Three Gymnasts from Kooza – From Sport to Stage

It’s the classic storybook narrative; a young outcast with a troubled past runs away from home to join the circus in pursuit of a better life. But for former top-level gymnasts Talita De Lima, Ion Ciacla and Denis Pirogov, the fiction is their reality. The trio, from Brazil, Romania and Russia all called time on their sporting careers in search of a more exciting lifestyle and now perform together as teeterboard artists in Cirque du Soleil KOOZA. With massive sacrifices and drastic changes in lifestyle, running away with the circus hasn’t been all smooth sailing. But there are also no regrets.

Every night that 29-year-old De Lima steps out on stage to be catapulted from a teeterboard to spin, twirl, and land on the shoulders of a fellow acrobat in front of hundreds of people, she takes a moment to think of the life she left behind. Growing up in an underprivileged neighbourhood in São Paulo, Brazil, De Lima always searched for ways to escape her reality. At the age of five, she was introduced to artistic gymnastics and quickly excelled to the top of the sport, taking out local and national tournaments. She was marked as having plenty of potential in the sport but after nearly 14 years of training and competing as a gymnast, De Lima longed for a change. She grew tired of her routine and was discouraged by the lack of opportunities in Brazil.

“The lifestyle in Brazil is very difficult,” De Lima told the Herald. “I wanted to leave and to have more fun. I wanted to see the world.” It wasn’t until De Lima stumbled across a gymnastic friend’s Facebook profile that she dreamt up the crazy fantasy of running away with the circus. “I saw on her Facebook page that she was doing Cirque du Soleil and she looked so happy,” she said. “I thought to myself, I hope one day I can do that. My dream was to be like her someday.”

De Lima set her sights on the world-renowned circus and her opportunity finally came in 2008 when Cirque du Soleil held auditions in São Paulo. Out of 30 candidates, only three were chosen to proceed to Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters in Montreal, and De Lima was one. Leaving her life and family behind, De Lima relocated to Canada in 2009 to begin training and joined KOOZA’s house troupe less than a year later. But although her strong gymnastics background came in handy, De Lima had never trained nor performed in teeterboard. “The only thing the same was knowing how to jump and tuck,” she says.

De Lima trained for up to five hours a day in her first year, the dedication required reminded her of what it took to compete in top level gymnastics. Led by an acrobatics coach, De Lima said the physical transition wasn’t as tough as she anticipated. But the mental side was uniquely different. “In gymnastics, we were taught to just think about the competition and try to win,” De Lima says. “But here we think about being an acrobat, artist, dancer, everything. I’ve learnt so many things here. You cannot look sad when there are thousands of people watching you. If you have some personal problems and you put your foot out there you cannot show that to anybody you need to forget everything. When you go through that door you need to forget it all and just be an artist … When I step out on stage, I’m not Talita anymore, I’m a different person, a different character – and I love that.”

Over the past 10 years, De Lima has performed in front of thousands of people around the world. Yet the two most important people in her life, her parents, have never had the opportunity to see her live. Her parents always cried when she would leave after a short holiday home in between tours but De Lima said she would always consider leaving São Paulo behind a small sacrifice to the dream she now gets to live. “It’s like I have one family in Brazil and here I have another huge family, my circus family,” De Lima said. “I want to stay here performing as long as I possibly can, I want to be here forever. If I’m not an artist I want to work in another role like coaching because I love this. This is my everything, this is my life.”

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Even after 16 years of being launched from a teeterboard wearing stilts, high-flyer Ciacla said he still felt nervous before every show. “It’s a big audience compared to when you compete because competing you have maybe hundreds around you and here you have thousands,” he says. “I’m always nervous.”

Ciacla, 28, watched his first circus show at the age of six after his parents signed him up for artistic gymnastics classes. Following six years of national level gymnastics, Ciacla began transferring his skills to acrobatics and at just 12-years-old, auditioned and landed his first circus gig. Picking up a professional performer contract in 2003, Ciacla relocated to Las Vegas to perform at Planet Hollywood as part of the teeterboard act before joining the Moscow State Circus Teeterboard in the US, touring all 50 states over a two-year stint with the show.

Adjusting to life as a circus performer was challenging at first for Ciacla, who found the lifestyle to be very different from what he was used to as a young athlete. The demands to master his act after joining Cirque du Soleil in 2009 included hours of training every day but the workload wasn’t ever enough to put Ciacla off the fascinating lifestyle of being in the circus. “When I started teeterboard, I was training about four to six hours a day for six to nine months,” he said. “You must be ready and maintain yourself at a higher level. Sport is pretty much the same but you’re only preparing yourself to compete for up to five times a year. But here, you have to maintain this and be ready for it every day.”

Ciacla’s act, arguably one of the more dangerous of the teeterboard performers, has once left him concussed on stage and with a few broken bones requiring surgery. But Ciacla, who didn’t consider his risk of injury in the circus much more than being a gymnast, said nothing would ever put him off the job he now considered his life. “It’s definitely a bit more dangerous what I’m doing now, but there is no professional sport without being involved in danger, both are dangerous … it happens. The audience, performing and the energy we have here is what makes it special. I get to live with that every day.”

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Performing arguably the most dramatic teeterboard jump in the KOOZA show is Pirogov. Catapulted into the air with both legs strapped together to a single stilt, the 39-year-old performs a series of mind-boggling flips before landing perfectly balanced on the stage below. Yet, the trick only took Pirogov a year to master as he drew on the skills he had learnt competing in gymnastics. “The training was similar but much more specific than in sport … circus training was always more fun.”

Growing up in a Russian gymnastics school, Pirogov was transferred to the Acrobatic Sports Facility at the age of 14 to specialise as a flyer in the men’s acrobatics group. Pirogov set his sights on a career in the field but even after picking up plenty of medals and awards in the sport he soon realised the limitations of his opportunities at home. Invited to perform in Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam in 1998, was Pirogov’s golden ticket. “The future life after sport being an acrobat in Russia – there aren’t many opportunities,” Pirogov said. “The circus though promised the dream of being paid to perform and travel around the world.”

Pirogov toured with different circus groups for ten years after his short stint with Quidam, before another opportunity with Cirque du Soleil came up in 2011. “I love Cirque du Soleil so it was nice to come back after being part of it in 1998,” he said. “I was excited to come back. It was my dream to come to Cirque du Soleil because it’s something different to any other traditional circus I’ve been part of. I feel something special inside when I go out on that stage, I feel the adrenaline and it gives me energy.”

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When sitting in the audience of Cirque du Soleil KOOZA, it’s easy to forget about everything that happens behind the scenes. Stepping out on stage to perform up to two shows a night with often just one day of rest a week, the reality of running away with the circus is far from the glamorous fantasy depicted in storybooks and Disney movies. It takes years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice – three things De Lima, Ciacla and Pirogov know all too well. But for the three inspiring artists, performing on stage is never something they will take for granted. “Everything about being part of the circus is a dream,” De Lima said. “I’m living my dream. Dreams do come true.”

{ SOURCE: New Zealand Herald }