What do Charlie Chaplin, Peter Pan, a dragonfly, and a crossbow have in common? They’re all names of aerial tricks! You might not know that as a dazzled audience member watching Cirque du Soleil, but technically you can find out for yourself at a local circus studio—thanks to a trailblazer in the Alberta aerial arts community: the award- winning Firefly Theatre & Circus.
Originally from the United States, Annie Dugan started her circus life riding horses and horse carts, with ties to groups like the Great Wallenda Shrine Circus and the Big Apple Circus. “At that time [in the 1980s], there weren’t a lot of opportunities, especially if you weren’t from a circus family,” shares Annie. Being born into a multi-generational circus family like the Wallendas meant that you had established connections and often began training at a young age. So while Annie loved working with animals, she thought she’d try something a little different.
When the relatively new San Francisco School of Circus Arts brought in a new trainer—an acrobat Annie knew from her days in New York—she made her move. Which didn’t go to plan. “I was training to be a hand balancer and an acrobat—and I wasn’t any good,” she laughs.
Thankfully, it was the mid-1990s, which meant pioneers in the aerial field in France and Canada had been working with brand-new apparatuses: aerial silks (one or two pieces of long fabric suspended from the ceiling) and corde lisse (a vertically hanging rope). Cirque du Soleil would add them to its first show in 1996.
“Back in the day, you just had to wait for that sort of thing to trickle into your town,” says Annie. There was no social media, meaning you heard of these techniques through word of mouth and training in the same spaces. “The rope was new, and I had just graduated from theatre school, so I just decided to kind of merge those two interests.”
Theatre and circus were natural fits, and Annie’s four-person troupe, called La Pamplemousse, began travelling for performances. Edmonton’s Street Performers’ Festival and International Fringe Theatre Festival have long been attracting international performers, including La Pamplemousse in 1997 and 1998, respectively.
Inspired by the local arts scene, Annie decided in 1999 to relocate, thinking she’d join a performance theatre in nearby Calgary. “I thought I was moving to Calgary, but I had met a cute actor,” she shares. The plan had been to spend the summer with Edmonton stage actor John Ullyatt before continuing south. Instead, Annie and John began creating performances together—with Annie teaching John everything she knew about the aerial arts. Together, they quickly founded Firefly Theatre in 2000.
As a duo, they scripted original productions and fascinated audiences with their strength, flexibility, comedy, and gumption. “We did everything. We were crazy,” says Annie, marvelling at how much work and energy went into training her partner and making her own art. She was a coach, an athlete, an artist, a producer—and potential aspiring acrobats wanted to know: where did you learn that, how can I do that, what’s that called?
“Before the school opened in 2004, there was nobody to train with except [John],” explains Annie. “You need community to do circus.” The nearest schools and circus communities at that time were in either Vancouver or Toronto—the rolling prairies had no space for developing aerialists.
Establishing an entirely new school on your own is an undertaking, to say the least. The practice of the circus art forms were still relatively unfamiliar, even with the rise of Québec’s famous Cirque du Soleil. Local insurance brokers weren’t sure what to make of Annie’s venture. “They thought I was crazy in Edmonton,” she says, explaining how she had to fly to Vancouver to speak directly with the head of an insurance company. “I had to convince [them] we were as safe as gymnastics!”
Today, you can buy ready-made aerial rig kits, stress-tested materials, tutorials, books, and courses regarding aerial safety. But in 2003, Annie had to source and test each piece individually. She reminisces about visiting fabric stores —“I could tell by touching them”—and finding stress testers to help discover product breaking points. She even attended conferences to learn new rigging techniques from theatre technicians.
You might think the old saying “trial and error” could apply here, but you’d be wrong—and possibly dead. “You don’t want to make errors when you’re rigging,” Annie clarifies. “So it was more ‘proceed slowly and with caution.’” Not as catchy, but definitely safer.
The Firefly Aerial Arts Program soon began training new students on silks (tissu), rope, trapeze, and hoop (lyra). And Firefly Theatre established itself as the forefront of aerial theatre in Western Canada.
“Nobody else was actually combining real theatre with circus,” explains Annie. “It’s popular to say you do circus theatre, but a lot of that is people doing circus in a theatre, where we actually were working with a script and the elements of a play.”
Over the years, Firefly Theatre & Circus has produced original productions, like Duck Duck Bang and Panache, and performed at countless community and private events, as well as notable events like the Grey Cup festivals, Western Canada Fashion Week, on stage with Sarah McLachlan at Rogers Place, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In 2007, the company was recognized by the city with an Excellence Award in Arts & Culture and a Mayor’s Award for Innovative Artistic Direction.
All the while, their circus school trained new aerialists, even moving to a larger space, their current one, in 2012. The growing community led to more aerial training spaces in Alberta, including CircoFit in Edmonton in 2015 (which sadly shut its doors June 2023) and the Calgary Circus Studio in 2018.
In 2020, as was the case for many small businesses, Firefly felt the force of pandemic uncertainty, but also a renewal of hope and creativity. “The school was a means to an end,” says Annie. “The school was started to build a community, and I think we did that. So now we can harness the community and put on some shows.”
They closed their student programs for good in spring 2022, leaving the beginner classes to other local studios like CircoFit, Cirquetastic (2020), and Sapphire Circus Arts (2022). It was time to return its focus to producing theatre, building communities, and propelling Edmonton even further into the aerial future.
“In major cities like Toronto and Montreal, or Seattle, L.A., and San Francisco, you’ve got such a concentration of advanced aerialists, and they’re the ones pushing the form forward,“ explains Annie. “We want to bring them here.”
An initial push in this direction was the Alberta Circus Arts Festival, which launched digitally in 2021 but was able to schedule in-person events hosted by Firefly in June 2022. The 2022 festival featured workshops and live performances by aerialists across Canada. In the future, Annie hopes to also offer various residencies, to keep creativity and inspiration flowing in and out of Edmonton. “Everything in circus is constantly evolving,” she says, and she’s determined to keep the local art forms moving forward.
These art forms have grown exponentially thanks in part to regular access to the Internet and social media, with aerialists from around the world able to collaborate in real-time. New tricks, movements, and apparatuses are easier to learn and build from when you’re not just waiting for a circus show to roll into town, and also have accessible studios and coaches.
To catch a glimpse of Firefly artists in the air this holiday season, keep an eye out at venues around the city. While they’re not currently performing a full-length production, their schedule is jam- packed with corporate events and holiday parties. “If you attend an event at the Edmonton Convention Centre or the JW Marriott, there’s a good chance we’ll be there,” she hints.
The new year will bring even more possibilities, including a new original production in the works, the third annual Alberta Circus Arts Festival, and participation in other festivals and events with throwbacks to original street performer days.
Not only did Annie and Firefly Theatre pave the way for aerial arts in Edmonton, Alberta, and all of Western Canada—they’re only just getting started.
Step out of your comfort zone and learn to fly! But don’t worry if you lack upper body strength or are concerned with heights—intro classes are actually low-stakes tryouts that introduce you to the apparatus and start building those new muscle groups, all quite close to the ground.
(Writer’s note: I’ve been dabbling on and off for a few years and still perform most tricks closer to the ground for personal comfort. Pushing that zone looks different for everyone!)
- CircoFit: 13615–149 St. circofit.com
Cirquetastic: 6820–50 St. cirquetastic.ca
Sapphire Circus Arts: 9527–49 St. sapphirecircus.ca
This article by Tamara Aschenbrenner appears in the November/December issue of Info Edmonton magazine.