Meregon Kiddo was suspended 12 feet in the air and rapidly dropping headfirst towards the ground when she realized something had gone wrong.
“I didn’t wrap my binding correctly,” she said. “And normally when you do something correctly after a drop there’s something to catch you…but I didn’t do it properly. So I just locked my arms to protect my neck, and then I snapped both of my arms.”
The school is an example of growth in Canada’s circus industry, a growth that started with Quebec’s rule-breaking Cirque du Soleil and that has now spread beyond its borders. Vancouver’s school already employs eight professionals and teaches dozens aspiring circus performers. The plan is to expand to another location next year.
A growing art
“It is definitely growing. It is one of the disciplines that has the most audience in Canada,” said Laurence Cardin, the communications assistant at the National Circus School of Canada. Each year, 150 students train in the national program, and 95 per cent of graduated students find employment within a year.
The school is in Montreal, three blocks from Canada’s biggest circus, Cirque du Soleil. Cirque employs 5,000 people. In January, the company laid off 400 staffers – almost eight per cent of the company’s workforce — but the operation is still massive.
Between 2003 and 2005, the total number of circus and magic shows increased by almost 65 per cent in Quebec. The total number of performances for all other performing arts decreased. This trend has continued over the last several years, according to a report released in 2007 by En Piste, Canada’s national association for circus arts.
Cardin is not surprised by the numbers, because there is something unique about the circus.
“It reaches a larger audience than some other art forms. It’s more accessible because it challenges the audience with a certain fear. It’s very close to art and sports at the same time, so people really relate to it. It brings out the fear inside of us,” she said.
The adrenaline is a big draw for the young people flocking to work in it, like Kiddo.
“You can’t get that kind of high anywhere else – at least not naturally anyway,” she said. “I can’t imagine that I would feel quite literally physically and mentally on top of the world walking away from you know, a Starbucks shift, for example. It’s incredibly gratifying.”
Inside the Inner Ring
Travis Johnson knows what it’s like to be on top. He was 24 years old when he opened the Vancouver Circus School eight years ago with his father Aaron Johnson, a former Canadian Olympic trampoline team coach and head acrobatic coach for Cirque du Soleil’s show Mystere.
Johnson’s Inner Ring is the professional arm of the school, comprised of circus performers who work in Canada and internationally using material Johnson has custom designed to meet the growing demands of customers. The shows include acts such as acrobatics, juggling, aerial silks, trapeze, unicyclists, and yo-yo are increasingly popular at corporate events.
Not all of the Inner Ring performers originally planned to work in the circus.
Kiddo studied criminology at Simon Fraser University and had decided on a career in law. She had been taking classes at the Vancouver Circus School when Johnson asked her if she would be interested in performing professionally.
“I hadn’t thought about it until then,” she said. “And I said yes right on the spot. That conversation took place the better part of a decade ago.”
The expiration date
Johnson is particular about the performers he selects. Only unique and gifted performers make the cut.
“You better be damned good at it. You better impress me because I’m not going to put you out there if you’re not impressive. And it’s really, really hard to be that good.”
Dedication and a passion for the circus are critical as performers sometimes practice up to 30 hours in a single weekend.
“Mastery [of skills] is 10, 000 hours,” said Nigel Wakita, a 28-year-old juggler, unicyclist, and walk-in balloonist. “I think I’m over two times that in some discipline. Some weeks I’ll do nothing but practice.”
At the age of 38, Vancouver Circus School instructor Michael Maan is too old to perform professionally, so he teaches younger artists instead.
“I can’t compete with people 10 or 15 years younger than me,” he said. “With endurance, with the ability to stay clean and in shape and looking amazing with hardly any clothes on …. there’s an expiration date for acrobats.”
Johnson does not perform trampoline anymore either.
“I broke every bone in my body. I leave that nonsense to the professionals.”
Kiddo has a way to go before reaching her best-before date. She is always thinking about the risks involved. Injured circus performers without a contract have limited means of earning an income.
“Number one is staying safe,” she said. “I’m not actually afraid of falling, but you’d have to almost be inhuman to not be affected by being that high up. When you’re performing there are no safety mats – silk artists do not use safety mats. It’s just you and the fabric.”
Earning your keep
Johnson will not discuss his payroll. Neither will Canada’s largest circus, Cirque du Soleil, although the organization states on its website that “a competitive salary and performance bonuses” are offered to the contract workers.
“It can vary quite heavily,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you can get paid really, really well, sometimes it’s not so popular. You can make a living if you’re in a company. But the people that do this do it for the love of doing it, they don’t do it to become rich.”
The Acts of the Inner Ring
What exactly do the performers of the Vancouver Circus School’s Inner Ring do? Here are a few of the more abstract and interesting acts explained. Click on the link to view the video.
Using a circular hoop suspended from the ceiling at varying heights, artists perform aerial acrobatics. They can include one or more people and typically consist of swinging and spins.
Artists perform on long pieces of silk suspended from the ceiling, typically eight to 40 feet above the ground. Without safety lines or nets, performers ascend the silk, using the fabric to spin, dive, drop, swirl and form shapes with their bodies.
Performers use the manipulation of various objects, often balls, to suggest the illusion of levitation. This act has almost nothing in common with the typical juggling – objects are rolled along the body instead of tossed in the air.
Two or more acrobats perform on the ground, using their hands and balance to form a human sculpture. One acrobat is typically the “carrier,” the other the “flyer,” using the hands of the carrier as a beam.
(Documents provided by the Inner Ring Circus)