Updated: Apr 21
interview with Katie Rebich, aka The Bird
Being that I am my main company during these quarantimes, I try to corral my mindset as much as is possible toward the optimistic, rainbows side of things. But sometimes that justice-seeking, advocate inner Me (she’s a gnarly, unruly beast who has clearly been doing just as many bodyweight workouts as I have) wins out. Plus, she's relentless when she's hellbent on making her case. And so this is how, dear readers, despite my best efforts to limit Covid-19 news, and anything else that might put me in a negative mindset, I landed myself in a dour mood for the rest of Saturday evening after reading about the tax breaks that some of our wealth-building-and-hoarding folk passed along with the CARES act, right under our collective, masked noses.
Luckily, I remembered the video that The Bird had sent the day before, along with answers to some questions I had sent about her pandemic performances. What follows is a bird's eye view look at this North Carolina-based circus artist and how she took the massive bushel of lemons Life gave us, and made herself, plus everyone, whose life she's touching (via dance, 6 or more feet away), smile.
Katie Rebich, aka, The BIrd, is a circus artist who graduated alongside me in 2014, from Aloft Circus Art’s Full-Time Training Program. She did “aerial stuff”, for sure, but she also danced on stilts. She made me laugh so hard on the days I most needed it, and I will always remember and love her for those moments.
Plus, she had the best snacks.
Please tell us about who you were, what you did, pre-pandemic life. Your career as a circus artist, what StoryUp did/does...
Haha! What didn’t I do?!... I’m co-artistic director of an aerial storytelling company, StoryUp! We do programming in schools and libraries. I also ran after school programs in ground based circus skills and aerials. Like any artist, I had a handful of jobs: fencing club administrator, part time pre-school teacher, event manager for a local company, performer, etc. The nutshell timeline is I started aerial in 2010 in North Carolina, exhausted all of the resources there, and had a serendipitous opportunity to go train circus full time. I didn’t like any of the [currently existing] programs at the time, so I picked Aloft because I liked the studio and could piece together my own training program. I moved to Chicago in August 2012, and in 2013 Shayna asked if I would be interested in participating in the new full-time training program at Aloft. DUH.
So I did that, graduated in 2014, moved to Scotland. Trained, performed, and taught on that side of the world, and came back to the US in 2016. From there, I Jumped on the StoryUp! Train, and have been piecing together a life as an artist and teacher, whatever that means. I DON’T LIKE EXPLAINING WHAT I DO FOR A LIVING IT IS SO COMPLICATED AND BORING.
Please describe the emotions you went through, from the beginning of this change in our world as we know it, right on up to the moment of inspiration for this service.
Also a funny question! I was all set to go to Italy to study with Giovanni Fusetti from mid April- end of May but that got canceled. Because I had carved out the time, I decided I would still take sabbatical from all of my jobs and figure my shit out. Then I didn’t have any jobs and I had the sabbatical I wanted. I was relieved to heave a dang break. Then the reality of bills set in and I toyed with picking up other work but decided ultimately to take the time to focus on the growth I wanted to have by going to Italy. (I am extremely lucky in this sense that my partner is still working so that allows me this luxury and privilege.) And then my laptop died in the middle of a Zoom Laughing Club. I laid on the floor and just full body sobbed. The only thing that kept me focused was continuing to study clown. With my shit technology, I couldn’t even do that. There was no “extra” money to make such a big purchase so really from despair came a stupid idea.
And it was so stupid.
People need stupid right now to laugh.
When did you begin stilt dancing?
I learned how to walk from Alessandra Ogren from Wise Fool in August 2010 at Aerial Dance Festival in Boulder, CO. It was a week long class and at the end we all did a dance together that we created as a group. I remember day 3 or 4 of that week, we went on a walk outside and played soccer. Learning with a sense of play made me not fearful of falling.
That's SO important- to just “play” with any new skill. That act incorporates it into our current “schema” and then, before we know it, it’s a Thing, we rely on, it becomes “ours”. How long did it take you from learning to walk on stilts to being able to freely express yourself through stilt dancing?
I don’t know the timing exactly. I started walking in 2010 and came to Chicago in 2012. I was an okay walker. I threw myself into situations that made me just figure it out and be better. I took a gig at Navy Pier in October and remember my stilt pants turning into sails because of all of the wind! I got hired because their regular stilt walker got sick. I just sucked it up and pretended I knew what I was doing and that yes, of course I could handle wind and people and a variety of elevations. I have always admired Martin Ewen, and the fluidity he has as his character “Lurk”. I wanted to be able to do the Elvis knees that he does. From there, I dove into learning about Moko Jumbies, acrobatic stilting like Carpetbag Brigade, and just wanted to be able to move on the stilts like I do on the ground. I was lucky enough to work with Kristina Isabelle during my time in Chicago and WOW! Talk about fluid! She taught me a lot. From working with her I believe, is when I made the full transition from “walker” to “dancer”.
Why a bird?
