Ballooning ribbons of scarlet descend from the high ceiling, a body-sized hoop hangs suspended, while arrayed along one wall are unicycles, stilts, elephantine Swiss balls—all the paraphernalia with which a spectacle might be created. On Labour Day morning, it is empty, a vast playroom moments before the children arrive.
Walk down a flight of stairs to the cavernous workspace below, however, and the first thing you see is a whiteboard listing student absences and, alongside their names, injuries. The circus, as a vintage Barnum & Bailey bill tacked to an adjacent wall suggests, is “a child’s dream”, but the bruises of its practitioners are painfully real.
Dan Hales has had his share. I find Hales—at 38, the old man of the course—in the last room downstairs nursing yet another strain, this one suffered to his neck while lifting a partner.
“As soon as one thing heals, you find the next one. I said to my teacher, ‘I’m really looking forward to the pain going away. Hey, Stan, does the pain ever go away?’ He looked at me, shook his head. ‘No, never.’”
But even clad in a heavy jersey, Hales, who has a background in martial arts, looks strong, a coiled spring. In an earlier forestry career, he used to split 12 tonnes of wood in a day.
As a child, Hales had watched the circus revival hit television and was transfixed. “I watched the flying trapeze and thought that it would be amazing to do. I’d head into the bush and try to leap from tree to tree.”
Training in circus arts plays to his love of pushing himself physically, one perfected movement to the next, towards pulling off the seemingly unachievable trick.
Now, having mastered the “rola bola”—a plank across a tube, stacked on another, and so on upwards, a series of seesaws forming a skyscraper—Hales wants to do it while on a swing.
“As far as we can determine, no one else in the world is swinging rola bola.
The one guy who was doing it, and who got picked up by Cirque du Soleil, is dead.”
Hales is not sure if he can pull it off, of course. “But that’s what drives me: the possibility of the impossible.”
That phrase could define the circus, a world of upside down, of big stacked on small. Fittingly, one constituent of the secret circus language of Parlari is backslang—saying words back to front.
As I was growing up in provincial New Zealand in the 1970s, a visit from the circus was the impossible come to life, even if adult eyes might have adjudged the skill on display as strictly second rate. But it was earthy, too, even slightly seedy—the tightrope was always strung above horseshit and sawdust.
These days, the travelling circus is a corporate juggernaut. Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian troupe that has driven the transformation, turns over more than a billion dollars annually. Along the way the circus has been sanitised, professionalised, its illusions under canvas now a bright stadium spectacle.
You could view the advent of a diploma in circus arts as part of that trend. Where once performers were raised in the circus, learning at their elder’s knee, they can now attend an accredited programme.
But something of the old disorder still remains. The students call each other “carnies” (from the North American sub-culture of carnival workers) in acknowledgement of their shadowy lineage.
“There’s still that sense of a family of freaks,” says Sarah Mason, who with her partner Andrew ‘Cookie’ Cook runs a circus troupe at home in Alice Springs. Australians, who make up half the student body, are typically drawn to the CircoArts course because of its emphasis on creativity and self-expression, as opposed to the more vocational courses offered across the ditch. For Mason and Cook, however, the course is an opportunity to take a break from touring and concentrate on honing their skill levels so they can devise more exciting shows.
“Everyone on the course is in some sense a misfit. We all train like athletes, but our body shapes and types and sizes are all very different from sports athletes’. And we all have this thing that draws us, a feeling that we want something different from life.”
Cook, a juggler and unicyclist, has always been a nomad. His parents were a teacher and a nurse, and the family moved between various Aboriginal desert communities outside of Alice Springs. In his early 20s, having abandoned studies in computer science, he picked up his first set of trick sticks and fell down the rabbit hole.
“I did it for six hours straight. I was addicted.”
Mason was from rural Victoria. “I was an outcast. I left as soon as I could and ended up doing pavement art and fire poi. It was inevitable that I ended up doing something like circus.”
Even in the topsy-turvy world of circus, the couple break with convention. Mason, a hula hooper by specialty, acts as the base for their adagio routines, lifting her slightly built partner over her head.
Both are ambivalent about where modern circus is heading. They believe that Cirque du Soleil has revived circus and created a whole new market, but at the cost of some of the old intimacy with the audience.
“The traditional circuses have lost their allure because of these amazing machines like Cirque,” says Mason. “But actually, we like that old seedy allure. We’re drawn more to vaudeville, to comedy and cabaret, the traditional side, than to the sharp and polished.”
Some things haven’t changed. There is still that familial tug among circus performers, that sense of sharing the same nomadic, outsider DNA.
“We’ve been meeting people from different countries at the same festival for six years,” says Mason. “The fact that you are all doing circus instantly connects you.
“And travel is essential to contemporary circus, same as it always was. We need to keep moving, to find different audiences, in order to keep our art alive.”
The old clown is a tough taskmaster. He paces alongside a student who is rehearsing an act, hands clasped behind his back in a gesture more reminiscent of the parade ground than the Big Top.
“Better, much better,” he barks. “Now, go again.”
Stanislav Shchukin—or Stan, as he is affectionately known at Circo-Arts—spent 35 years with the Moscow Circus during its golden age. He and his fellow performers shared a venue in Paris with the Rolling Stones; in Brussels, Ray Charles heard the audience’s response and told the troupe they were stars.
