© 2024 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Chad Daybell's murder trial has begun. Follow along here.
Expressive Idaho features master folk artists and apprentices who make their art right here in the Gem State. This series is produced in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Jennifer Dickey, Andy Huang, Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Cuream Jackson leads a circus revival in Idaho

A man is seen in the sky holding onto a large piece of red fabric attached to a series of metal poles.
Arlie Sommer
/
Idaho Commission on the Arts
Jackson also performs aerial circus numbers with silks, an apparatus he says is a bit more forgiving than straps.

Boise Circus performer Cuream Jackson is taking a very old art and using it to contemplate race and gender identity. He comes to the circus as an aerialist, performing with silks, hoops, trapeze and his favorite, straps, considered the most difficult of the aerial disciplines.

“Circus is certainly one of the things where you get what you put into it. It definitely keeps you very active,” said Jackson.

He practices four to five times a week to maintain the strength and muscle memory required. Jackson also teaches his craft to a crew of dedicated students willing to put in the hours necessary to learn skills that are both technically and physically demanding.

“It's a humbling experience and a really special one because it forces you to be really in tune with your body and to listen.”

On a rainy afternoon, Jackson is working with two advanced students at Asana Climbing Gym, which has a space for aerial artists to practice. Dangling from straps, carabiners and rigging, their apparatus allows them to spin without tangling. It is attached to a rope suspended from the high and sturdy ceiling I-beam, holding fast for twirling and labored but joyful bursts of energy. Jackson spots students from the padded mats below, calling out directions, corrections and coaxing with encouragement.

Jackson says he wants to help his students accomplish what they didn’t know they could and make a very challenging art accessible to more people.

“It's cool to get to share the beauty, the frustration, the accomplishment of that with them as well.”

Sometimes his only feedback while coaching is to take a breath, other times he explains in detail how to arrive at a particular position while simultaneously balancing on the straps and spinning. Straps require one to build momentum and also conjure the perfect timing as you contort through moves — and all with grace and intentional emotion when you are performing.

Those technical and performance skills are practiced at the end of a lesson, after most of the hour is spent conditioning. Strength and endurance are the foundation of this art.

“Just when you feel like you're not going to improve or you've plateaued, then the breakthrough happens and it makes that grind of putting the dedication towards it even more sweet.”
Cuream Jackson

Jackson strives to cultivate a nurturing environment for his students to grow in — he beams with positivity and connection and shares a warm rapport with all he encounters. That attitude allows him to reach his goals.

He learned the joys of expression with his body and the rigors of training as a high school and college cheerleader in Atlanta, Georgia. He started taking aerial classes after he moved to Idaho and translated those cheerleading skills to thrive in the circus arts.

“As a circus artist, as a queer male, as a black male … just being able to have those spaces where you feel safe, I think, is important all around and really drove me to create that community because I feel like you create the best when you feel supported.”

Jackson is at the intersection of several communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic he performed with Boise Circus Guild throughout the city’s North End neighborhood, putting on pop-up shows in parks and front yards. More recently, Jackson started his own nonprofit organization to promote local performing arts businesses and facilitate circus workshops, shows and community events.

He has also performed with larger production companies traveling around the northwest. Like the traditional circus, these companies bring live entertainment to rural communities who don’t often experience performance firsthand. Some performers are sharing their interpretation of stories that have been told, like Moulin Rouge. Others are evolving from traditional circus and presenting very nuanced themes.

A person is seen holding up to fingers, pointing to them with his other hand. In the background is a rock climbing wall and several people out of focus.
Arlie Sommer
/
Idaho Commission on the Arts
Jackson gives group and private lessons at Asana Rock Climbing Gym in Garden City.

“Circus has transformed from the big tent like Spiegel tents to very modern adaptations. You should have a reason to be performing versus just doing skills to music,” said Jackson.

With the death of George Floyd in 2020, he took an opportunity to convey very personal meaning through his work, “and that was, just, such a moment for me… here in Idaho because I'm originally from Atlanta,” recalled Jackson.

“There were lots of feelings at that time, frustration and sadness, and there were just so many emotions happening at once. To try to put them into words was hard.”

He did better than words and thought of a way he could very acutely express his feelings about the tragedy and the mountain of trauma faced by African Americans because of a history of violence carried out against them. Jackson created an aerial number to be performed to Nina Simone’s version of the song “Strange Fruit.”

“‘Strange Fruit’ is a heavy song. If you take a moment to sit with it, it touches on a lot of really heavy things in the South that were happening.”

With the pandemic in full swing, he decided to film the number rather than perform it live.

“When I originally had the idea to shoot this piece, I was like, ‘We need to open with that imagery of someone hanging from a tree,’ essentially. I wanted to start from a slow fade in and from the feet so that people were understanding the swaying and then slowly rising up.”

He would feature one of the most difficult and intense aerial strap skills in his repertoire, a neck-hang.

