We’re Off and Running, Part 7:
Saltimbanco, Part 2 (1993)

A few weeks ago, as I was flipping through a few classic Cirque du Soleil programme books (as is my wont), I was happily caught off-guard by a brief history of the company that it had written about itself in Saltimbanco’s original European Tour programme, published sometime in 1996. Not because the historia was in English, French, and Spanish, but rather I found the wording a bit more colorful… haughty… than what you’d find from the company today. Something about its whimsical and heady nature spoke to the way Cirque du Soleil saw itself then, containing a youthful verve and arrogance that is simply no longer present. When did Cirque lose this dynamic sense of self, this liveliness, and vivacity about its past, present, and future? Unfortunately, not long after. Thereafter the speak becomes less joie de vivre and more lié aux affaires, and Cirque du Soleil turns from a rag-tag band of street performers into a bona fide corporate entity right before our very eyes. This is not a new revelation – far from it in fact – but this re-discovery struck a chord of curiosity within…

How did others see Cirque du Soleil during this period?

Think about it: as Cirque’s multitude of shows travel around the globe in either arenas or under the big top, at each stop, in each city, there is a write-up in the local press. Sometimes the coverage is just a brief blurb about the show and its theme, occasionally there’s a short interview with a performer, a stage hand, or creation director, and other times it’s an assessment of the show itself, evaluating its technical and acrobatic merits with what had come through before. But the reviews we see today are too current, discussing these shows through a contemporary lens; shows that have/had 15 to 20 years touring the globe, shows we would refer to as “classic” or “signature”. What I’d become interested in knowing was what some of the first reviews, peeks, and evaluations of these shows were as they took their first steps across North America. How did the press see Le Cirque du Soleil in 1998, 1994, 1990, 1987?

It was time to peck through the archives.

What I found was extraordinary, and more than I expected. And I’m sharing these discoveries here in Fascination through a series of collections, beginning with the 1987 tournée of Le Cirque du Soleil (better known today as Le Cirque Réinventé), and continuing on from there. This month we continue on with 1993’s reviews of Saltimbanco.

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By: Mel Gussow | New York Times
April 5, 1993

As a Big Top performance event, the Cirque du Soleil operates in a sphere where myth meets magic. In keeping with the Italian name of its new show, the Cirque takes a Fellini esque turn. “Saltimbanco” is closer to “Satyricon” than to “Juliet of the Spirits,” with an eerie, erotic edge that makes it an entertainment more suitable for adults than for the youngest children.

In contrast to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey extravaganza, this French Canadian troupe is like a European circus: one ring filled with singular acts. The difference is in the Cirque’s high-powered style, an unearthly mixture of commedia dell’arte and rock-concert razzle. “Saltimbanco” is less innocent than the company’s two previous shows in its tent in Battery Park City. But the framework remains free-form, one act flowing into another without introductory fanfare. At times the show is breathtaking, as in the elasticized aerialism of Claude Lergenmuller, whose team of trapezists bounces through the sky like a quartet of balletic bungee jumpers.

Down to earth but no less phenomenal are the Tchelnokovs, a family of unusually compatible contortionists (at the center is a 7-year-old boy with an apparently boneless body). Twisting themselves into unimaginable positions, they are as supple as serpents. The animal imagery evoked by the Tchelnokovs is characteristic of the company. There are no performing animals, just a ringful of human equivalents.

Anyone who has watched a cat leap from floor to cupboard should recognize the catapultic wizardry of those who perform the routine entitled “Russian Swing.” Then there is the Chinese pole act, with acrobats shinnying up and down bars and slithering from one bar to another like a forest of monkeys. Circumnavigating the aerialists and equilibrists is an army of extras, cheetering crawlers identified in the souvenir program as worms (a questionable credit for a circus resume).

Because of the garish, Martian-style costumes, there is an androgynous element to the ensemble, but there is no mistaking the gender of the Steben sisters and the Lorador brothers. The Stebens are a striking, mirror-image pair of trapeze artists who perform with the symbiosis of Siamese twins. The Loradors are the strongest of strongmen, Terminator 1 and 2, lifting each other as if they were 10-pound weights. Put the Stebens and the Loradors together on a high wire and one could only imagine what athletic and sensual intricacies might result. The oddest of the acts is the Boleadoras duo, bolo-swinging flamenco dancers who stop one stomp short of an Amazonian martial art. Personally, I prefer the juggler, Miguel Herrera, who keeps so many (seven) lively balls flying in circles around him as to make him the envy of the Mets pitching staff.

