Beyond The Curtain: With Tanya Brno

Graceful- inspiring- fierce

Photo of Tanya and her family in Bend, OR

Photo of Tanya and her family in Bend, OR

I’ve known Tanya for almost 3 years now. She subbed a rope class I was taking in Seattle at Versatile Arts and well, that was the first time I had really introduced myself to her, but I’ve KNOWN about her for a year before. When she taught the class, it was the first time I had conversed with her and to be honest, I was stunned at how NICE she was. She was so soft spoken and kind. The kind of kind you feel in your heart and you know isn’t phony. And for that to come from someone as gorgeous, talented and intelligent as Tanya- it just- it didn’t make sense.

I kept thinking, “whoa, she’s actually interested in what I had to say.. Does she realize she’s talking to a Mortal? A Nube?”

When I reached out to her to do the interview, I was so excited Tanya was interested. I get this gut feeling when I see her perform, that her movement and storylines convey so much more than just “pretty”, that’s there’s a deeply personal story and I want to at least know more. I heard she studied ballet and I wanted to know- why did she switch worlds?

We met at Cabiri’s new studio Arcadia for a jam session before heading out and getting grub. She played on the hammock and her movements were smooth like butter. Afterwards, we drove shortly to Hattie’s Hat in Ballard for brunch and gab.

Here’s our convo-

Dana: Do you have any dietary restrictions or preferences?

Tanya: I was a vegetarian for a most of my teenage years and into my early 20’s.. when I started with The Cabiri, I would get off the silks and feel like ‘Oh My God I need a steak right now!’

After 2 hours of being on the silks, and everything was sore.  I was probably sore for 6 months when I first started. I couldn't do a pull up or a pull over. I was like ‘how are people doing pullovers, how is that a thing?’ Charly could tell you..

D: laughs

T: I struggled and struggled to get it. For like 6 months. And then by some black magic, I got it.

D: Oh you know, just a little bit of black magic.

T: (laughs- which by the way, I want to make a sound track b.c it’s infectious)

D: So what year did you start (aerial)?

T: 2006. So yeah, I’ve been doing it for about 12 years now.

D: that’s awesome

T: and uhhh, yeah back when I first started it was The Cabiri. SANCA had not yet opened their doors and there was Circus Contraption which was renting space at a  hangar at Magnuson Park.

D: There use to be a circus studio there?

T; Yeah, Lara (Paxton?) was teaching classes out of there before she moved to the Theo chocolate factory in Fremont, which  is where Circus Contraption mounted their cabarets for many years. That period is a memorable time in the hearts of the Seattle circus community; when it went away that was an end of an era. Lara ushered in the second generation of Seattle aerialists, her all female group, the Aerialistas.  We practiced a few times per week and took Lara’s Monday night classes at Theo. We mounted a 10 person rope act as well as produced our own cabarets in the space. I was a member for a couple of years as well as 10-12 others who are mostly still the bulwark of Seattle’s professional performers to this day.  Other first generation Seattle Circus were the ladies on Vashon (couldnt hear)( UMO Ensemble), and Tamara The Trapeze Lady; who was  the very first performing aerial artist in town, and pioneered the aerial burlesque genre...

D Yeah!

T: So the Aerialistas were the second generation. And we are mostly all still performing independently even though we are all in or pushing our 40’s, which is like the new 30 :) Most of us had a hand in teaching the third generation, who are the newbies coming up now.. Sooo.

D: It’s very generational, huh. That’s something Sparrow touched on during her interview. That the Aerialistas was really a group of women who… when you wanted to make something happen, you made it happen. And very much like, if we want to do this than let’s do this.

T: Yeah and back then there were no instagram videos, there was nobody showing how to do anything and we had to figure stuff out, or ask people how to do it or by word of mouth. Like, how do we splice a rope?

D; Mmhmm

T: And we would have to go to the marine supply stores and find the right rope. We used this cheap poly-weave rope, spliced it and then covered it by hand.  The process takes a couple days of hand stitching with a huge needle and a thimble. We had to sit there and figure it out. There were no instructional videos, and it’s the same thing with tricks. You’d be in the studio and jamming and you would figure it out.  You would take classes from whomever came through town and write everything down in notebooks because phone cameras weren’t a thing. I cannot for the life of me decipher most of my early choreo scribblings. That’s how we learned/created things.

