Risk is something circus people talk about constantly, but there is something private about it too. The risk is an unspoken contract the circus artist makes with fate and determination against gravity—and a contract only the individual can make for themselves. What results is the convergence of motion, force and time upon a plane with a body or bodies (and sometimes objects.) But the level of risk and the perception of it are all relative. To the little kid who sees a silks artist plunging 15 fit headfirst towards a crash pad, the risk is as enormous as the shock and awe they experience seeing it. But to the artist who spent thousands of hours perfecting their craft, who inspects their equipment regularly and who treats their body like a prize bull, risk is a calculation that usually pays off with endorphins, elation and audience appreciation.
Compare that calculated risk with the ones people are taking every day blindly during the coronavirus, and circus suddenly seems safe.
Will going to the grocery store end infecting you, or will the food sustain your life for an extra week or two?
Will going to your job as an essential worker give you coronavirus and infect a vulnerable family member? Or do you have to do it to pay the rent and keep those family members fed and clothed with a roof over their heads?
These are the types of decisions people are being called upon to make during the most awful risk assessment game ever, where the odds are obscured yet appear to be darkly favoring the house. But what can we do besides be here, adjust, accept, and adapt? We could rush headlong into the void and expose ourselves (and people we love and know) to illness without considering the risks or we can take calculated risks as needed, just as we have learned to do through circus training. Because rushing headlong into a motion goes against everything circus has ever taught us about incremental change and progress. Taking a new look at those lessons we learned back when we first started juggling or walking tightwires makes it apparent that their essence is applicable to our situation today and helpful in understanding these new risks and how to process them.
Without persistence, you probably wouldn’t be interested in the circus world—and you wouldn’t ever get that three-ball cascade or the hip key into salto. There is something persistent about the person who is drawn to any circus discipline. They have a dogged desire to get past obstacles and to understand and master how their body and mind interact with the environment under different controls and settings. If they don’t exactly have it when they start, they learn this skill of persistence as they go, inspired by their fellows training around them. Circus Harmony coach Jessica Hentoff describes persistence as among the top traits she enourages while ‘quarantraining‘ her circus school students, stating “All the life lessons we teach in our school- especially persistence, responsibility, and teamwork- are exactly what is important now, in the middle of a pandemic!” This is one of those skills that will come in handy during the pandemic in a time when uncertainty is the name of the game and learning the rules is both high stakes and confusing. Circus people understand that risk—they know how to slow down and observe others who are doing well, how to mirror their environment, how to fall down and get up again an infinite amount of times, but how to tuck and roll as they do it.
Persistence can’t develop without its doubles acro partner patience. When improving upon a system with persistent practice, emotional outbursts rarely help the situation as often as logical strategies do. In fact, like persistence, patience is a practice that circus itself instructs humans in–from waiting your turn in the trampoline line to saving up enough money to buy a Cyr wheel, to teaching yourself sewing skills in order to make a costume, to working with a group of fellow creatives on a show, patience is a state of being that rewards the beings with results. There is even science-based evidence that circus training heals trauma by helping us regulate our emotions. Cultivating patience in circus allows you to use it in outside situations that are equally challenging, like biding your time at home indefinitely, petitioning your government for artist support or convincing elderly family members of the importance of quarantine. When it comes to getting through this by keeping focused and waiting for a change in the health climate of the world, you have what it takes to wait it out and stay productive.
The laser-like focus that circus artists require to build a three-high, to dial in on the physical actions that allow the next level of a trick to be mastered, or to see an hour-long show through from beginning to end with complex sequences of actions—this is a gift. Circus artists have spent many hours honing that focus. Some call this level of focus a flow state, and it is characterized by a sense of clarity, intense concentration, the feeling of effortlessness balanced with a sense of control, an altered perception of time, a mindful sense of movement and consciousness blending together as the perfect ratio of skills versus challenge emerges. To get to that place requires so much skill training and discipline, but to enter that state is to enter a space of grace, mental clarity and calm. This focus state is not limited to circus artists—it can be accessed while cleaning an apartment, playing with a Rubik’s cube or solving a calculus equation, but once you know what it feels like, you can identify its approach as you begin an activity that will provide the opportunity for flow and focus. The mental health benefits of such a state are clear, it helps to reduce anxiety and depression, and this is something everyone could use right now. Being limited in your circus practice space during the COVID-19 quarantines does not mean you can’t reach a flow state. It just means you might have to get creative.