In its last show here, the Cirque featured the clown David Shiner, who is currently delighting theatergoers on Broadway with Bill Irwin in “Fool Moon.” His replacement is Rene Bazinet, who shares with his predecessor a total lack of inhibition in accosting members of the audience and drawing them into his act. By himself in the ring, Mr. Bazinet is a skillful mime and sound-effects producer. He is just not very funny, least of all in a scatalogical routine that deals with a plumbing malfunction.

In tandem with an audience volunteer, however, he wins laughs, and at a recent performance, so did the volunteer. The clown takes a willing accomplice on a journey through the jungle, where they encounter unseen threatening species. Sounds and zounds occur on cue, and the adventurers battle back with imaginary arrows and spears. Mr. Bazinet’s childlike air in this sequence is a relief from the freneticism that surrounds him and the insistency of the electrified musical background. None of this should distract the audience from the virtuosity of the individual performers, who bring a new dimension to circus arts.

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By: Frank Scheck | Christian Science Monitor
April 19, 1993

It is by now no secret that Canada’s Cirque du Soleil is not a conventional circus. Rather, it uses circus acts, and top-flight ones at that, and blends them in a swirling melange of movement, sound, and music to create a seamless theatrical experience. And it is one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences to be found today.

There are no animals in this intimately scaled one-ring circus, and its sophisticated nature is not particularly geared to children. The current production, called “Saltimbanco,” is the third one to tour North America. Like repeated viewings of a movie, the more you see Cirque du Soleil, the more you will become aware of the technique that lies behind the magic. But knowledge of this technique in no way diminishes your enjoyment.

The evening begins like most circuses, with controlled mayhem in the crowd as clowns run wild and kidnap members of the audience. Soon, however, the performance begins, and you are transported to a stylized world that resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting, infused with a sensibility a la film director David Lynch.

The atmosphere is moody and mysterious, reinforced by the opening act, “Contortion Acrobatics,” performed by the Tchelnokov family: a father, mother, and young son who intertwine their bodies in unimaginable ways.

Other highlights include: “Chinese Poles,” which utilizes no less than 15 performers on four poles, and includes such feats as climbing them upside down; “Double Tightrope,” which begins with Jingmin Wang walking up an almost-vertical rope and continues with her doing back flips from one rope to another; and “Russian Swing,” which propels a team of acrobats so that they seem to be literally flying through the air.

There is a decidely sexual tone to some of the acts that evokes an eery, decadent atmosphere. These include the twin female trapeze duo of Karyne and Sarah Streben; the balancing act of the Lorador Brothers; and the “Boleadoras,” who combine bolo swinging and flamenco dancing to hypnotic effect. Simpler, more conventional acts, such as juggler Miguel Herrara – who performs wonders with plain white balls – are no less stunning to watch.

In this edition the principal clown is Rene Bazinet, who is less sophisticated in audience manipulation than David Shiner (who graduated from a previous version of Cirque du Soleil to a starring turn in the current Broadway attraction “Fool Moon”). Bazinet began with tiresome routines in which he simulated the loss of bodily functions and played imaginary catch with audience members, but with the help of a particularly eager recruit he fashioned an entertaining mime routine involving a walk through a dan ger-filled forest.

Between acts there is a constant swirling of sound and movement. The sets, costumes, sound design, elaborate choreography, and musical score all combine to transport you to another world, a world where the human body is seemingly not confined by natural law.

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By: Richard Christiansen | Chicago Tribune
July 29, 1993

Though they bear the names of ordinary mortals, the extraordinary artists of Cirque du Soleil do indeed seem to come to us from another, far more exotic planet.

Their world is the interior of their giant yellow and blue tent, now stationed on the lakefront at Cityfront Center, and their environment is one of supraheightened sensation, in which music, color, movement and old-fashioned daredevilry come together in enticing new patterns.

For almost three hours in “Saltimbanco,” the Cirque’s latest production, these extraordinary creatures allow us into that world, as they sing, dance, clown and defy gravity.

Part old-fashioned showmanship and part New Wave razzle-dazzle, this remarkable show spans centuries of circus performance. The brightly hued costumes and striking makeup hark back to the 17th Century Italian street players from which “Saltimbanco” gets its name; at the same time, the uniquely colored clothes speak of a daring new era of young and inventive talents.

Many of the acts that “Saltimbanco” presents would be perfectly at home in any other circus, in Las Vegas or on the old Ed Sullivan show.

But none of these other places would ever present these performers as part of such a brilliantly designed ensemble, showcased in a vibrant theatrical experience through the combined effects of choreography, electronic music and technical splash.

