She’s Making a Spectacle

February 17, 2019
DON T TRY THIS AT HOME: Liz Knights, who runs Cirque De Light, performs with fire fans. The small circus show allows Knights and other performers to exhibit their unique talents across the nation.

LOWELL -- Carrying a mysteriously shaped bag, a small narrow case, and a few hula hoops slung over her shoulder, Liz Knights has brought the circus with her.

The materials are for an impromptu “flow art” demonstration the Lowell resident recently put on display inside The Sun office lobby.

As the Flow Arts Institute website puts it, flow art is a variety of movement-based art disciplines that combine dance, juggling, fire-spinning and object manipulation. For Knights, it has grown to more than a hobby.

Knights’ improvised act -- which one might expect to see at the circus -- included a “hooping” performance that leads to the question, “How’d she do that?”

As a hula hoop circles Knights’ knees and another two hoops rotate her raised hand, a fourth appears stationary in front of her as her other hand slowly traces the circumference of the hoop. Maintaining a perfected performer’s smile, which glitters with purple-pink lipstick matching the color of her hair, her eyes remain straight ahead.

Knights’ demonstration progresses with a 360-degree rotation in place as the hula hoop continues to spin at her knees. She moves the remaining three hoops to an interlocked symmetrical arrangement she holds in place behind her back.

“The end,” she laughs as the hula hoops fall to the ground.

“You’re awesome,” calls out a nearby spectator.

“Thank you,” Knights responds. “Hold your applause.”

Hooping is just a spark in the flames of the 34-year-old’s extensive flow-art skill set. There are acts involving fire too.

“Don’t try this at home,” Knights jokes.

Though she can’t demonstrate the fire performance indoors, Knights shows off the equipment. She unzips a bag that appears made just for these -- a pair of “fire fans,” which resemble a folding fan made of welded metal, stained black from the smoke of past performances. The blackened wicks are made of kevlar and lit up with white gas to fuel the flames. During a performance, the lit fire fans are held and moved to a choreographed dance.

Knights admits suffering a few burns during performances.

“It’s very empowering -- gaining control over the elements,” she said. “Over fire.”

Knights runs her own company, Cirque De Light, a sort of mobile circus. She serves as the artistic director and performer, along with carrying out all the other duties that come with owning a business -- marketing, accounting, website building.

In 2011, Knights started Cirque De Light along with former business partner, Andrew “Insect,” whom she met through Boston Spinjam -- a gathering place for flow-art enthusiasts. The pair started Cirque De Light to market their unique talents, but the requests for performances grew.

“I have a whole roster of circus performers that I book and work with,” said Knights, who does about two performances a week.

Videos of Knights’ abilities are a click away on YouTube, where she was voted the “Top-10 Favorite Poi Spinners of 2018” by viewers. For those wondering, poi involves the choreographed twirling and swinging of tethered weights.

Most of her performances are for private events and parties across New England. A recent performance sent her to a location near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she choreographed and performed for a corporate event.

Knights has performed at events held by Acura, Mercedes Benz, Jack Daniels, Maker’s Mark and Johnson & Johnson. Her talents once took her to filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s Halloween fundraiser party in Philadelphia. Knights even received a call asking for her participation on TV-show “America’s Got Talent.” She declined the offer, satisfied with the way things have been going.

“I’m privately contracted to basically go and make fun,” Knights said.

The unique career wasn’t her initial plan.

Knights, who grew up in Acton, started college at Brown University in Rhode Island in 2002. A fascination with the human brain put her on a career path toward cognitive neuroscience. That trek was derailed a few years into her college education when she was diagnosed with myalgic encephalopathy/chronic fatigue syndrome.

“They don’t know what causes it and there are some treatments that help it but nothing cures it,” Knights said. “It causes severe physical fatigue to the point where it is difficult to walk up a flight of stairs or take a shower. Sleeping 18 hours a day would not be uncommon, and some people become completely bedridden.”

Aside from sleep abnormalities, overwhelming exhaustion and flu-like symptoms, her life was plagued with cognitive issues.

“When I was at my worst, I wouldn’t be able to have a back-and-forth conversation easily because I wouldn’t be able to retrieve information in my head,” Knights said.

Through the years following the diagnosis, Knights pieced together a treatment regiment that included dietary changes and medication. Despite her improvements, the illness knocked her off her academic path and contributed to a professional career in flow arts.

“I started to get better physically before I got better cognitively, so doing physical stuff was more within reach than going back to academia,” Knights said. “I was still having cognitive issues, but I could learn to juggle.”

“I probably would be in a research lab right now if I wasn’t sick,” she added. “Who knows?”

A career in flow arts makes sense, as unique talents run in Knights’ family. Dan Knights -- her older brother -- held the record time for solving a Rubik’s Cube in 2002. Meanwhile, Knights’ father was involved in gymnastics and performed ice dancing professionally.

“We’re definitely go-getters,” Knights said.

As for this career, performing brings relentless work demands, including booking work she does on the side for the Boston Circus Guild. Knights references a quote she heard once: “It’s like quitting your 9-to-5 to work 24/7.”

“This lifestyle works well for me though and I’m getting to do what I love,” she added. “I can’t really imagine doing anything else.”

For more about Cirque De Light, visit the website at cirquedelight.com .

Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis.