Philly Faces: Brian Ungar Aims to Fly High

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Philadelphia School of Circus Arts student Brian Ungar does a handstand on a picnic table
Brian Ungar (Photo by Rachel Winicov)

Like many 18-year-olds, Brian Ungar juggles school, extracurriculars and fun. Unlike his peers, he does it from 10 feet off the ground.

Ungar is a nationally recognized circus performer. He specializes in dance trapeze, an intimate display of choreography and muscle control.

A student at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, Ungar has traveled internationally for circus performance. He received top finishes at the prestigious Viva Fest in Las Vegas and the West Coast Aerial Arts Festival in Costa Mesa, California.

A childhood spent performing in JCC camp plays has paid dividends for Ungar, who plans to pursue circus arts as a full-time career. He belongs to Beth Am Israel Congregation in Penn Valley.

Ungar spoke to the Exponent about his recent audition with the National Circus School in Montreal and what’s next.

What is circus?

It’s not your traditional Ringling Brothers three-show circus. There are no animal circuses, at least in the United States. It’s not clowning. It’s contemporary, which is theatrical and dance-based. It’s a lot more sophisticated.

How did you get into circus arts?

I went to sleepaway camp at Independent Lake Camp. They had a circus program there, so I tried it and thought it was super fun. I kept going back to camp, staying longer sessions. I would just live in the circus building and at the flying trapeze rig and spend all my time there. Then I started going to the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

When did you first feel like, “Wow, maybe this could be my job”?

Seventh grade. I saw the Cirque du Soleil show La Nuba at Disney World, and I said, ‘I want to do this professionally.’ That was it. I thought: Wait, I can actually do that. It’s not a joke anymore; I could really do it. So I stepped it up. I started at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts just so I could be training more often. I started doing youth shows.

The summer before I started high school, I found out about the National Circus School. My mindset was: I’m going to go there. I built a routine. Then the classes at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts got more intense, specifically for people who wanted to take the next step and think about going professional. So I did that.

Have you received any pushback from your family or friends?

I wouldn’t say pushback. There were definitely a lot of questions. Most of it was about taking it professionally, like constantly saying, ‘Look, I really want to do this. Can I just go for the audition?’ It took three years to really bring everyone around to accept that I’m auditioning right out of high school.

Let’s talk about the National Circus School audition.

The National Circus School is the Harvard of circus schools. Students that go there usually have a contract with Cirque du Soleil or another big company within a year of graduating.

I knew the school pretty well from going to their summer program. In February, I applied to their college. They send you an invitation to come to a live audition — 15 hours the first day. They test pretty much everything: your strength, flexibility, acrobatics, tumbling, improvisational acting. At the end of the day, they announce cuts. The second day everyone presents their prepared pieces. I did a dance trapeze piece and made it to the next two days.

I didn’t get in. A lot of people don’t get in their first year, and it’s not because they’re not good enough. Sometimes, certain coaches aren’t available one year or there are too many people in one specialty.

What’s next?

I’m reauditioning in February. I’m going to try out at other schools, too. As much as I would love to train full time, I feel like I’d be missing out on some things. So I’m going to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst next year and training during the school year. There’s a circus school 20 minutes from campus, and I’m thinking of joining the gymnastics team to work on my tumbling.

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