boo," says his mother, Jan Hamilton-Sota. "He was really really slow to walk because he was so cautious." But he made up for immobility with ingenuity: To retrieve a toy that went out of reach on the blanket he was sitting on, he'd scrunch up the cloth to pull it closer. "Even if he didn't move, he was independent," she says.

His initial foray into juggling baseballs aside, Sota didn't do much performing until he went away to Earlham College, in Indiana, where he and a friend clowned at grocery-story openings and festivals. He transferred to Pitt to study architecture, moved back into the South Side house his dad still owned, and organized The Campus Fools, a circus club where students could blow off steam after class.

But Sota says he really cut his performance teeth in the summer of 2000, when he secured a waiter job at a Virgin Islands eco-tourism resort called Maho Bay -- think canvas tents, solar ovens -- by promising on his application to perform for guests.

He flew down to the Caribbean: No room for juggling pins, nor any of the props he relied on. "All of a sudden I'm without the stereotypical toys and I had to make my own," he says. "I would never have thought in those days to take a pair of socks and make them into a prop, or to build a sink." People handed the circus waiter a machete, and he juggled it. He'd take an artisan's glass-gathering tube and balance it on his nose, or his foot. He climbed trees and picked coconuts to sell. In short, he stopped packing props and started finding them. "Whenever you see that chair, there's a surprising usage for it," he says. "What I try to teach the audience is that there's also a playful quality about that. It can be a dancing partner. You can balance it on your head. It's got wheels on it, so it's a skateboard."

Trapeze and rope work, he says, were a natural progression from juggling. "It's kind of like the next stage. You're throwing things up in the air. Here you're occupying the air. Once you get strong enough, it's a complete release from gravity."

The next three summers he taught at Camp Winnarainbow, in California, a Bay Area camp for kids who learn everything from break dancing and African drumming to mime and trapeze. The instructors learn, too. "Every different circus performer is kind of like their own Galapagos Island," says Sota: They evolve their own peculiar skill set. Then they trade out. One skill feeds another. "Circus is the study of timing and balance," he says. "Once you learn one thing, you understand the language of motion, movement, balance and prop manipulation. Then things start to fall into place."

"I'm kinda like" -- Sota waves his hands as if scattering cards across an imaginary table -- "all over the board." He can also ride a unicycle and contact-juggle, passing the heavy acrylic balls across his hands like drops of water rolling across a seedpod. It was at Winnarainbow that he met Sam Bird, who began teaching him the aerial work he'd develop with stints in three different Bay Area circus schools.

Though Pittsburgh has no circus schools, as far as Sota's concerned it is one. At The Mattress Factory, the architecture student took in installation art that transformed ordinary spaces into the kind of imagined environments he'd like to echo in his circus. Watching performance-art musicians Squonk Opera, he learned about visual rhythms -- how a hand reaching out (or in his case, a juggling pattern) might be more eloquent than the patter that paced his earlier acts. And from the Bull Seal! Collective, a Dada-esque freakout founded by the bewhiskered, drum-pounding Big Daddy Bull Seal and the artist now known as Phat Man Dee, he learned about refuse: Dolls pulled from rubbish, costumes stitched from thrifted detritus. "They use urban trash to create their acts, and it doesn't look trashy, it looks beautiful," Sota says. In some acts, Sota wears his mirror helmet: 30 discarded AOL CDs, tin-snipped into squares and hot-glued to a salvaged kayak helmet.

Besides piecing together his vision, Sota gets paying gigs -- outdoor festivals, the convention-center opening. Three years ago, he offered to do a free show at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh to prove himself, and he's performed there monthly since. "You have all this crazy busy stuff going on, and about 100 people will stop what they're doing to watch the show," says Anna Fitzpatrick, the museum's program manager.

Another gig was last year's Black Sheep Puppet Festival -- Sota's entrée into the Brew House, the artists' collective where he trades his work on the performance committee for rehearsal space. "Not only did he perform, he actually hung out and helped us," marvels the Brew House's Suzanne Pace. "And we thought, ‘Wow, this kid's amazing. He's actually embodying all the stuff we're trying to do.'...He's really together, he's really smart. He's really resourceful. He has tons of really practical, technical building skills."

For as singular a career path as he's carving, Sota seems very much a product of his family, both the creative and the entrepreneurial ends. Jan Hamilton-Sota put herself through grad school at Duquesne playing fiddle (she still performs with Celtic-music group Devilish Mary); she employs music, art and cooperative learning techniques in teaching at the Shadyside's Kentucky Avenue Children's Center.