The result is not just an incredible juggler (Miguel Herrera) or a rubber-limbed Russian family of graceful contortionists (father Nikolai Tchelnokov, mother Galina Karableva and their 7-year-old son, Anton Tchelnokov) or a breathtaking trapeze turn by teenage twins (Karyne and Sarah Steven).

In Cirque du Soleil, these acts, thrilling in themselves, are transported beyond themselves into a state of enchantment through the ingenious, sometimes downright eerie stagecraft that the Cirque creators bring to bear in putting together their world.

No individual act defines the Cirque mystique better than its closing spectacle, an aerial act in which elastic cords attached to their bodies allow the four performers the chance to dive from their high perches, bounce magically through the air and then spring back to their trapeze bars in coordinated splendor.

Some of the magic unfortunately is dissipated in the program’s first half with the clunky clowning of Gordon White, whose reliance on sound effects of bodily functions is far below the rest of “Saltimbanco’s” sophistication. (He somewhat redeemed himself in the second half of Wednesday’s opening night, when he plucked a volunteer from the audience to create an amusing comic ballet.)

The rest of the program, however, is marvelous. It includes the ethereal Sun Hongli, who bounces from tightrope to tightrope with the greatest of ease, and a team of 15 acrobats who one by one propel themselves from a swing, sail into the upper reaches of the tent and then come tumbling down to a feathery landing in a whirl of somersaults and splits.

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By: Richard Christiansen | Baltimore Sun
October 10, 1993

Perhaps the most amazing aspect in the amazing growth of Cirque du Soleil is that it began less than a decade ago as the brainchild of a group of long-haired street performers, stilt-walkers and fire-eaters who had the crazy idea that they wanted to start a circus of their own.

Today, these graying, balding but still youngish entrepreneurs have become proprietors of a Montreal-based operation that is spreading its engagements, and its influence, on a global scale.

The highest profile in this enlarging empire belongs, of course, to the newest edition of the Cirque productions. There is, for example, “Saltimbanco,” the fifth and latest presentation, which premieres in McLean, Va., at Tysons II Thursday.

But that’s just the tip of the Cirque juggernaut.

Elements of Cirque productions were incorporated into the venerable Circus Nie in Switzerland last year; and “Nouvelle Experience,” the Cirque edition that played Washington two years ago, went to Japan in 1992 in a tour that sparked interest in creating a permanent relationship there.

Quick to pick up on the tie-in possibilities present in Cirque’s scenic and costume displays, the producers also are marketing T-shirts, sweat shirts, posters, balloons, dolls, umbrellas, tote bags, coffee mugs, watches, baseball caps, key chains, lapel pins, children’s pajamas, jigsaw puzzles and boxer shorts — available on the site or by mail order.

Little wonder that in addition to such artistic prizes as a 1993 Obie Award honoring outstanding achievement in off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway work in New York, the Cirque won the 1992 “business of the year” category for small and medium businesses, in a competition organized annually by the Chamber of Commerce of the province of Quebec, Canada.

“We’re not trying to do the [producer Cameron] Mackintosh trip,” keeping a big show running indefinitely in dozens of productions around the globe,” says Gilles Ste-Croix, the Cirque’s veteran directeur de la creation.

“Our success rests on fragile things; the maximum run for any of our shows is four years, which gives the artists a certain job security but doesn’t keep them tied up forever. We try to treat our people well, but it’s very hard to keep a show alive and challenging and not let down the quality over a long period,” he said.

The maximum first-run tour for a Cirque production is now two years, beginning in Montreal, its hometown, and then touring to large cities in the United States and Canada for the rest of the run.

While one show is making the grand tour, another show is being developed in workshops and think tanks at home. By the time “Saltimbanco” ends its travels this year, for instance, the new Cirque edition will be in preparation to premiere in April 1994, in Montreal. And once the initial two-year tour is over, there is now a possibility for further travel abroad.

The title chosen for this fifth production of Cirque du Soleil, “Saltimbanco,” derives from a 16th-century Italian word meaning skilled street performers and acrobats.

The general theme for the show, however, is described as “urbanity,” or as Mr. Ste-Croix explains it, the evolution of man from a naked, newborn creature into a social being who lives and works in a complex urban environment.

In describing one aspect of the show, the program says: “In ‘Saltimbanco,’ the characters, like all human beings, are born nude. These are the Worms, at the very base of society. All similar in appearance, yet different one from the other, they must, with time, adapt themselves to their environment. Thus, as the show goes on, they embody various types of social characters, hoping to one day accede to the rank of Baroque, a cast of visionaries. The Baroques constitute the most important family of ‘Saltimbanco.’ Armed with a deeply perceptive vision of the world and sleeping under bridges, the Baroques, throughout the fable, reveal the countless contradictions of our civilization when imagination has not yet taken power.”

Customers worried that all this might be too intellectual or rarefied should relax.

The tickets, reflecting the show’s Broadway-grade production values, are more expensive than those for most circuses ($13 to $35.50 for adults, and $6 to $23.50 for children); but such traditional circus delicacies as popcorn and soft drinks are always on sale, and, more important, “Saltimbanco” carries a full load of thrilling and graceful circus specialty acts peopled with dTC top-notch jugglers, acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and clowns.

But, in the Cirque style, these are circus acts done with a difference, with a definite attitude. The trapeze act this year, for example, employs the elastic straps of bungee jumping to create a unique aerial ballet. And the tightrope performance is given more excitement by having the tightrope walker hop from one tightrope to another.

Each of the circus artists, in addition to performing his or her specialty, is given a personality that will fit within the structure of the show’s environment; and all the players, whether developed by the Cirque staff or imported from other arenas, must be able to act and dance and (new this year) sing as part of their duties within the integrated production.

Over the last nine years, the Cirque team has developed into a solid core of creative talent. In addition to Mr. Ste-Croix and founder-creator Guy Laliberte, the team includes director Franco Dragone, costumer Dominique Lemieux, scenic designer Michel Crete, composer Rene Dupere, choreographer Debra Brown and lighting designer Luc Lafortune.

This season, according to Mr. Ste-Croix, the total effect of “Saltimbanco” may be “a little more aggressive, daring, more hard-edged” than in past shows. The singing, which the producers felt could finally be tackled by the performers, adds a fresh, operatic touch that fits the already established image of balletic grace in the proceedings.

Yet, even with this addition, “Saltimbanco” remains anchored in the tradition of Cirque du Soleil performance. It is like nothing else in the circus world.

“Through the last few years,” Mr. Ste-Croix says, “we have been able to build up a good team. We function well. We understand each other. We know where we want to go. Our work is continuing, constant; it grows and develops. It’s like a painter. You have to look at all of his pictures to see the complete range of his work, but they all clearly come from the same artist.”

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By Megan Rosenfeld | The Washington Post
October 31, 1993

Warren Conway, the acrobats’ coach for the Cirque du Soleil, recalls asking one of his charges how he was taking the excruciating bruises and bangs that are commonly inflicted during the Chinese Poles act. Not to worry, answered gymnast Jean-Paul Boun. The previous night he had hardened himself by beating his legs with a stick for 20 minutes.

“They build up a tolerance of pain,” says Conway, 29. Boun also performed while he had a scab on his leg that was ripped off during each evening’s exertions, leaving a meaty sore under his latex body suit.

The Canadian Cirque du Soleil is a different kind of circus — “the circus of the future, if there is going to be one,” says acrobat Alain Gauthier. There are no animals, there is a unifying theme that is manifested in all the design elements, there is weird music that does not include drum rolls, there is only one ring. But even a fantasy-flavored, whimsical concoction like the Cirque has at its core highly trained human specimens, whose leaps and hangs and plunges require bodies so muscled that at times you think they must exercise even their eyebrows.

Each daily workout routine is individually tailored, be it a 10-minute warm-up for Chinese Pole expert Huang Zhen or an hour and a half in the gym for strongmen Marco and Paulo Lorador. The hardest physical work, Conway says, was done when the show — “Saltimbanco” — was being put together. Designing and learning the routines took 14 hours a day for nine months. For the 18 months spent on the road, the challenges are maintaining precision and avoiding injuries and boredom. To this end, Conway conducts thrice-weekly rehearsals in addition to the nine performances, makes occasional changes to liven things up, and checks out each acrobat’s pre-show warm-up.

“Ten minutes is exactly what Huang Zhen needs,” says Conway. “But another guy was having serious back problems, and then I discovered he was not doing any warm-up at all. I spent three weeks teaching him one and now he has no more problems.” The oldest acrobat, Russian Oleg Kantenirov, 42, warms up with a punching bag and karate exercises.

Conway has 17 generalists under his direction, the youngest 14. Success as an acrobat, he says, is a matter of training, gene-given physique, psychology and luck.

“There are two types of strength,” he explains, “absolute and relative. Absolute is lifting a barbell over your head. Relative is strength in relation to your body weight. That is what we need. So instead of the regular push-up, our training would be a push up from a handstand.”

