The Actors Gymnasium performs “Marie and Phil: A Circus Love Letter” (2015). Nico Añón is the bottom left performer. Photo courtesy of The Actors Gymnasium.
In the sixth grade, Drexel University student Nico Añón only wanted to learn how to do a backflip. “The next thing I knew, my mom suggested I join the Actors Gymnasium,” Añón said. The Actors Gymnasium, established in 1995 in Evanston, Illinois, is a circus school and theatre company that is now one of the nation’s premier centers for circus art.
Because most children involved in circus arts begin in the second or the third grade, Añón knew he had a lot of catching up to do. To supplement his training, Añón enrolled in a gymnastics summer program his scholastic school offered. There he improved his tumbling, the series of connected jumping, flipping, and twisting elements typically performed in a gymnastics floor routine. In the ninth grade, he joined the school’s gymnastics team in which he participated intermittently throughout his high school career. While gymnastics allowed Añón to practice tumbling, his participation in the Actors Gymnasium was unwavering.
Añón notes that the Actors Gymnasium is not a conventional circus, explaining, “We also had scripts and put on shows that had traditional circus acts in them, and we worked with the Looking Glass Theatre Company in Chicago for theatrical support,” he explained. The Looking Glass Theatre Company is a collaborative and imaginative regional theater located in Chicago.
While younger children were limited to classes, ninth graders were allowed to audition for the “Teen Ensemble”, an advanced creative group that presents the school’s annual winter show alongside professional circus performers. Añón was part of the “Teen Ensemble” for three years. “We did everything. We performed aerial acts and other acrobatic work, hat and club juggling, hand balancing ... tumbling, and even tumbling while jumping rope,” he said.
Quickly, the circus performers became Añón’s second family. In addition to technical skills, the lively environment taught him teamwork and dependability. When he began his college search, Añón looked for colleges and universities with nearby circus schools in the hope of attending circus classes while enrolled in college. “I thought about doing circus work professionally, but you don’t make a lot of money. I also thought about using what I learn in mechanical engineering to build circus apparatuses. ... I’m planning to take classes at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, but Drexel is keeping me busy right now,” Añón said.
Nico Añón climbing on the Wissahickon Valley Trail. Photo courtesy of Emma Whitehouse.
To fulfill his desire for both entertainment and exercise in Drexel’s fast-paced setting, Añón has taken up rock climbing. After being exposed to climbing over a year ago by a friend, Añón quickly realized the similarities between the worlds of circus art and rock climbing. Now, he relies on climbing for the same movement and opportunities the circus offers but with greater accessibility. Añón also recently started a job as a climbing instructor at the Drexel Recreation Center rock wall.
“[Climbing] is a way to work out that’s fun, rather than relying on repetitive tasks. You’re moving somewhere, you have a goal, it’s not just physical. You have to sit down before you start climbing the wall and look at the holes in the problem and see what the setter - the person who designs the climbing routes - intended you to do to complete the climb. It’s like a problem that you have to solve,” Añón said.
As a mechanical engineering freshman in the College of Engineering, Añón can apply the skills he learns from climbing to his studies. “I just like to fix things and work with my hands,” he explained.
For now, Añón will continue to climb. In early February, Añón, who is also a student in the Pennoni Honors College, competed with Drexel’s Climbing Club and earned third place in the West Chester University Climbing Competition in West Chester, PA for the Philadelphia Collegiate Climbing Series. Añón suggests joining the Drexel Climbing Club or visiting him at the Recreation Center if you are interested in learning how to climb.
As for his future in the circus, Añón remains close with his friends from the Actors Gymnasium and is looking forward to enrolling at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.
By Margaux Cattelona, a freshman entertainment and arts management major in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, as part of the winter 2018 "Writing for Drexel Publication" Pennoni Honors College course.