A talk with aerialist Jonathan Rose, part of Moisture Festival 2013

Originally published March 17, 2013 at 5:47 AM | Page modified March 17, 2013 at 7:52 AM

  • Seattle aerialist Jonathan Rose, who’s had a thing for the circus life since he was 18, will be happily spinning and dangling from a rope at the Moisture Festival, which runs March 21-April 14, 2013.

    By Michael Upchurch
    Seattle Times arts writer

Seattle aerialist Jonathan Rose can ascend a rope so smoothly that it looks as easy as riding up an escalator. His five-minute routine takes phenomenal strength, but you’d never guess it from his calm demeanor as he turns himself over, under, sideways and down in midair.

“I do kind of like the heights,” Rose said last month, while taking a break from training at Seattle’s School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts (SANCA). “I can’t be right-side up for too long. The blood starts to leave the brain.”

Rose, 33, is one of dozens of gifted performers taking part in the Moisture Festival, Seattle’s grand circus-arts bash that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. It opens March 21 at Hale’s Palladium in Fremont and continues for three weeks at various venues.

Looking at any Moisture Festival act, you find yourself asking: How did the exotic figure onstage get into this business? Surely there has to be a story behind it?

In Rose’s case, there is.

He grew up in Seattle where, he says, he played “all the usual sports, but never got real passionate about team sports or competitive sports.”

So far, so average.

When he went off to college in Indiana, however, major restlessness set in.

“I was really bored,” he says. “Bored out of my mind.”

So he decided to drop out and take a bicycle tour of the Southwest: “I wanted to see all the national parks. I’d never seen the desert before.”

On a detour to see Mexico’s Copper Canyon, his bike was stolen, so he hitched a ride to a small town where, one day, the circus arrived.

“After the show,” he recalls, “I asked them if I could join.”

They told him to show up the next morning with his bags packed. Rose wound up spending more than a year and a half with Mexican circuses, first as a roustabout, then as a performer: “They gave me small parts in the show, clowning bits. Eventually I had a hula-hooping act.”

He was also put in charge of the elephant, Maurice, and the hippopotamus, Pepe, despite the fact that he’d had no previous experience looking after pachyderms.

“It was when I was in Mexico that I first saw a video of Cirque du Soleil,” he says. “It was one of their early shows and I was just totally blown away.”

He soon realized he had a greater interest in performing than in shoveling animal dung. Searching online, he learned that SANCA had just opened in Seattle. So he came home and signed up for aerial lessons — at age 24.

That, he admits, was a late start. It’s also unusual for anyone born outside the circus world to enter it. But nowadays, with more and more circus schools popping up, outsiders entering the fold are discovering and mastering circus disciplines later in life.

Between performing and teaching, Rose is getting by.

“At this point, it’s definitely at least a part-time job,” he says. He also works part-time as a bus driver for King County.

How do Rose’s parents like having a circus performer in the family?

They’ve gradually accustomed themselves to the idea, Rose says. “I mean, by now, over the course of my life, I’ve made all kinds of decisions that they’ve disagreed with. … When I first left college to ride a bike to Mexico and join the circus down there, that was kind of the beginning of the end for their expectations of me,” he says with a big laugh.

About a year ago, he had his own second thoughts about his career choice.

“I actually had an extended moment of doubt and thought I needed to get a ‘real job’ — so I pursued firefighting for a while,” he says. “It was a lot of fun … really satisfying work. But I missed the artistic expression, and I missed the culture of circus, the community. It’s two completely different types of people. So I came back — and I’m glad I did.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com