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Rainbow Militia producing director Amber Blais.EXPAND
Rainbow Militia producing director Amber Blais.
Martha Wirth

Rainbow Militia Brings the Circus to Low-Income Neighborhoods

Denver-based circus company Rainbow Militia is bringing the circus to low-income neighborhoods, ten times over.

Starting May 18, Rainbow Militia's "Zabiti: 10x the Impact" tour will bring a traveling circus wagon to ten of Denver's underserved communities, stopping at each for an all-day celebration combining performances, workshops and collaborations with local artists. The free neighborhood performances will lead up to a production, also titled Zabiti, that Rainbow Militia will put on at Denver Rock Drill for three weeks in late August and early September.

Rainbow Militia is the brainchild of Amber Blais, Staza Stone and Elizabeth Smith, all circus performers themselves who had worked and trained together for years.

When it comes to the group's origins, "it sort of happened organically," Blais explains. "We started performing, and we all have a passion for creating art that is both accessible to everybody and gives artists a container and a place to perform. We started putting on smaller productions that paired aerialists with musicians, so we had this cool mix of live music and circus, and we've grown from there."

However, the "Zabiti: 10x the Impact" tour is more than just a Rainbow Militia project. Twenty-four artists are part of the team responsible for creating Zabiti, from professional circus performers to musicians and more. The neighborhood shows will include local performers, both amateur and professional, as well as other community partners.

"We're making it a celebration of the neighborhoods themselves," explains Blais. "So when we go in, we're partnering with neighborhood associations, local businesses and organizations, and community members, to put on something that is an all-day celebration. The shows start at 2:30 and goes until 6:30 [p.m.]. We're going to have tables with local businesses showcasing what they have to offer, we're going to have free circus workshops for the community, we'll have a talent show for people in the neighborhood, and then we'll have a full show at the end of the night with live music. With the ten different neighborhoods, we have ten different bands and ten different casts of performers, because we're also performing with aerial dance studios, and there are a ton of them around Denver, so we're showcasing some of their high-level students along with the professional performers. It's a true celebration of all of our communities together."

Amber Blais and Rainbow Militia's director of community outreach, Liz Smith.
Amber Blais and Rainbow Militia's director of community outreach, Liz Smith.
Martha Wirth

Immersive theater, which has become trendy in Denver and beyond, does away with the fourth wall that separates actors from audience members, who experience a multi-sensory, interactive experience.

After attending many immersive productions and noticing that none of them included circus arts, Blais was determined to create an immersive circus experience in collaboration with other artists. The idea for Zabiti came from Russian folklore — which Blais studied in high school — and developed into a narrative-driven performance piece with the help of other artists. Because the circus community in Denver is small and supportive and Blais had previously done marketing for local ballet company Wonderbound, she already had personal relationships with most of Zabiti's collaborators and partners.

"I just love Russian folklore because of how the characters are so real and fun," says Blais. "So I started talking about it to all of my artist friends, and they were like, 'This is so cool. We have to make it happen,' and it kind of just snowballed from there. So now we have this amazing team of people, each collaborating on their own thing. Kevin Larkin and David Rynhart from Chimney Choir are creating all of the music, and there are two other musicians that will be playing with them live during the shows. Stephen Brackett from Flobots and Jess Robblee from Buntport Theater are helping me write the scripts. Toni [Baca] is helping me with all the wagon shows and bringing it to neighborhoods. Everyone is contributing in an area where they feel very passionate, so I think it's very fulfilling for all of us. It's going to be an awesome show."

As part of the final Zabiti production, the creatives behind the Rainbow Militia knew they wanted to do a "ten times the impact" giveback to the community. The ten neighborhoods that the "Zabiti: 10x the Impact" tour will visit were chosen based on the Denver Neighborhood Equity Index and each community's lack of access to the arts, according to Baca. The free community shows align with Rainbow Militia's mission of making the arts accessible to everyone.

"There are a lot of barriers to entry when coming to see the performing arts," says Blais. "One of them is fiscal. A lot of people cannot afford to go see shows, so our '10x the Impact' shows are all free. Another barrier is that they're too far away or they have to drive, so we're coming to them. Instead of saying, 'You have to come to our space, and you have to pay us money,' we're saying, 'We have this art, we want to share it with you, we know you have art, too, and we want to see what you have going on.'"

A concept drawing of Zabiti's traveling wagon, by Tom Varani.EXPAND
A concept drawing of Zabiti's traveling wagon, by Tom Varani.
Tom Varani

Rainbow Militia will also include Spanish narration in its neighborhood shows to make them as inclusive as possible. "Even though circus and performing arts are kind of a universal language, and [when you see] a performance on stage, you don't necessarily have to translate it, we're going to be emceeing the shows in both Spanish and English, in order to really bring together the community," Baca explains. "I was a Spanish major at CU Denver and grew up in Colorado, and the way I wanted to give back to my community is by doing what I'm passionate about and making it as inclusive for everyone as possible. Also, part of the wagon shows themselves will be teaching workshops to the community, and we want to get everybody involved and able to express themselves as much as possible, so a few of those workshops will also be translated into Spanish as well."

With the "Zabiti: 10x the Impact" tour, Blais feels as though her relationship with the arts has come full circle: "For me personally, I grew up in a low-income area and didn't have a lot of the access to the arts that a lot of other people had, and I kind of got introduced to the arts because people were doing this exact thing. They were coming to my school; they were bringing their arts to me. They gave us free theater tickets to local theaters, and I think as artists, it's so important to spark that next generation of creativity and show them what is possible, and it's hard to do that if they don't have access. So it means so much to me to be able to bring my art to people and share it with them. And also to showcase what people in their communities are already doing. It's just so fantastic."

"The first time I saw the circus or saw an inspiring art performance, it made me believe I could do anything I wanted to do," adds Baca. "Whether that means following circus or whether that meant becoming an accountant or anything, I think it's really important to find hope. At the root of all joy is hope, so I think being able to provide these shows in communities where it's really important for them to have hope, and for them to be able to be resilient as we're facing difficult times, is important. I'm a firm believer in resilience through laughter. So being able to find that laughter and that hope and hanging on to it is going to build a more resilient future."

The "Zabiti: 10 Times the Impact" neighborhood shows, scheduled for Saturdays beginning May 18, will provide a sneak peek at the full Zabiti show, leading up to its three-week run in late August at Denver Rock Drill. More details and tickets for all the shows will be available on Zabiti's website in the coming weeks.

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