Circus News

Mongolia-Bound: A Month-Long Contortion Pilgrimage

Contortion is sprinkled through cultures the world over. 
Maybe mention of this performing art makes you think of the explosive power of a Russian rhythmic gymnast. Maybe it makes you think of the extreme flexibility woven into the daredevil feats of Chinese acrobatic troupes. Or maybe it conjures images of Coney Island ‘freak shows’, ‘boneless wonders’, ‘India Rubber girls’, and the like. 

For me, it makes me think of Mongolia. Training contortion in Mongolia has been a distant (though constant) thought in the back of my mind since I first began my contortion practice in 2016. In parallel with this dream was my long term goal of one day being able to perform zubnik, the impressive contortion skill where an artist balances their entire bodyweight on their teeth, while in an extreme backbend. I have found many capable and inspiring coaches in North America, some of whom even train their students in zubnik, but it has always felt vital to go to the place where this art form allegedly began. 

In March, after not one, not two, but three promising contracts fell through after weeks of encouraging discussions, I reached the “to hell with everything” point. 

My Mongolia dream surged forward from the quiet corner it had been occupying in the back of my mind, perhaps realizing that this was its chance to be heard and taken seriously. 10 days later, I was on the first of many planes to Ulaanbaatar to dive into a month of training. 

“You have to have specialized training to fly into Ulaanbaatar.” I recalled my father’s words as I felt the landing gear deploy beneath us. He used to fly for Korean Air. The capitol city of Mongolia is tucked inside the equivalent of a bowl of jagged mountaintops. “Pilots can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said.

Great, I think, remembering this.

I’m not a nervous flyer, but as we descend into Ulaanbaatar, night falling, I catch myself holding my breath. I try to focus on the tiny pinpricks of light coming into focus as we drop lower and lower – cars, picking their way like ants in a line to and from the city centre. We touch down smoothly, and I stop white-knuckling the armrests.

After 27 hours in the air and two short layovers (Toronto to Detroit; Detroit to Incheon/Seoul; Incheon/Seoul to Ulaanbaatar), any excitement I thought I might feel at arriving is being muted by exhaustion into a dazed calmness. But – I’d arrived.

WEEK ONE: In Which I Make Grave Miscalculations Regarding Jet Lag and Altitude

The first training studio of the trip is tucked in the back corner of a dusty, unpaved parking lot that seems to be functioning as some kind of open-air mechanic shop/junk yard. Once you pass the old Russian cars and scrapped Priuses, spilling their mechanical guts out onto the gravel or gathering dust and rust atop cinder blocks, a tall, whitewashed wall edifice. The circular structure of the building and peaked roof echo the lines of a circus tent. This building is the site of the old Mongolian State Circus; before that, it was a Buddhist monastery (prior to Soviet occupation in the mid-20th century), and beforethat? The summer residence of a Mongolian queen. The contortion studio itself is tucked into a wing off to the right. 

“I thought you had one-minute handstand holds against the wall,” my first coach says.

My elbows have just betrayed me and I’ve fallen in slow-motion down the wall to face plant gracelessly into the cold floor tiles.

“I do!” I protest, massaging my cooked forearms. “Well – Idid,” I say, correcting myself. 

I’m torn between frustrated confusion with myself and embarrassed sheepishness that the coach thinks I’ve been embellishing my stamina. 

While I had read ahead of time that Ulaanbaatar sits somewhere around 1300m above sea level, I clearly did not manage to absorb this information effectively. Instead, I gave myself one day of ‘rest’ (following the two days of travel it takes to get from Toronto to UB) and then launched right into a packed training schedule.That’s more than enough!I foolishly thought.

I spend the first week of training gasping for breath within the first two sets of warm up kicks, back and forth across the floor. I’m sniffling constantly with altitude sickness, and my handstand endurance has retreated somewhere seemingly inaccessible. 

I swallow my ego, put my head down, and work. 

WEEK TWO: In Which Things Start to Feel like the Circus Equivalent of the Karate Kid

Contortion training in MongoliaThe training process becomes a matter of putting complete faith in the coachsomething slightly terrifying when it’s (a) a new working relationship, and (b) you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language and are far, far away from your usual support network of physiotherapists, massage therapists, osteos, or chiropractors. 