The ideal physique is “the shape of a Vick’s cough drop,” no taller than 5 feet 9 inches, short-legged with upper body strength and the center of gravity closer to the head than the hips. Conway calls them “mesomorphs,” the kind of people who in the wrong environment could turn into fatsos.

You would think that defying gravity by being catapulted from a swing and landing on a bar being held by two men who are standing on the shoulders of two other men — as in the Russian Swing act — would require some special sort of muscles, but apparently it is more a question of physics than strength.

“The trajectory is key,” explains Conway. He started flier Neomi Tamilio, 21, at a 45-degree angle, but found that with the velocity of the swing she could end up in the second row instead of on the bar. So the angle now is closer to 50 degrees, but much depends on the push she gets on the swing (which looks like a large replica of a wooden glider), the weight of the guys at either end of the swing, and the way she holds her arms while she zooms.

And this can get boring?

The Portuguese-born Lorador brothers — Paulo, 27, and Marco, 26 — started their workout about 17 years ago. Their father, Alexis, after whom their act is named, trained them to be the equilibrists that he and his four brothers were in the circus first owned by their father. No amount of barbell lifting can replace the trust and familiarity born of a lifetime of brotherhood.

But they work out nonetheless, quickly locating the nearest agreeable gym in every town they visit. Paulo lifts Marco; they weigh and lift about 20 pounds apart. If Marco gains weight, Paulo gains weight. If Marco is lifting 45 pounds, Paulo is lifting 65 and up to 80.

“He goes to the gym more than I do,” admits Marco, who is still recuperating from arthroscopic surgery for a damaged rotator cuff this summer. Marco used to smoke, as well, and “eats more like a junkie.” (He means junk food.) Paulo is careful about his food and consumes about 15 multivitamins every morning. He keeps a close eye on his younger brother and makes sure he gets into every picture. After all, if Marco can’t work, Paulo can’t work.

At a gym at Seven Corners, Paulo starts with a 70-pound barbell and Marco with 45. They lift them 10 times and pause. Ten more lifts, and then on to the deltoids workout, 75 pounds for Marco and 95 for Paulo. Marco winces in pain. He stops, not wanting to overdo his healing shoulder muscles.

Paulo lists their weekly regimen: “Today is shoulder day. Tomorrow is chest and triceps. Then back and biceps. And day four is legs.” They don’t work out on the three days that they have two shows.

At a recent performance Paulo had a hard time with some parts of the act and appeared to some audience members to have injured a hamstring. But according to a circus spokeswoman it was nothing serious.

Alain Gauthier, 32, has been an acrobat with the Cirque off and on since 1986. He started studying gymnastics at 11 and moved into trampolining at 15. He has major parts in the opening (he’s the one who tells the audience not to take flash pictures), the Chinese Poles and the Russian Swing acts — but the only way you might recognize him is if you look for the yellow hat and short burgundy-colored jacket he wears, along with a big nose and fake bald head, most of the time.

Gauthier stays in peak condition by practicing a trapeze act that he and Marie-Eve Dumais are putting together with an eye to the future. She was in the company until having their son, Guillaume, who is 2, and now she works in the costume shop. They practice the act for an hour and a half a day. That, combined with working onstage for about an hour every night, is enough exercise, plus the three rehearsals each week.

“Your body becomes very specific,” he says. “If I tried to do weight lifting, I’d be sore as hell. I probably could not run a marathon. Well, I could, but it would take me six hours. But I am in shape for what I have to do professionally.” He has tough calluses on his hands, and rolls up a sleeve to reveal a forearm so muscled it looks like the bulb end of a butternut squash.

“I have weird forearms,” he says.

He is a vegetarian, and supplements that diet with health food concentrates like algae and wheat germ. Once a week he gets an “adjustment” from the company’s resident physical therapist/masseuse/osteopath, Pietro Bondo. If Gauthier is doing a lot of jumping, he says, his spine tends to contract, but this year the trapeze practice has made it expand.

The performers have a week’s vacation between cities, and Gauthier routinely takes four days to do “absolutely nothing.” Then he usually tries to find a mountain to climb or a cave to spelunk. During the last break he flew to Las Vegas and spent five days walking in the desert by himself.

He and Dumais are working on the duo act because they’d like to settle down for a while, get booked at a casino in Nevada or someplace like that. “Five years on the road is quite a lot,” he says, looking down at Guillaume, who has parked himself and a bottle of apple juice on his father’s lap.

Gauthier notwithstanding, the troupe is not exactly a collection of health nuts.

