Circus life: the good, the bad, and the jolly
One windy afternoon in June, I caught up with two Circus Rio performers and asked them everything I've always wanted to know about circus life.
Sitting in an alcove of the empty big-top tent, sails flapping against tent poles and the earthy smell of grass filling my nostrils, I was given a glimpse of another life. A life of fun, adventure, love and sacrifice.
Hannah Rigby is a singer/dancer with a wide smile and the easy grace of a panther. With a sunny disposition to rival the darkening clouds above, she welcomed me to their temporary home.
Will Junior boasts an impressive listing of job titles; he is the ring master, the clown and an acrobat. Despite describing himself as a shy guy, Will looked as comfortable in his own skin as I've ever been in my pyjamas. His friendly demeanour and quiet confidence camouflages a killer dedication few people possess.
He has worked in the circus industry, performing as an acrobat, for over 14 years. He started dancing when he was five years old and studied various styles and disciplines. I asked Will what interested him in joining the circus. "When I was about 13, I saw some friends do acrobatics on the beach and I wanted to learn, to mix with my dancing, but I got involved with the circus family and here I am,” he said with a laugh.
Hannah was offered her first professional contract and completed an Australian tour when she was just four years old. Clearly, dancing was what she was born to do. Circus Rio is her first circus. "We're all a big family, all best friends, and it's great,” she said.
Did you run away to join the circus?
Finally, the question I'd been burning to ask for over a week.
Laughing, Hannah said she believes she did, in a way. "I sold my house, my car, everything. I literally only own what's in my caravan right now. I pretty much did run away, hey!?”, she said as she looked to Will for confirmation. He laughed. "Yeah, you did”.
I cannot help but wonder at the courage something like that must take. To embark on such an adventure, with trust and optimism, is a risk few of us would ever be capable of doing.
What's it like, being a clown?
I asked Will whether he tells jokes. "I do tell jokes among friends, but I am a shy person when it comes to new people,” he answered. I could sense he was telling the truth, so decided to take a rain-check on that joke.
On to make-up, I asked him whether it's a requirement of being a clown. "You don't need to wear a lot of make-up to be a clown. There's the Russian clown, Slava Polunin, who doesn't wear any make-up anymore. He just uses his face and his hair and he's still funny,” he explained. Will added that he doesn't like wearing a lot of make-up, because he believes it scares children.
What about animals in circuses?
With the increase in animal rights awareness and public outcry the world over, several circuses have had to shut their doors for good, failing to draw a crowd without their animals.
I asked Will and Hannah for their thoughts. "I actually think we have a bigger crowd, because of the rise of veganism and animal rights. People are loving that we don't use animals,” said Hannah. Will made the point that Cirque du Soleil, the most famous circus in the world, doesn't use animals and has no trouble pulling a crowd.
What's so great about the circus?
Will told me the best thing about working in the circus, is to make people happy and to provide good moments for people. "A guy came to me after a performance and said crying had been the best thing in his life for a long while, but he was very happy then,” remembered Will.
"I had a director once, who told me medicine heals the body, but the circus heals the soul,” he added.
But what about the risks?
Will said that he knew of people who died in their pursuit of newer, more dangerous tricks. He said, even with the benefit of safety nets, they still had about a 50/50 chance of serious injury. "I say, outside I look 20, but inside I'm 60,” said Will as he listed some of his more recent injuries: a neck injury, torn knee ligaments, and a hip injury.
Why would anyone sacrifice their body in this way? I asked him whether all the injuries were worth it. "Yes, it's worth it,” he emphatically stated. "You need to be crazy. You need to be a child to do circus”.
I asked them where their favourite performance venue has been so far, and assured them not to feel obligated to say 'Toowoomba' (secretly hoping it would be Toowoomba).
"It's not a town, it was a ship. I was working on a cruise ship from England to Sweden,” said Will. Hannah was ready with her response too. "Mine was probably Disney in Orlando. I danced there for a while and it was pretty amazing”.
Being a circus performer means sacrifice. Family life means something else to people who travel most of the year. Pay isn't life-changing. Your body will suffer for your passion. But, you get to see the country, or even the world. You get to make adults feel like kids again and you get to make sadness retreat, even if it is for just one night.