Photo By Michael Doucett

Photo By Michael Doucett

D: that’s really awesome.

T: I feel like things have totally changed. I feel like Instagram and Youtube is very beta.

D: Well and I feel like, y’all created the content that is now being taken for granted on instagram and YouTube. The example from my mind comes from Sara with the loop of death… and now people just assume that that is part of the lexicon.

T: Yeah I mean we were making our own language and terminology too. I mean, it’s not a language like ballet that was set a hundred years ago. We’re still building the base..

D: yeah!

T: It’s still a very new frontier. Like people are just now starting to write books about aerial.

D: Right? And those books aren’t even being published mainstream… they’re Amazon or Ebooks or self published books…

T: and now aerial is everywhere… you have the aerial yoga studios, there’s just so many people trying to get in on it. Like a fad…. I think we do benefit from the entrepreneurs in our community, bc the artists and the teachers studied art their whole lives, they didn’t go to school for business. Well, most of us didn’t.

D: yeah

T: so we need the business people

D: but I don’t think the business people should be the forefront of a studio. I mean, Business 101 before I spend my coins on an establishment I need to know for certain that they’re competent in their aerial abilities. Ya know? If I see someone branding their identity as an aerial studio, I need to know that I will learn something there.. If not, then it’d be good for a business partner or studio manager or instructor to be the forefront. To “sell” their abilities: whether it be teaching, performing… Ya know what I mean?

T: Yeah, I mean I know some business owners who aren’t circus people who are like “oh I can just hire what I need” ya know? And maybe that’s just 1 type of business model.

D: mmhmm. Yeah.

T: But there’s always complications when you dont understand the needs of your instructors or clients.

D; Yeah. You cant just outsource a culture. Ya gotta know somethings- ya know what I mean?

T: yeah.

D:  So, your first class was in 2006, and you first started with The Cabiri..

T: who we just visited in their new home

D: in their gorgeous new home.. So did you take classes at Youngstown?

T: Yes.

D: awww. That’s so fun. They were there for the longest time.

T: Aww yeah. It was so funny, we had to climb the scaffolding to hang at each point

D: mmhmm

T; aw, were you there too?

D; yeah I performed with TC for a year and they still hire me for stilt walking gigs. They even gave me my stilts. Hell, they TAUGHT me how to stilt!

T Aww. They were one of the first groups who actually offered instruction in the area, and are really fundamental for a lot of the people still doing circus. I started with them and was performing right away.

D: that's very cool. What are some of your favorite performances? Because you have such an impressive resume and I can think of some of your acts that, when I think of it, I get nervous..

T: What?!

D: That fucking crane act, Tanya..

T: oh yeah

D tell me a little about that crane act.. Bc that is amazing

T; *laughs*

D: How did that happen.. How did you get the idea.. How did you ….

T; Yeah I’ve flown on a crane in Ireland in 2012 and I guess cranes and harness performance is really common there.

D: wow

T: and they just have less regulations about the use of cranes with people hanging on them,  which made it available to me. I flew on a crane in Ireland and that was terrifying as hell.

D: mmhmm

T: But after I got use to the height it was like ‘okay, i can do this..’  but finding a crane [in America] is really hard bc they’re really expensive to rent.. It’s around $10,000 a day .

D: Oh my gosh!

T:  I needed the proper vehicle to find the funding for that. It came in the form of the Duwamish River Festival which my friends Sarah Kavage and Nicole Kistler headed. It was the summer of 2015 andwas meant to highlight the Duwamish River area and the cultural ties to the region tobring public awareness.

D:oh man. That’s awesome. So you got the idea and secured the funding, tell me more about the conception behind it. I’ve seen the images, which are amazing and you went IN on the costuming. I mean, it wasn’t just workout attire, swinging from a 10,000 day rental crane…

Duwamish Revealed Festival 2015 - Crane Performance

Duwamish Revealed Festival 2015 - Crane Performance

T: *chuckles* No

D; Can you tell me about the costuming and the ideas behind that?

