Bradley Henderson lithely climbs up the pole and turns his body upside down before stopping it on a dime. There is a striking ease to the way he contorts himself with masterful precision on this Monday afternoon.
It’s standard fare for the seasoned circus performer who is starring in Cirque du Soleil’s “Volta,” which opens at San Francisco’s AT&T Park on Nov. 15. But today his casually awe-inspiring physicality is on display for the young students of Circus Center in San Francisco.
The day is a homecoming for Henderson, who flew into the city the night before, not only because he grew up in Nob Hill but also because this gymnasium, a playground of sorts and nonprofit class space for budding circus performers and enthusiasts, launched his career.
“Every time I come back home, I try to make it through to this gym because this is where it all started,” Henderson says, sitting atop the second-story bleachers overlooking the space. The place hasn’t changed much, but it always looks smaller each time he returns, though that might be a reflection of the places Henderson has been since leaving.
Long before joining this internationally touring show under Cirque du Soleil’s Big Top — the company’s trademark massive blue-and-yellow circus tent — Henderson trained here throughout his childhood until he was 18, when he went to study at the Quebec Circus Arts School.
“I was doing gymnastics when I was 8 years old,” Henderson, 34, says. “It was kind of competitive, and I didn’t really love it. And then my mom found Mr. Lu Yi. He (taught at) this old church on Potrero Hill.”
The Circus Center, known then as the San Francisco School for Circus Arts, soon moved to its current location, and Henderson, along with his brother and sister (both of whom also have performed in Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia”), followed Lu, whom Henderson still refers to with reverence.
“He’s this circus legend, and he taught me pretty much everything growing up, all of my fundamentals,” Henderson says of Lu, who now serves as artistic director emeritus at the center. “I did Chinese hoop diving, Chinese pole climbing, teeterboard, pretty much a lot of things you see in this gym.”
Henderson uses those same skills now in “Volta” as one of the show’s shape divers. The show boasts a spectacular range of acts rooted in the spirit of street sports, from double Dutch rope skipping and BMX to Henderson and his team’s hoop diving acrobatics.
“Our act in particular, we’re almost trying to bring it back to street performing, where we rile up the crowd,” he says. “We stack these hoops on top of each other, and we do crazy tumbling tricks to get through the hoops without knocking them over.”
It’s an electrifying role, Henderson says, engaging the crowd to become invested and performing during a turning point in the show — a tale of self-acceptance — where the cast’s gray feathers are shed for one’s true colors.
Performing on these high-caliber stages (Henderson sat down during a rare two-day break for the touring show) for the iconic circus brand is a peak of sorts for Henderson, who is performing in his first Cirque du Soleil show. But his story is no anomaly coming out of Circus Center.
Following along the young students’ warmups — and being handily defeated in a handstand competition — this afternoon, Henderson is a guest in a class instructed by Kris Carrison, a 15-year alum of Cirque du Soleil.
“We’ve been training people at a very high level for many years, and a lot of those folks have gone on to start other studios around the country, have gone on obviously to perform,” says Barry Kendall, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We have alumni of our program who are part of that rich circus tradition.”
The tradition is rooted in the city. The Circus Center was founded by members of the Pickle Family Circus, the famous San Francisco troupe (it included members like Bill Irwin, who would go on to become a Tony Award-winning actor) that was fundamental to the renewal of the circus arts in America. “When I had seen their shows, the Pickle Family Circus was starting this tradition,” Henderson says, recalling seeing the troupe perform as a child.
This history and pedigree has kept Circus Center a vital, surviving institution, attracting world-class instructors within the small but global world of circus, while also helping students like Henderson see potential careers in the art.
Returning home, Henderson hopes he might do the same. Inside Circus Center, young students look on as Henderson spins in circles, his body controlled tightly inside a large metal Cyr wheel. He’s less reflective on his own journey than on what his story might do for the next generation.
“If anybody is seeing themselves through me, then I think it’s a good thing,” he says. “It gives these kids here that are training really hard something to look forward to.”
“Volta”: Opens Thursday, Nov. 15; Through Feb. 3. $54-$165. AT&T Park, 24 Willie Mays Plaza, S.F. https://www.cirquedusoleil.com