“Too many smoke,” says Conway, puffing on his own. He sighed. “If I was a gymnastics coach, I’d put my foot down. But, you know, these are adults, it’s their choice,” he says. The amount of smoking has not been helped (or has been, depending on your perspective) by the fact that the Canadian cigarettes most of the company prefer cost $2.50 a pack here and $8 a pack at home.

Furthermore, “this circus runs on coffee,” says kitchen manager Laurent Comeau. “If they do not have their coffee and croissants in the morning …” His face says the prospect of such an event is too hideous to contemplate. The coffee is “three times as strong” as the norm in this country, and the care he takes to make it right is itself a kind of high-wire art — two kinds of coffee, espresso beans and a pre-ground mix for the filter drip, are flown in from Montreal; the coffee makers are cleaned with baking soda, and only bottled water is used to make the brew.

Comeau and his two shifts of cooks serve between 300 and 400 meals a day to the company of 110 from a portable kitchen-cafe that is open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day but Monday. He says there are two kinds of attitudes toward food in the company — “those who care, and those who don’t” — so he tries to provide a choice that encompasses the full range of food ideologies. But he has limits.

“I cannot contemplate the idea of a fat-free, sugarless, tasteless dessert,” he says.

You would expect nothing less from a French Canadian.

* * * * *

By: Kenneth Turan | LA Times
December 1, 1996

“I just love the air.”–Shana Carroll

Settled comfortably one recent night under an enormous white tent topped with delicate spires, a capacity crowd of 2,500 in Antwerp, Belgium, is understandably astonished by the combination of circus tradition and postmodern inventiveness that characterizes Saltimbanco, the Cirque du Soleil show that has been touring Europe since 1995. As always, a special reverence and delight is reserved for the aerialist, the slender, blond trapeze artist in the silvery-bluish unitard whose dazzling moves and poetic presence on the bar 20 feet above the ground compel reverential silence followed by massive, relieved applause.

Yet dazzled as this crowd is, I feel considerably more astonished by the performance than anyone else under the Big Top. For I first met Shana Carroll, the young woman on the trapeze, 17 years earlier, when she was a 9-year-old scrambling around the Santa Monica Canyon home of her journalist father. Whatever your range of expectations may be for your friends’ children, having one of them end up as the premier solo aerialist of the Cirque du Soleil’s European tour is off the charts.

The younger daughter of Jon Carroll, once the editor of New West magazine and now a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and his former wife, Sandra Rosenzweig, a Northern California writer and editor, Shana is the only American of the more than 40 performers in Saltimbanco. She is married to a fellow circus professional, a remarkable acrobat named Huang Zhen, and is well aware that to the people who knew her in California, she has settled into “such a peculiar, out-of-the-blue life, the strangest thing anyone could imagine.”

The norm in Shana’s new world is typified by a scene glimpsed earlier in the day in the backstage practice hall, dressing area, game room and all-around home away from home, known collectively as the artists’ tent. Casually perched high up on two parallel floor-to-tent-top ropes is a small boy of perhaps 8 or 9, being rigorously instructed by his Russian acrobat mother. Though in the front of the house, Cirque employees are selling tickets via computer, back here skills are being passed on in the old-fashioned way, which Shana, to her colleagues’ surprise, did completely without. Equally out of the ordinary is that Shana did what she did by choice. After her performance, Shana introduces me to pair of charismatic Portuguese brothers, Marco and Paulo Lorador, masters of acrobatic hand balancing and considered close to circus royalty because their family has been in European shows for generations.

“They’re working hard, trying to earn a lot of money so their children can be educated and have the kind of choices I had but didn’t want,” Shana explains, bemused at the contrast. “It’s a hard lifestyle, and the people who had no choice think I’m a little crazy to be here.”

This is the mystery I’ve come to solve: How did it happen that a California girl, dividing her time between her divorced parents, neither of whom are celebrated for their athleticism, came to embrace this arduous and foreign life?

Shana sees a possible parallel with her mother, Sandra, noting that Jon has written about her as ” ‘a woman of sudden and intense enthusiasms.’ I’m an extremist myself, and this was the most extreme path I could take. I’ve always bitten off more than I can chew, and this seems the epitome of it.”

Sitting in the small cafe on the Cirque back lot and wearing sneakers, green cotton pants and a plaid flannel shirt over a white sweatshirt, Shana Carroll could be a UCLA graduate student killing time between classes–except for the almost tangible air of physicality that she radiates, the self-assurance of the truly fit and the reveling in movement that has her run where others might walk. She throws herself into conversation, loving to talk when she gets the chance, she says, because it’s so much the opposite of the physical work that takes up most of her life.