T: Mmmhmm, I had worked with the lighting artist Yuri Kinoshita. We wanted to make a giant paper ball lantern that a human could fit inside. She executed that vision. We worked with a live musician from a neighboring tribe to the Duwamish, he was playing the drums and singing prayers; it was a beautiful tribute to the river in a surreal landscape; all the pieces fit together perfectly.  For as big of a project as it was, everything went to plan and our team worked together seamlessly to make this hairbrained idea a reality. I have to give major props to Sarah and Nicole; they really provided me with the resources I needed. They found me a fantastic lighting person, they connected me with the musician, they coordinated all the additional funding, waivers, site visits, paperwork, legal help; they even got the crane company to donate the crane, which was a barge crane that I commandeered down the river at rush hour. I’ll never forget that moment.D; wow

T: and everyone made it possible. I mean, I wouldn't be able to afford or do that all myself.

D: right? No.

T:  I worked with Chrissy Wai-Ching on the design and Jamie Von Stratton on the costume. Jamie  worked on the bodysuitand Chrissy made these giant dip-dyed wings that I flew over the crowd with.

D; I mean, wow! JVS and Wai-Ching studio… I mean, JVS costumes queens on RDR like Ben Dela Creme and Jynx and then Wai Ching did the kimono that Leah Jones wore in that photoshoot with the river. Ah, that’s a super Seattle heavy hitter team.

T: Right? It all came down to knowing people I can rely on. I can ask this person to do something and I know they will deliver, then also knowing someone else that rocks another part of the equation; that’s how it all came together.  For the crane, I didn’t get a rehearsal. I mean, I got one day on the crane the day before to run some things, but I couldn’thave a set act because  rehearsal time was nonexistent. I needed an entire crew just to have a rehearsal. I had a headset and walkie talkie to talk to the crane operator to tell him  “Up, Down, okay, Swing right Swing left”


T: So we kinda had some rough choreography but it was really just off the cuff. I didn’t really engineer it as much as I could other aerial pieces.

D: I mean, just the magnitude of what you were doing..

T; So yeah it was cool to be in charge of an entire team operating it down the river. And the 1st Ave South Bridge opened just for us when we drove the barge down into it’s spot for anchoring.

D: OOOOH! So Cool!

T: I was in front of the barge of the crane. And I was like “OMG Im in charge of this group. The best feeling was just getting up into the air. You’d think there’d be a sense of panic but there was just this sense of peace. Like in that moment you know you have no  control and you’re like.. Just forget about it. Whatever's going to happen will happen. I made my will and I sent it to mybrother and dad. 

D: yeah?

T; And just in case something happens here’s my passwords.

D: like.. Just in case, here’s how to take down those weird FB photos…

T: And instructions as to who gets what. I thought, I really could die doing this. If I fall into the river, the ball is roughly 200 lbs and it’s going to sink me… I’m in a harness and I can’t get free. If I go down then I’m just going down.

D: jesus.

T: and I had to accept it. I kept envisioning what it would be like to drown with this thing attached to me. Ya know?

D: *laughs*  I DO know!

T: It was a head trip and I said ‘I accept this.. We’re gunna do this’. And the day of the practice I got in the mirror and I said ‘Alright.. I release all fear’. Ya know, it’s like the best feeling in the world to be up in the ball and to look out in the river and to see the crowd. 800 people came to see it. And it was like.. it blew me away.

D: yeah…

T: and then I thought ‘oh.. I don't have any choreography”

D: *PFT HA! To be honest, I don't think you need any. Youre already…. You could.. You could literally just do this *holds arms out in a super woman pose* and it’s already like, fucking nuts.

T: Mmhmm.. And the wind was blowing me around.

D; Ohh my goodness.. ‘Cause the ball- the lantern- it was there the entire time right? So did it pick up wind at times too?

T: MMhmm. My wings would get blown in the wind too. Ya know, there were a lot of factors that I could not control in that performance. I was truly tied to a rig and the process. I thought.. It’s gunna be what it’s gunna be and I just have to be in the moment.

D: Ok. How did you get into the harness bc the crane is up here and you’re below it and then the latern was above you so how did you.. How did that happen?

T: Uh, we had a loading area on the barge

D: oh and the crane came down and then picked you up…

T: yeah

D: Oh. That makes sense. *Laughs*

T: And there were people pulling me up and down on the barge with a pulley system. I communicated to them with a headset. At one point a line got stuck and I was submerged in the water.

D: In the water?

T: Up to here (points to chest). And I was just dancing around- saying ‘Up Up’ and it wouldn't. They were waving at me saying it would go up so I just danced in the river for a while waiting for them to fix it.

