Just hanging out for the Big Top

It all started with a trapeze. Now, a year and a half after opening in town, Claremont’s Pilates Studio M—an unconventional exercise venue offering Pilates, yoga and circus arts—is twirling, spinning and contorting itself to international recognition.

The unique gym is getting an extra boost as 12-year-old student Caroline Redfield prepares to go to Montreal’s National Circus School this summer to train under the guidance of performers from Cirque du Soleil. Established in 1981, it is the largest North American school devoted to advanced circus arts.

Caroline is just one of several students making a splash on and off the circus hoops as Pilates Studio M continues to make strides toward the spotlight in Claremont and beyond.

“We have our own little circus, and that’s just one and a half years later. In 5 years, people are going to be paying to watch them perform,” said studio owner Maria Bernhard, “and seeing [the students] get this sparkle in their eyes when they get off the ground and do a fabulous pose…it’s really contagious. That’s what makes it all worth it to me.”

The Sycamore Elementary School sixth grader was selected from hundreds of children and youth between the ages of 9 and 17 throughout the world to take part in the annual summer intensive training. Despite the long and tedious application process, Caroline’s mother has been a constant source of guidance and support for her daughter’s newfound calling.

“As a parent, you are always looking for something fun for your children to do over the summer,” said Molly Ierulli, Caroline’s mother. “Most kids want to run away and join the circus, and I feel like I’m the mother that is sending her child to the circus.”

It is a passion that Caroline latched onto quickly.

“We had friends who worked here so I decided to take a class and see what it was like, and I really loved it,” said Caroline. Her favorite aerial tricks include the silks and the flying trapeze. “You get to fly. It’s really fun.”

Her passion for Cirque grew after watching a performance of Ovo, one of several traveling shows performed by Cirque du Soleil, at the Santa Monica Pier in January.

“She had just begun flying trapeze not long before,” her mother recalled. “Between trapeze and the cirque and the silks, she just became mad for circus arts.”

Though performance and natural ability was in her blood from a young age, not to mention her background as a gymnast since age 3, Pilates Studio M has given Ms. Ierulli’s daughter the opportunity to hone a raw talent.

“She has a natural talent and inclination toward circus arts, and through this she has been able to pursue them in a more intensive way,” she said. “Circus arts are really professional these days. You don’t just run away and join the circus, you have to train really hard. This is going to allow her to train at a high level and see if this is something she really wants to do.”

Pilates Studio M and its specialized circus-style classes are the brainchild of Pitzer College alumna Maria Bernhard, who got her own start as a circus performer in Europe. Growing up with a strong dance foundation, she was inspiration to get back into performance came to Ms. Bernhard as a graduate student studying playwriting in London in the early 1990s.

“I was doing a project on the street performers and they were having so much more fun than I was,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m tired of writing about it. Forget it, I’m just going to start doing it myself.’”

So Ms. Bernhard dropped out of graduate school, and learned how to juggle, and that’s where it all began. She joined with local street performers and eventually, with the circus. She moved back to Claremont many years later, and began as a Pilates instructor at various studios. Still, she felt drawn toward the circus.

“I wanted something like this for myself and for my friends, and there is nothing in the area. We were all just tired of driving to LA,” Ms. Bernhard said, “and then I realized there is actually a really large community for [circus arts] in our area.”

Her love for “pushing gravity” and the “multidimensional” led her to further incorporate circus elements into her Pilates studio. The idea caught fire. Now, half the business is devoted to incorporating elements of circus like trapeze, aerial silks and aerial yoga into everyday exercise routines offered to a variety of ages, from Caroline’s age to college and adulthood.

Ms. Bernhard noted that many of her students—who put on a live performance every month during the First Friday Art Walk—are adults.

“It provides a space for community and building skills together,” said instructor Rachel Levy,  a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd when not choreographing routines on the aerial silks.

The Claremont Colleges students have also been pouring in, and with the help of Ms. Levy, they can take Pilates Studio M classes for college credit.

“Even though aspects of this practice are really challenging, every class has beginners. You can come in at any time. You don’t need to have any skills. You will build strength and flexibility.”

That sense of community spirit and encouragement is part of what keeps Caroline trying her hand at new stunts with her Claremont Pilates Studio M family. As she prepares to leave her studio and join the circus this summer, she looks forward to building on her knowledge base and bringing back her tricks to the Claremont studio to share with others.

“It’s a really interesting way of exercise and it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s something I think people would really enjoy.”

Pilates Studio M is located at 548 W. First St. on the first floor of the Claremont Packing House in Claremont’s Village West. For more information on the studio or classes offered, visit www.pilatesstudiom.com, email info@pilatesstudiom.com or call Ms. Bernhard at 323-632-2386.

—Beth Hartnett



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