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Chicago Fun Times: hanging around with Jessica Hentoff

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Trapeze artist Jessica Hentoff has what seems a rather nonchalant attitude toward her job. When she's on the road, getting from city to city bothers her more than hanging 100 feet above ground: "The worst circus accidents I've ever seen are on the road," she says. When her father worries about the risks she takes, she tells him it's less dangerous than living in New York City.

Maybe she's just being sensible. That's not exactly what you'd expect from a typical circus performer, but then neither is Hentoff. She grew up in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, has a college degree, and calls her answering machine for messages every night.

Hentoff, 32, works for the traveling, one-ring Circus Flora, which comes to the Oak Brook Terrace Tower July 26-31. She rides a unicycle and straddles horses bareback, but her specialty is the impressive fixed-trapeze act she and her partner, 30-year-old Kathie Hoyer, put on.

Climbing ladders in white tights isn't quite what Hentoff was raised to expect from a career. "As a teenager she couldn't even climb a tree," her father, journalist Nat Hentoff, wrote in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article. "Her main sport was reading books."

But after growing up in an intellectual family, the exotic circus life attracted her. "I got addicted," she says. "To suddenly have the opportunity to find out I have some physical skills was great."

Hentoff's introduction to her future profession was a class in circus skills she took as a freshman at the State University of New York at Purchase. Over the next few summers, she practiced what she had learned, first traveling as a clown and juggler with a show that performed at prisons, orphanages, and homes for the mentally disturbed and later juggling and fire-eating for street shows in New York and Quebec.

Eventually, she chose to major in sociology. "That gave me more time to pursue my circus activities." She wrote a senior thesis titled "With It and For It: Circus People as a Deviant Subculture."

Her family and friends, she says, thought she had chosen a quaint hobby. "They thought I was a conversation piece, you know, that it was a phase I was going through."

Instead, she decided upon graduation take up circus work full-time. Partly because her father disapproved of fire-eating and partly because she had enjoyed the acrobatics she had done as a clown, she turned to the trapeze.

There aren't very many places to study trapeze in the U.S., but Hentoff found one of the best: the Circus Arts Center in New Jersey, run by two former members of the Moscow Circus, Nina Krasavani and Gregory Fedin. "They believed in creating new acts," she says. "If it had been done before, they weren't interested."

Hentoff met Kathie Hoyer at the Circus Arts Center. Originally, there was a third person in their act, but she dropped out early on. Hentoff and Hoyer have worked together four years; two years ago they joined Circus Flora, founded in 1985 as an attempt to re-create an old-fashioned, more-talent, fewer-gimmicks circus. All of the performances follow a rough story line, and the small group of performers all do a little of everything. "They're creating a core of performers, like an ensemble theater company," Hentoff says. She likes the intimate, one-ring setting: "The performers can look into the spectators' eyes. The audience can see every move you make, and they feel what youre doing."

In the tradition of their Soviet trainers, Hentoff and Hoyer developed a unique act--and one completely original feat, the "Hentoff and Hoyer Heel-to-Heel Hang." It consists of Hentoff hanging upright from the trapeze, her heels hooked around a large silver ring. Hoyer hangs upside down from the ring. At the act's climax, each removes one foot, and Hoyer is suspended by only a few square inches of skin.

The stunt is performed without the benefit of a safety net. "A net is used for flying trapeze acts," Hentoff says. Hentoff's father gave the pair a net but they haven't used it yet. With such a small crew, she says, "It's too much trouble and time and space to set up." Instead, one or two spotters stand below.

Hentoff has fallen before, but not since joining Circus Flora. She says she feels confident with no net after the intense training the Soviet artists put her through. "It gets to the point where the routines are sort of burned onto your muscles. It doesn't matter how tired we are--our muscles know what they're doing." She and Hoyer talk to each other about every act after they're back on the ground.

Last year, Hentoff and Hoyer traveled with Circus Flora pretty steadily from February to September. This year, the circus plans to open a training school in Saint Louis, and Hentoff and Hoyer will teach there. In the fall and spring, they'll teach and train; over the Christmas season and in the summer, they'll tour. "I can't wait to do circus all year around," Hentoff says.

Meanwhile, her family and friends have accepted the fact that her circus work is more than just a hobby, although her dad still worries about her. "He still wishes I was a lawyer or something."

Hentoff used to miss having a more stable home base, but now she's beginning to feel at home in Saint Louis, which is where the Circus Flora school will be, where her apartment is, and where she's developed a circle of friends.

Occasionally, she says, she sill wonders why she picked a career with the circus, but her doubts don't last long. "When you're working on the edge--or at least near the edge--it just makes life more alive."

Circus Flora will appear at Oak Brook Terrace Tower, 1 Tower Lane in Oak Brook, for 11 performances: Tuesday, July 26, at 8 PM; Wednesday, July 27, at 11 AM and 8 PM; Thursday and Friday, July 28 and 29, at 1 and 8 PM; and Saturday and Sunday, July 30 and 31, at 1 and 5 PM. Tickets are $6-$20; they're available by phone at 275-3116 and through Teletron, 853-3636, or at Ticketron offices or at the door.

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