D; I bet that was cold.

T: Oh yeah. It’s located down south, south of the Puget Sound. D; Shit. That’s fucking nuts. What would you say your favourite performance has been.

T: Everyone knows me for the spiral. I didn’t think that would get the attention that it did. When I was creating it, I thought ‘oh wouldn’t it be cool to create this thing’.  I scribbled a doodle on  paper with a sharpie,  gave it to the welder and asked if they could make this thing. And now that’s what people around the world know me for. *chuckles*. I’m like- I do other things too! I get emails or requests every other day like, are you selling the spirals and how much are they…

D- Do you sell a lot of them?

T-  I’m working on being set up to produce and sell them- and they’re $2500 to make. People ask the price and then aren’t interested. This isn’t an aerial hoop. It’s not gunna be $500..

D- I feel that’s the same mentality for people putting in points in their house. Folks don’t want to spend more than 500 bucks and don’t realize the cost is their actual neck. I see these instagram posts for people on silks literally dangling from those fucking potholder nails in their ceiling.

T: And they have like 20,000 followers

D: Yeah! I mean, marketing for this website has been really interesting. It’s hard to find people who have the talent I look up to and also a large audience.

T: The game has changed. You don’t necessarily have to have good technique, clean lines, or even be exciting to watch. You just have to use the right hashtags and be on Instagram all the time- marketing yourself while wearing cute matching yoga sets with some dumb inspirational quote below. Sorry, not sorry. ;) I get upset sometimes at what gets attention; I’ve put in so many years working on this but maybe I don't feel the need to play the game to that extent.I am definitely not “Insta-famous”, and I’m ok with that.When I do teach, I feel like I reach people in the right ways.  I help them using my years of knowledge and experience, not whatever the trendy new belay trick is going around. I speak in a language they can understand, or say it in 6 other ways if they don’t understand one way.

D: or you don’t have 6 different photo editing apps and a instagram upload app. I mean, I have 4 photo editing apps and I’m so fucking annoyed with it.

T: I try to keep up with the game on a basic but I am no master. I’m naturally a late adopter with all new things tech.

D: It’s also where are you putting your time. Your craft. People naturally get better wherever they put their time and energy in. And you, seeing you in the gym earlier. The way you move in the hammock, it’s very obvious that you feel 100% safe  and comfortable. You knew what you were doing and your positioning at all times. You’ve spent time in that hammock, even when you were spinning. It blows my mind bc I’m not a spinner…

T: giggles

D: and when I spin, I freak out and think NOOO- where am I? What’s my body doing? I get mad when folks put a swivel on the rope- it’s that bad. Like, get that fucking swivel down. You put your energy where you put your energy. And I can tell your energy goes into your artform.

T: Yeah. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around how the game has changed.

D: Ya know, it’s unfair really. It’s recognition for doing a piss poor job.

T: and then there’s the people using hashtags trying to get free merch…

D: or the bigger companies trying to market to aerialists.. Like, there’s a brand, Athleta I think? They released an ad for aerial sling but the pants they’re advertising are a slippery material with a zipper! I mean, Aerial 101- You can’t wear those pants!

T: Yeah I like the cotton pants, and no pants.  Bare legs are fun to work in. I need the rosin to stick.

n the subject of costuming; this one is an axe to grind for me. From experience, there’s a lot one can do performance wise while wearing a lot of shit on their body, or practically nothing on their body: Performers don’t just have to wear a leotard. They can have rhinestones everywhere, they can have tassels and fringe. People can wear it all.

D: And you fucking do! You go all out on costumes.

Jason Woo

Jason Woo

T: And I want people to know that too. That they can adorn their bodies. I feel minimalism is something modern dance did 15 years ago and it hasn’t changed.

D: Very 15 years ago

T: And when I pay $30 to see a performance, I want to see effort put into the costuming. I want beads, sparkles., tailoring, decent materials I want to see EFFORT. I don’t want to see a simple  leotard unless there is a very good thematic reason why said actor is onstage in only a cheap leo. I don’t want to see your street clothes. I don’t want to see the bottom of your dance bag portrayed onstage. If I’m paying to see a show, I want production values.

D: yes!

T: Scenery, beautiful lighting, a tech that knows how use lighting to light faces so shadows don’t fall where they shouldn’t.