To spend any time with Shana is to realize that, far from being some idiosyncratic fling, the trapeze is a passion for her, an almost monastic calling. She expresses frustration at family friends who see this as the equivalent of a junior year abroad or “like I ran away and joined the circus. It’s such a frivolous cliche and a misconception. What people are trying to find in meditation, that’s what I find here.”

All of which is ironic, for as a child Shana remembers not liking circuses at all (“I didn’t get it, I didn’t really believe it was real”) and preferring the world of musicals and the stage. She did all the plays at Berkeley High School and, after graduation, thought she might become an actress. When that didn’t work out, her father, a member of the board of the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, suggested a box-office job with the troupe as a stopgap measure.

In retrospect, there were indicators for what happened next. Years later, looking at family photographs, Shana saw someone who “in every picture was upside down, hanging from a tree or dangling off a diving board.” And then there was an even older incident:”When I was 2, I tried to fly. I jumped right off the stairs and broke my arm.” (Her father says “she hurled herself just like Superman.”) But at the time she went to work for the circus, no one, least of all Shana, was prepared for what that minimum-wage job would lead to. “She went backstage,” her father remembers, “and was transformed.”

What Shana saw was the Pickles’ trapeze artist, Sky De Sela, and so many emotions hit her at once that it’s hard even in retrospect to sort them out. “I really fell in love. I thought, ‘This is so moving, so close, so human, so simple.’ I saw it as celebrating being human, testing the limits of what a human can do. Unlike the theater, this wasn’t woven in metaphors: Instead of alluding to flying, someone was flying. When I first saw it, it seemed so automatic that this was what I was going to devote my life to.”

De Sela was departing the Pickle Family Circus, but she had time to give Shana one lesson. “The first time I touched the bar, I felt at home–it just felt right,” Shana says. “On the ground I felt heavy and awkward, but in the air I felt I could move gracefully. I’d never been athletic–this was the first time I felt a sense of pleasure in doing something physical.”

“It isn’t given to very many of us in life to find our calling,” says her mother. “So the first day Shana came home and said, ‘Mommy, I found it,’ it was a major thing. She knew she belonged there.”

Shana auditioned for and won a job as a performing apprentice at the circus, which meant doing everything from group acrobatics to selling T-shirts. Every day she put up a little practice trapeze, three feet off the ground, and began to teach herself to master it. “I had this funny idea it would be more impressive if I learned on my own,” she says now. “I was lucky I had a very limited knowledge of the trapeze, or else I would’ve been intimidated about what I couldn’t do. My knowledge of what was out there increased at the same rate I was ready to do new things.”

Though at 18 she was twice as old as most trapeze beginners and didn’t have the gymnastics background considered critical, Shana compensated with hard-core desire. “It was an insane amount of hard work,” says her father. “She worked incredibly long hours training and lifting weights. I wouldn’t have stood for it, but it never occurred to her not to do it.”

Then in November 1989, about a year after she’d first experienced the trapeze, a genuine Hollywood moment occurred. De Sela’s replacement abruptly left the Pickle Family Circus, and Shana was asked if she thought she could learn the aerialist’s act in two weeks before the group’s grand opening at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. She agreed to try.

“I was so nervous I was crying all the time,” Shana says. “So elated I couldn’t sleep.” Her father stayed away from rehearsals, not wanting, he later wrote, “to embarrass myself by screaming ‘my daughter, my daughter!’ like some grieving peasant woman at the site of a Mediterranean aircraft disaster.” And, in fact, there was a horrible moment when Shana, not realizing that her head was still in a rope loop, let go and nearly hanged herself. “I just got a big yank” is how she describes it now. “By the time I realized what had happened, that I could’ve died, it was over.”

“She came home with rope burns on her neck, sobbing, and I was terrified,” remembers her mother. “I didn’t know anything about her world–I was helpless. I had to just respect that she was going to take care of it. It gave me emotional calluses right away, and I haven’t worried since.”

Shana stayed with the Pickle Family Circus for a year and a half. “It was not glamorous,” she says. “There were two shows a day, with training after and before, because I was always pushing myself to gain strength. We were living in tents, without heating, backstage, rained on, playing to three people. You have to be loving it to do it, and that’s what made me sure.”