His father, Munhall native Ernie Sota, studied architecture at Penn State and in the '70s took what was then an unusual step -- buying a house on the working-class South Side -- and one even rarer: building a greenhouse on the roof. He worked as a carpenter for a while, and still sounds regretful about taking a 9-to-5 job (doing residential architecture for the Urban Redevelopment Authority): "It was something I thought was expected of me." Ten years ago he founded Sota Construction Services, a sustainable-building firm. Ben's grandfather, a Slovak immigrant, started an auto-repair shop; Ernie's glad Ben's exercising his entrepreneurial genes early. "Ben is going right into, in a sense, starting his own business."

Building the circus
It's the first official group rehearsal of the Zany Umbrella Circus, but there's still not much of a group. Filtering into the damp, shadowy interior of the Brew House, where Sota's climbing rope hangs from the ceiling like a stray thread, the early-evening sun finds Sota and Bird, a sturdily built 28-year-old who started taking aerialist lessons in college because "I needed something to be excited about." Her classmates were all 9 years old; now she's a pro.

There's also Alberto Almarza and Mitchell Kulkin, a couple of rail-thin local musicians who'll double as clowns. After a bit arrives Albert Mundy, a compact, cable-muscled Point Park student and dancer whom Bird is teaching to use Sota's hanger trapeze, and musician Jeff Berman, an old friend of Sota's parents who's also the only circus member over 30. Dancer Sarah Bauer serves as choreographer. The only person missing is Toronto's Erin Bouvy, a talented clown -- one of 10 performers Sota auditioned for the part -- who's too ill to travel. (A week later, Sota will learn she's lost to the show entirely.)

The cast sits in a circle to read Bird's three-page, nine-scene script, Seasoned With Thyme. It's a loose story set in a kitchen where, aided by everyday props, each member of a family discovers his or her own latent circus ability.

Circus work is inherently risky, especially when trapeze is involved; witness the death of Barnum & Bailey aerialist Dessi Espana, who plunged to her death during a performance in May. Espana was working without a harness or net, while Zany Umbrella reduces the danger with safety gear. But when you're building from scratch a circus you'll debut to hundreds of thousands of people at a free outdoor festival -- a festival you hope to be the launching pad for an ongoing circus concern -- your center of gravity might be the easiest thing to balance. Tonight, after a little discussion, Sota realizes he's goofed: It's hard to flesh out the bare bones of the script, to create a full-bodied 50-minute act, without any of the props the group plans to transform. He has neglected, for example, to acquire the dishes he wants for some juggling antics in scene one.

Instead the cast splits up to explore their individual acts -- Bird on her housewife-diva trapeze bit, for instance -- but the ball really gets rolling after a visit to Construction Junction the following afternoon. Sota drives his dad's small dump truck to the salvaged-materials outlet in Point Breeze, and he and Bird pick out a shabby old sink and other furnishings to match the vintage refrigerator they found at the Brew House.

Putting together even a small circus can be costly, if you're dreaming big. Sota's plans included a professionally made, 30-foot-tall outdoor circus rig, an aircraft-aluminum swing set he personally drove to Illinois to pick up. It will last for years but it cost $10,000, and now, despite the Sprout money that lets him pay his performers, the circus is thousands in the red, the deficit funded out of Sota's pocket.

That puts Sota in bartering mode. He convinces the Construction Junction manager to lend the circus a couple hundred dollars' worth of its used furnishings in exchange for a sponsorship credit. (Sota bolsters his pitch by telling the manager that his dad is on Construction Junction's board, but a few days later he cuts a similar deal with a printing company where he's got no connections, saving hundreds of dollars more on the troupe's marketing brochure.) Before he leaves the warehouse-like store, Sota grabs four ornate old wooden chair legs, which he plans to rework into juggling torches, and an old-fashioned lantern he'll hang on the set somewhere. "I always have a lighting fixture [on the set]," he explains. "I don't know why."

At the following night's rehearsal, the acts start coming into focus. "The story," Sota announces to the cast, "is ‘domesticity thwarted.'" The big post-industrial playpen of the Brew House stage is strewn with musical instruments -- hand drums, a banjo, a washboard -- as well as PVC piping, a length of old plumbing, anything that might make useful noise. Bird has conceived of a role for the three musicians: They'll be kitchen gnomes, invisible mischief-makers.