D: Do you hear this right now Moisture Festival?

T: *laughs* I don’t want to see black booty shorts and a black tank top on stage anymore. It’s done!

Photo By Angela Sterling

Photo By Angela Sterling

D: Tanya, you really are the person to say this. I mean, I see you perform, you wear a thong on stage and it doesn’t move. Like I’ve seen you - full split with your legs by your ears and the thong… STAYED. I was so worried too, thinking “is it gunna slip, is it? Is it?

T: and Nope. It didn’t! *laughs*

D: No bitch!


T: Because I engineer my costuming, get it custom made, with thicker elastic on the sides so it doesn’t slip. This isn’t a thong from Target, it’s custom hand made to my measurements and hand dyed. A thong created by costumer Daniel Webster. Insider secret: I’ve also used carpet tape on my crotch to hold a thong there, when I do my pole performances; this requires attention to personal grooming down there obv., or else that would hurt a lot!

D: Does he do Bendela’s (Creme) costuming?

T: Yep!

D: You’re not worried about the costuming tearing the apparatus? Like, for rope, maybe a tassle can get in the way of a dymanic move?

T: That’s the thing, people need to practice. Practice in the costumes, rather than perform in the workout gear. And if something happens, trust your reflexes. After years and years of practicing something, your body will know what to do. You’ve got to know how your body will interact with the apparatus.  Like, tassels on the front of the waistband are probably a bad idea, but on the bum it’s just fine!

D: Because you’ve done the fucking work.

T: Yeah. And you trust yourself to be in the moment.  My best and favorite performances are me channeling my feelings. Sometimes when I’m super tired or at my wits end, sometimes that’s my best performance. It’s just raw. Sometimes I’ll pick songs right in the moment, right before I go out on stage and this is what I’m feeling, and it’s what I need to give in that moment. It’s a gift to the audience. That’s my goal as a performer.

D- Perfect. I think this segues lovely to our next portion, Lightning Round, where I ask a simple question and you give your first thought answer. Ready?

T- Ready.

D: Favorite Move

T: Leg Crochet

D: Favorite Drop?

T: Ones I make up myself. I like slack drops, or really intensive, intricate drops with a big build up.  

Favorite Costume of All Time-

T- I’m really enjoying wearing as little as possible right now. I really enjoy freedom of movement. I like high waisted hologram bootie shorts, strappy bandage stuff, big hair, fishnet stockings. I look like a clubgirl- someone out at a bar in Miami or something. I love it.

Photo By Jym Daly

Photo By Jym Daly

D: Big Goal that you set for yourself recently?

T: Honestly just surviving as an artist in Seattle has been a big feat. Doing well (financially) enough to take vacations and buy costumes. Continuing to reach my financial goals, diversifying my funds. As for aerial, I’m at a place where I can create something that’s my own. I know the resources to make it happen.

D: Any goals for the future, is there a show or a convention that you think or daydream about?

T: I dream about fun, high end contracts, but my body keeps me here close to my practitioners. I can see myself as a business owner, a restaurant with an artistic aspect to it. I can see myself curating a beautiful venue. I don’t want to leave Washington. I moved here when I was 16 for the ballet school. I danced everyday for 10 years and now 12 years of aerial.. My joints are pretty tired! I want to be a business owner of somesort and incorporate performance.

D- I can see that! Final question. What advice would you give to anyone starting their aerial/ circus journey?

T- You can find your own way. You don’t have to follow a formula. Doing something a certain way doesn’t make you any better or worse than anyone else. Doing something different, doesn’t make you worse. You can be modern or classical and are still badass. You don't have to wear workout clothes on stage to be taken seriously, you don’t have to attend a prestigious circus school, you don’t have to have CDS or Hollywood as your ultimate goal.

D- Or jeans…

T- And you don’t have to spend a fortune on a costume either. It can be accessible. But yeah, there’s so many ways to do something- so find your own way. You can build your own job description. Find a niche and fill it. Like you Dana- you’re the circus blogger. Filling your own niche.

D- Aww! That’s perfect Tanya. Thank you. Thank you so very much for your time.

T- Absolutely. Thank you!

Photo by Pete Saloutos

Photo by Pete Saloutos

Thank you everyone for supporting and viewing the blog during my recent break! I appreciate the continued love and support! Cheers to all the successes and failures of 2018 and a bright 2019!