“When I do that part in the song, it says ‘Pastoral scene of the Gallant South, those big bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.’ So, I'm still in the neck-hang and I slowly kind of reach my hands up and cover my mouth.”

He hoped his art would allow an audience to sit and take in the context of the song and the performance and the moment in time, to quietly absorb and process rather than frantically speak.

“I think words are hard. With words you can take sides or you can phrase things in ways that are tactful or to not cross wires or split hairs. I think art is way better at expressing some of those intense emotions and those concepts and feelings.”
Cuream Jackson

While he was a seasoned performer at the inception of this piece, this was the first time he felt he would make a major impact. He posted the performance video online on an afternoon shortly after Floyd’s death, “and by evening I had about a thousand views and within two days it turned to 10,000 across the social media platforms.”

Reading the positive response, Jackson felt the kinship he was seeking.

“I had my signature little things, but this was the first time where I was actually like, ‘Wow, this is something that is big. This is something that moves not only me, but can impact other people.’ I felt like it was my contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement and to everyone in my community.”

Jackson could not turn back after surpassing this threshold. He was hooked on that feeling of creating space for his community and for more diverse and authentic stories. Jackson is the recipient of a performing arts fellowship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. With this funding he created The Beyond Melanin Project to collaborate with other BIPOC artists and expand the narrative of people of color. He has since made two films exploring queer relationships and one was featured in the Circus International Film Festival.


The song “Mutate” was used with permission from Duval Timothy.

This series is produced in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Jennifer Dickey and Andy Huang, Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Below is the full transcript of the audio story:

It's always been my kid, like dream to be in the circus and I'm doing it at 31. So here we are. My name is Cuream Jackson. I am a circus artist and I am from Boise, Idaho.

The circus is a very big spectrum of different arts and skills. Acrobats are more on the ground. Aerialists are primarily in the air. So I'm an aerialist and my specialty is aerial straps. And I also do trapeze and silks.

I usually practice about four to five times a week. Circus is certainly one of the things where you get what you put into it. It definitely keeps you very active.

Let's go ahead and add a compressed pike in the middle. Yeah, make sure to take some time to breathe.

I am at Asana Rock climbing gym. They have a wonderful aerial setup where I teach aerial classes for this. Today we're going to be doing a group lesson on straps, but we usually rehearse and practice for about an hour, kind of going over conditioning skills and then trying some more technical skills towards the end.

These are straps they're connected to like a rigging plate and a few different carabiners that are attached.

But you got it. Remember to breathe.

It's a humbling experience and a really special one because it forces you to be really in tune with your body and to listen. Just when you feel like you're not going to like, improve or you've plateaued, then the breakthrough happens and it makes that grind of putting the dedication towards it even more sweet.

As a circus artist, as a queer male, as a black male. Just being able to have those spaces where you feel safe, I think is important all around and really drove me to create that community because I feel like you create the best when you feel supported.

Circus has transformed from the big tent like Spiegel tents to very modern adaptations. You should have a reason to be performing versus just doing skills to music. You could use it to tell a story that's already been made, but on the other end of the spectrum, it can be very heavy.

In 2020, we had the death of George Floyd, and that was just such a moment for me kind of being here in Idaho because I'm originally from Atlanta. There are lots of feelings at that time, frustration and sadness, and there are just so many emotions happening at once. To try to put them into words was hard.

Strange Fruit is a it's a heavy song. If you take a moment to sit with it, it touches on a lot of really heavy things in the South that were happening. And my apparatus is straps. Straps in and of themselves are something that you hang from and you suspend from, so it was really powerful to be able to tell that story with an apparatus that I love and to express those emotions without actually having to speak on them. And something that can be shown and processed versus trying to find the words to describe an entire culture's life and their experience.

Nina Simone: Pastoral scene. Of the Gallant South.

Them big, bulging eyes.

And the twisted mouth.

When I originally had the idea to shoot this piece, I was like, We need to open with that imagery of someone hanging from a tree, essentially. But I didn't want to intro it just as like the body suspended there. I wanted to start from a slow fade in and from the feet so that people were understanding the swaying and then slowly rising up.

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.

Right. When I do that part in the song, it says Pastoral scene of the Gallant South, those big bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. So I'm still in the neck hanging and I slowly kind of reach my hands up and cover my mouth. But this is all while I'm just suspended by my neck. So I'm choosing to put this, like, really intense skill while this is the most intense part of the song.

Nina Simone: Strange fruit hanging. From the poplar tree.

I think words are hard. With words you can take sides or you can phrase things in ways that are tactful or to not cross wires or split hairs. I think art is way better at expressing some of those intense emotions and those concepts and feelings. I had my signature little things, but this was the first time where I was actually like, "Wow, this is something that is big. This is something that moves not only me, but can impact other people". I felt like it was my contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement and to everyone in my community.

Nina Simone: This is to draw. Here. Is a strange. Shh.

You make stories like this possible.

The biggest portion of Boise State Public Radio's funding comes from readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

Your donation today helps make our local reporting free for our entire community.