Because it is stupid! A grown-ass woman in a giant bird costume on stilts! It’s also non-human, which very much appeals to the little fire inside of me. It’s also one of my favorite costumes to wear. It was born 2 summers ago for Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s “In the Heart of the Fire”. It was my first summer with them and I told the artistic directors I wanted to flip around and shit. They said okay, dope. You gonna be a Phoenix rising from the ashes. They trusted me to bring this character to life. It’s special to me.
I LOVE the Phoenix Rising element- that is imagery we all need right now. Please tell us about the costumer/puppeteer and any other creative individuals’ roles in this endeavor.
The costume belongs to Paperhand Puppet Intervention. The clothing was made by Ginger Lipscomb who is still my go to wizard seamstress and stream of creative consciousness sounding board. I believe the Bird head itself was made by Jan Burger. But the upkeep and troubleshooting with the head is by puppetmaster Gretchen Adracie. Typically whenever I have a bird brained idea, I also run it by Jennie Kuehl who keeps me level headed about the logistics and probability of the idea.
Please share the most touching, moving, and or heart-breaking experiences you’ve had as you bring joy to folks via your avian adventures. When I say heart-breaking I don't necessarily mean sad, but rather, something that busts our hearts so open that we are forced to drop our “composed”- almost, less human, less real selves.
Every day has been heart-exploding! Every Birdgram has brought me sore cheeks from smiling so much. Today I danced around a neighborhood and a gaggle of kids kept their distance from me, and one another, as they followed me around for an entire half hour dancing their wee hearts out with me. I surprised an elderly woman with a Birdgram and when she came outside of her house and saw me, she screamed in excitement. A parent messaged me today (I visited their house 3 days ago) and said their family was still talking about it.
Anecdotes like these are SO awesome- thank you for that. I remember how deeply happy old Aloft’s El Circo Cheapo used to make me feel - it was my secret “happy place” for several years, so I can relate to that feeling of seeing a performance and feeling it nourish your soul, keep you moving forward.
I will always remember your stilt dancing segue in our circus program graduation show: “you ain’t a-nuthin’ ‘bout a hound dog!....”
Hah! Oh I cringe thinking of that performance!
Kristina had worked so hard to choreograph something else with me and last minute, I decided to wiggle around to Elvis without telling her. I am still sorry!
I am thrilled and inspired by what you’re doing with your circus skills. What advice do you have for folks who may be struggling as they are forced to re-write their stories about themselves, their careers, “who” or what they are now, post-pandemic?
If there’s one thing I have learned, you can’t force anything, even with a dang pandemic in your face. The entirety of circus school was me trying to force myself to be a type of artist I’m not. Even then, I was not open minded enough and mature to take advantage of what all was offered to me. I thought I knew what I wanted to be and wrote off anything that didn’t fit in that box. IDIOT. It took me years to sort out who I am as an artist and I am still working through that. Now more than ever you have to turn off that inner critic and stop killing ideas before they even start. I think we have to tune out all of the noise. Turn off all of the “I should be…” and REALLY shift focus inward. What do you truly want to be doing? What feels right? We all know when we force it. The product ends up like crap.
This is all easier said than done. But why are you an artist if you don’t like what you are doing? Do something that feels good. Start there. No matter how big or small. For me, I am happiest wiggling around on my stilts and being the biggest idiot in the room.
Your wry sense of humor got me through some of my roughest days while I was in circus school. And now you’re bringing so much joy and levity to folks around you, and more importantly (‘cuz it starts with one’s self), YOU. Any suggestions for folks on how to stop any “stinking thinking”, or thoughts that just make us feel crappy, from taking over?
Get a support system. Therapy, books, friends, routines- whatever. We are conditioned that we are not good enough, there is always something to work on. Shut that shit down. Unravel that deep conditioning and the strongly rooted notion of what “productive” is. For me, I manage it with herbal tinctures to keep my chemicals balanced, a therapist, and a personal mental practice. Absolutely everyone is different. I also have a list of go to movies and books that will make me laugh. “Good Burger” is a classic. Never forget that. Laughing can release some of that surface level tension that then allows you to dig deeper if you want.
What’s the best song you’ve bird-grammed to? Least fave? Name a song you just WISH someone would request a dance to.
My all time favorite is a Jock Jams Mega Mix that was a part of our pre-show music when I worked for Aerial Angels. I love the 90s, I am a sucker for cheesy, but that song holds a lot of memories for me too. Shake your tail feather to this.
My least favorite so far has been “In da Club” by 50 cent for many many reasons. (author's note: that is one of my FAVE songs to decorate cakes to!)
I am absolutely just waiting for someone to request the A and B side extended version of “Stairway to Heaven” as a joke but I will certainly do that.
I have zero problem with acting a fool for that long.
So there you have it folks. Next time I feel my feathers getting ruffled by news of what the hordes of wealth-hoarders among us have done, I'm going to give that negative angry mindset the bird, and dance. And hopefully find that resourceful mindset where I can help create something that helps us all emerge from this catastrophe a better-prepared, more compassionate, and stronger community. If you're in NC, Hire The Bird, or show your support here.