People in the circus world are part of an extended network of individuals with a similar passion. There is a growing body of research on the mental health benefits of social circus initiatives (Source: American Circus Educators), and many of those benefits extend to circus practitioners of all ages in all stages just by the nature of their communal qualities. Like with every community, there is jockeying for influence, there is competition, but the bottom line is that circus is a group endeavor and in order to be involved and successful at it, you have to know how to play well with others. Just like focus, patience and persistence, circus itself instructs individuals in the art of community building. Whether it is organizing a show with your circus school, putting up a circus tent, or performing a solo in a circus cabaret, you will be called upon to collaborate, to lead or be led, to lend a hand, and to assist a fellow performer by spotting or interacting with them in high stakes environments. These actions and this sense of being a part of something beyond yourself demands more from you; commitment, engagement, generosity, feedback, participation—and those demands make you a stronger individual as well as a beloved group member. In a time now of deep physical isolation, being a member of a community means you have a group of people you can reach out to virtually to check in on, and that others who care for you will want to know how you’re doing. It’s an opportunity to connect outside of the circus space and it means less loneliness and more reassurance that even when alone, community bonds run deep and we are stronger together—even if only together in spirit.
When someone’s life has been in your hands and your life has been in someone else’s hands, you have reached down deep into your nature and found trust and connection that goes well beyond anything words or promises can deliver. Circus artists experience this phenomenon often when they climb up aerial devices hung by a rigger who has calculated dynamic loads for them, or when their instructor spots them on an acrobatic stunt. Not only must a circus performer learn to trust their instructors, riggers and fellow performers, they must also develop trust in their own process and skills—a feat which can be more challenging than trusting others. This trust in oneself is a method for overcoming paralyzing fear and anxiety when perched atop a trampoline wall or on a flying trapeze rig, and it can also be a way to face one’s crippling fears when overwhelmed by bad news and terrible trials in life. Tapping into this trust you have developed through your circus training is a transferable skill, accessible by considering how your training, your intuition, and your braveness have gotten you through a difficult juncture before, and how they will help you now if you stay open and alert.
Start Where You Are/Be Here Now
When a person first begins a new discipline in circus, it almost feels ridiculous to even try. All around them are people who seem to have magically achieved skills, and yet those people don’t scoff at the newcomers but offer encouragement and guidance. To get from standing on your own two feet to walking on 4-foot stilts or riding on a one-wheeled bike seems an impossible leap, but right there with you are people telling you it is not impossible and who have faith in your future outcome. They will tell you there is no short cut to that achievement. There is no way to cheat your way to success, and that they can’t do it for you, but they can reassure you it’s possible. All that you can do is put in the work to get one inch closer. The stubborn persistence you develop in an effort to master the thing will lend you the patience to continue in the face of laughable failures as you fall repeatedly. The expertise in the community around you, teachers and friends will help you assess and manage the risks, teaching you how to take small steps to achieve tiny advances in a skill. Your trust in them and yourself will grow as you see yourself approaching a goal with glacial slowness—this slowness is the element in which your flow/focus state is ignited and you are officially hooked on circus–all through the process of mindful practice. Take that whole process and realize that the person who picks up a juggling ball and practices throwing one ball to their left hand from their right hand is both focused and in the moment, but also at a point in their development where they are banking on a future state that will grow and improve their technique (to juggling three balls and beyond) because of the time they spent there at that moment.
How can the learned circus experience of ‘starting where you’ are and ‘being here now’ help you in this moment of global crisis? It can help you to understand that you don’t necessarily have the skills, resources and influence at the moment to prevent the tragedies unfolding around us all, but you are here now, in a place where your persistence, patience, focus, trust and community will afford you chances to stay connected, to hopefully stay safe and to help others stay safe and connected, and all while working on what you need to work on while waiting out the quarantine. And although we can’t be in our happy places in the gym right now spotting each other and creating our dream productions which will make the world a better place, we can be where we are now, working on the future together, protecting everyone by pausing in our movements, and dreaming of a time when we can meet face to face again. And while self-quarantine is a new kind of risk for circus people and indeed all people (with job security, finances, mental health, businesses, careers, infrastructures and physical health all at stake), it’s a risk we have to take and that we as circus folks have the strength to face and grow stronger from. Let’s make it pay off.
CircusTalk is collecting responses and resources to the COVID-19 pandemic in the circus world. Visit our resource page to keep up with the news there.
All photos courtesy of Grace Gershenfeld of Grace Photography. Feature photo: Alseny Sylla warms up with some high jumps in front of the dressingtent at Midnight Circus. You can see other performers in the background practicing partner acro, talking, and just hanging out.