That was also when Shana met circus artist Huang Zhen, a specialist in pole climbing, who had been taken into the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe in his native city when he was 9 years old. “When representatives of the troupe came to his school to look for recruits, he was scared, so he jumped up and crouched over a door frame to hide,” Shana relates. “When the men turned around and saw this, they said, ‘We want him, that kid up there.’ ”

Shana and Huang Zhen were married three years ago, and he is now attempting to start his own Chinese acrobatic troupe in the United States. A highlight of their wedding was a trick, done by an old friend of the groom’s, that involved balancing three raw eggs on the tip of a chopstick, in turn balanced on the bridge of the acrobat’s nose. “It defies all notions of conventional physics,” says Jon Carroll.

Though she adored the Pickle Circus, after a year and a half Shana knew she needed more schooling if she was to progress. She got a one-way plane ticket to Montreal from a friend, hoping to study with Andre Simard, considered one of the top coaches in the world, at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque. The school said it was full, but Shana showed up anyway, and after nearly a year, her persistence paid off and she was able to work with Simard. When he moved to the Ecole de Cirque Rosny-sous-Bois outside Paris, she was one of the two students he asked to make the trip with him. The stint with the Cirque followed soon after.

As it now stands, there are two parts to Shana’s act, called the ballant and the fixe in French, usually translated as “swinging” and “fixed.” The more showy ballant requires raw physical strength to stand on the trapeze, swing it in a 180-degree arc (the hardest part) and then do a series of moves while in motion. Shana is drawn to the beauty of the physics involved, but she considers the ballant a series of tricks that she has mastered. What she loves is the fixe.

A fluid series of expressive/acrobatic moves on the unmoving bar, the fixe is, in effect, a choreographed modern dance moment in midair. It is, Shana explains, “a performance piece I do on the trapeze, using it as a dance partner. Fixe is more free-form and creative than the ballant, and there are no prescribed moves I need to incorporate. It’s considered passe if you can recognize classic trapeze positions.

“What I learned in circus school was that everyone had a different style, and the ways I wasn’t a typical trapeze artist were advantages. I was from Berkeley, I had all this other background and I had to use it. I wanted to be different, not just fill a mold that was already there.”

The amount of strength (but not bulk) and conditioning necessary to do trapeze work was and continues to be considerable. Even now Shana (who alternates with a duo trapeze act done by a pair of Canadian twins) practices every day for at least an hour whether she performs or not. Her hands are callused, she wears leather ankle guards to prevent painful and possibly dangerous rope burns, and it takes but two weeks off her routine to get out of shape.

“The bar is solid steel, very heavy and very hard, and when you’re sitting on it every day, it deadens the nerves in your thighs,” Shana explains. “When I come back after two weeks off, the nerves have grown back, and it’s so painful I can’t even sit on the toilet.”

Doing all these stunts 20 feet off the ground without a net may look death-defying, but, Shana says, “I know people outside the circus who take many more risks with their lives. All my risks are calculated. And there’s a difference between something being dangerous and feeling scared. Losing fear completely is what’s dangerous. You don’t want to be nonchalant–that’s when accidents happen.”

Shana has, in fact, fallen twice in the more than 500 performances she’s given, with a rigging system of safety lines having absorbed the fall both times. “It’s mildly embarrassing. You have to try and figure out what you did wrong and get back up and do it again,” she says. “It’s an incredible feeling having the audience behind you, to hear 2,500 people gasp at one time, and I was overwhelmed by that amount of support. The fact that someone can always fall makes the performance feel quintessentially live, more than any other kind of performance does. The people who were in the audience the nights I fell, they’re not going to forget it.”

The Cirque’s Saltimbanco tour ends next February, at which time Shana will take stock and see where she wants to go next. She believes she has at least another five years of the strenuous ballant ahead of her, more for the fixe, and after that, teaching is a possibility. For now, there is always the lure of the air. To see her is to understand it all, and the question becomes not how this young woman from California became a trapeze artist, but how anyone could have thought she’d be anything else.

# # #

That’s all I have room for in this issue, but there’s plenty more to come!

• Issue #167, DEC 2017 – Alegría, Part 1 (1994)
• Issue #168, JAN 2018 – Alegría, Part 2 (1995)
• Issue #169, FEB 2018 – Quidam, Part 1 (1996-1997)
• Issue #170, MAR 2018 – Quidam, Part 2 (1998)
• Issue #171, APR 2018 – Dralion, Part 1 (1999-2001)
• Issue #172, MAY 2018 – Dralion, Part 2 (2001-2003)
• Issue #173, JUN 2018 – Varekai, Part 1 (2002)
• Issue #174, JUL 2018 – Varekai, Part 2 (2003-2004)
• Issue #175, AUG 2018 – Varekai, Part 3 (2005)