Backstage, the newly christened gnomes try to conceptualize some musical accompaniment as they watch Bird swing on a makeshift trapeze. They do the same for Mundy, who's portraying a dad distracted from his morning routine by the sight of a giant coat hanger that looks too good to pass up playing on. Concerned about getting the emotional content right -- resonating with dad's decision to play hooky from work -- the musicians move from a dark, pretty acoustic air to something a little more groove-oriented, with Berman on dulcimer and Kulkin and Almarza on guitar.

Meanwhile, up on wooden risers empty of seats, a solo Sota juggles plastic plates: two in his right hand at first, a blue one and a yellow one, working up to two in either hand, tossed 10 feet in the air. He practices balancing a plate on the bridge of his nose. He rolls one along the risers, to see how it behaves; he spins it on its axis in the palm of his hand.

Sota's ability to escape into play makes him a circus performer, but unlike some jugglers and clowns he also impresses people with his organizational abilities, his with-it-ness. Despite the ambition of the Zany Umbrella concept, says funder Matt Hannigan of the Sprout Fund, "I was confident Ben was going to be able to pull it off."

Sota is confident too, but not carefree. He's spent so much time managing that he worries about neglecting his own acts. You can't help think about his reduced practice time later when clinging to the rope 20 feet in the air, Sota ties a knot with his feet then hangs from it by his ankles. Likewise, assembly of the trapeze rig on the grounds of his dad's construction-company headquarters, in Bellevue, has been delayed for several days by heavy rain, and rehearsal time at the Brew House is getting tight because of other performances. (Thanks to the weather, the rig doesn't go up until a scant eight days before the premiere.)

But when the group sits down to schedule practices, Sota doesn't sound worried. An evening rehearsal is planned at the outdoor rig they've yet to erect; when Berman points out the light will be short, Sota responds, "There's construction lamps out there. I'll figure it out."

Getting high
On opening night in Pittsburgh for the Quebec-based Cirque Eloize, Sota watches an acrobat do a controlled head-down slide on the Chinese pole, and says, "Whooo!" Two clowns play guitar and accordion while embracing in a double-backed waltz across the Byham Theater stage; Sota smiles, nodding to a companion: This is good. He wonders at the image of rice falling like rain on an umbrella while a man plays the vibes and a female contortionist performs a slow rubber-spined ballet. He marvels at the sheer strength of an acrobat who does a routine hanging from two narrow straps.

"It's a bit much but I don't care," says Sota. "This is what happens when a hundred people work on something. It's wonderful."

Circus theaters such as Cirque Eloize (an earthier, more cabaret-like contemporary of the better-known Cirque de Soleil), says Sota, are the future of the art. As a young performer, he's conscious of being part of a new circus generation.

And if he can nurture that movement by growing his own circus from scratch, so much the better. "… I wanted [the Zany Umbrella Circus] to be a performance umbrella because without the collective, I'm stuck doing these [solo] gigs," he says. "An umbrella kind of brings people together, you huddle out of the rain. It's a portable roof" -- like a circus tent. The rain that makes you pull out an umbrella (like the rain that keeps you indoors, where you invent juggling) also changes the way people view their environment.

And an umbrella, needless to say, is a great prop. "It's little, and then they just explode," he says. "You just hit a button and they explode in three dimensions."

An estimated 600,000 people will attend the Three Rivers Arts Festival -- 1.2 million uninitiated eyes upon this new circus. Festival organizers slotted Zany Umbrella as part of their "Family Festival," but Sota says that while the show is family-friendly, it's not ponies and face-painting. "If you make something for adults, and make it quality -- kids are really sophisticated. They really don't need the dumb-bubble shit. And if the kids don't get it, the parents can explain. They'll have a great conversation about it after the show," he says. "There are moments that are going to be funny, and lighthearted, but there's no reason to stop there."

Standing on the roof of his South Side house one spring morning, next to the new greenhouse his dad's building, Sota contemplates height. "There's this whole rooftop community on the South Side. People don't look up," he says, scanning the panorama of the Slopes and a line of passing freight cars. "It's like Buhl Science Center with the miniature trains."

The man on his roof sleeps in a bunk bed. "I do like being in the air. I kind of like being above things. You kind of get a different perspective even if you're just a few feet up."

It's not that aerialists never look down. They just don't think about ending up there. "It's not a possibility that you'll fall. You switch it off."

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