In Russia, circus had always been regarded as special rather than fringe. But the Communist Party prized the Moscow Circus in particular because of the foreign currency it earned. It meant perks for the performers: Shchukin’s application to live in central Moscow was rubberstamped. “And as a circus, we always had the very best—the best costumes, composers, choreographers and designers.”
The clown is now 70, a nuggety figure with the light step of a gymnast. He was an acrobat, too, the base in an adagio act with a preternaturally skinny partner. Shchukin would make a big display of counting the man’s ribs to get a laugh.
Laughter, he says, is one of the three key elements of circus. I ask him what the other two are and by way of an answer he tells the story of how he fell in love with circus.
He was a young man when he saw a beautiful woman standing on the back of a horse—a kind of vision.
Then, in an audience that hardly dared breathe, he watched a man on a tight wire—a Portuguese performer who years later would shoot himself—dance high above the sawdust.
So laughter, beauty and strength or bravery? “Look at any circus poster, what do you see? A clown, a gymnast, an animal. The three elements.”
The Russian’s understanding of the circus arts is clearly rubbing off on his young students. Talking to them, you constantly hear his aperçus played back to you. In that regard he is teaching something more than skills at
CircoArts; he is initiating a group who weren’t raised on the sawdust trail into circus lore and legend.
But you also sense that he is disenchanted with modern circus. “A circus without animals is nothing,” he says of the new-look, human-only troupes. As for Cirque du Soleil and its ilk, Shchukin believes they treat their artists as cogs, mere technicians.
“Today,” he says, “the impresario doesn’t want any heroes.”
It’s assessment day. Their classroom may look like a playroom, but CircoArts students still need to pass muster. As well as acrobatics, juggling and other technical skills, they must be versed in anatomy, diet, circus history.
“People see us as peripheral, but they don’t understand some of the challenges,” says Godfrey Simms, director of the CircoArts programme. “The students here are fusing creativity with the discipline of an athlete.”
It can be a “gritty” time for them, adds Simms. Most live communally in a couple of ramshackle properties close to campus, prey to coughs and flu to go with all their injuries.
Neisha Murphy, 26, another Australian on the course, says she has learned the importance of looking after herself.
“Even if you don’t have much money, you have to make sure you eat well and you see your physio. But it gets easier because your body is doing so much work—aerials, juggling, tight wire, slack rope. I’ve noticed my shoulders are getting broader and my pain tolerance is so much higher now.
“But it’s all hard work. You think, ‘I’m going to be happy when I get this trick’, but it’s never like that. It’s, ‘I’ve got that trick, now what’s next?’”
One of the most difficult things is to build trust with your partner, adds Murphy, who does a double trapeze act with a Belgian called Dada.
“I’ve reached that point now where I can just fall and know that he’s got me. But it’s taken a whole year.”
In the hours before assessment, as the hall comes alive with movement and noise, you get a strong sense that the students have become a tightly bonded group. In the centre, a slim guy with peroxided hair traces ever-expanding circles on the straps. Someone else rolls past in a German wheel, arms out-thrust like the Vitruvian Man. Across the hall, Cook, having stacked several chairs into a teetering assemblage, pushes up into a handstand at its apex. There is a lot of supportive advice, and none of the competitiveness you might expect.
First-year student David DeVille says that despite the old prejudices, “circus people are usually quite honest and trustworthy, and we rely on each other”.
DeVille, a tall, wan Melburnian with a rockabilly haircut, came to CircoArts with a background in sword swallowing and glass eating. “You could call me an attention seeker,” he explains, somewhat redundantly.
He says he joined the course to learn the art of performance. “I needed a sounding board, people who would say, ‘Nah, that doesn’t work. Try this’.
“But you jump into this pool and you start to realise, ‘Oh, that’s why things in the circus are done that way, that’s how that trick has been built up’. You discover there are secret, unseen paths that circus performers go down, and that they have been fine-tuned over years.”
DeVille, whose real name is Jones, worries sometimes that the mystique is evaporating. “But there are people out there who retain it, the sideshow people, the burlesque and fringe circus people. They’re the ones who still dress as they might have 80 years ago, who devise routines emulating the old styles.”
But it is one of the youngest students who is most enamoured with traditional circus. Emma Phillips, a 19-year-old from Whangarei who does aerial hoop and contortion, believes she was born in the wrong century. “I love the drama of the traditional circus, the romance. It seems like a little dream. In the 1900s, the rest of society would watch and be amazed and wouldn’t think of them as real people.”
Phillips’ background is not what you’d expect. Daughter of the number-two man in the Michael Hill empire, she grew up in comfortable surroundings, a dancer from the age of four and a school prefect. Then she took a seat at a Cirque du Soleil show. “I don’t think I breathed for those two hours. I’d always had this thing inside that I wanted to explode, to do something crazy. When I found circus, it was a relief: ‘Ah, so that’s what it is!’”
That’s what it is.
As I leave CircoArts, Cook and another male student are riding unicycles, with Mason suspended between them and another woman clinging to her back. I watch them trace a shaky circle, a four-headed, eight-legged, two-wheeled accident-waiting-to-happen, a glorious absurdity. It’s like the English clown Reg Bolton once said: circus is the art of doing the pointless, perfectly.