A pattern of ‘good day, bad day; good day, bad day’ quickly becomes apparent, but headsit is something that must be achieved every day. Some days my back feels like warm butter. 

I’m instructed to hold my handstand wall drills for 60 seconds every time, regardless of whether I’ve made it to 45 seconds or 25 seconds the previous attempt – something that runs in direct opposition to my rudimentary sports-science understanding of progressive load. I try anyways, and fail each and every time.

Every available limb or joint of my body gets weights attached to it. My elbows are deemed problem-elbows (it’s true – they just don’t want to straighten) and a passive stretch involving holding a 30-lb kettlebell for minutes at a time is added to my drill list. 

I’m laid back on a bench in a middle split, handed a phone with a 5-minute timer set on it, and allow drawstring bags holding 30lbs of weight (each) to be hung off my ankles. 

A pattern of ‘good day, bad day; good day, bad day’ quickly becomes apparent, but headsit is something that must be achieved every day. Some days my back feels like warm butter. 

Other days, even after 45 minutes of trying to coax my back into cooperating, I’m struggling to get my butt to my head. I cry. A lot. 

WEEK THREE: In Which I Continue Contortion–Groundhog-Day, Mongolia Edition

The second studio I’ve arranged to train at – where Mr. Usukhuu’s Mongolian Contortion Club runs out of – is the polar opposite of the first one in many ways. Gone is the historical Buddhist monastery setting; instead, daily training is conducted in the private gym housed within a new row townhomes in the quiet Zaisan district. The floors are covered in thick carpet; mirrors wrap around every wall; every nook and cranny is stuffed with implements to assist in deeper stretches. The first flight of stairs is dotted with statues of bodybuilder-men and contorting handbalancers – Mr. Usukhuu’s artistic handiwork. A stuffed alligator lurks beneath the second flight of stairs. And the third, final floor is where the magic happens. 

Well…magic and crying. 

A former performer and aerialist with the Mongolian State Circus, Mr. Usukhuu spent years perfecting his own adaptive system of assisted stretching uniquely geared towards his adult students (whose ligaments aren’t perhaps as fresh and pliable as an 8 year old’s anymore). There are two coaches for every one student and everything is hands on: every part of the warm up and stretching drills involves the coach(es) manipulating your body into proper alignment and challenging the end ranges of your mobility. The result is still challengingly painful but nothing feels like it’s dangerously beyond the current limits of my body.

We do the same warm up every day, the same drills and stretches every day, in the same order every day. I wake up, I train, I get a massage, I eat, I sleep. I do it again. It’s the Mongolian contortion version ofGroundhog Day. And slowly – almost imperceptibly – I feel my body’s resistance to whatused to be its maximum point of flexibility begin to shift. 

WEEK FOUR: In Which Leg Flexibility is Aided by the Notorious B.I.G. and I Take Flight

Contortion training in Mongolia“How much sleep did you get?” becomes the question I am asked at the beginning of every single training session. If I respond with anything less than nine hours sleep, Mr. Usukhuu frowns slightly, shakes his head, and deems it ‘no good’. Contortionists need sleep, I’m told. Lots of sleep.

Headsit still happens every day, though zubnikdoesn’t. Mr. Usukhuu explains that it’s extremely important to build up the necessary types of endurance for this skill: the muscles of the jaw, neck, and upper back must be developed through achingly long minutes spent biting down as hard as I can on the gauze-wrapped leather mounted over a steel post. Without strong jaw and neck muscles, attempting zubnikbecomes extremely dangerous; these muscles are predominantly the ones with which you balance the rest of your body. 

Breath is trained, too, by holding cheststands (or pretzels, as some people call them) for minutes at a time, in deeper and deeper iterations. Your lungs and diaphragm are being challenged in odd ways when you compress them that much through stretching. Over time, degrees of backbend that once choked you feel easy; you forget that air ever used to wheeze through your throat like a death-rattle while attempting that stretch. Youhaveto train the breath, because your mouth is literally full of leather and steel while performing zubnik;breathing through your nose is your only option. Panicking is not an option. 

On one particularly rough training day, tears course down my face for all three hours of our time together. I am mentally and physically at an all time low. I am quietly and graciously allowed to suffer as I gamely push through all the usual stretches and drills, and simply told at the end:No crying tomorrow, okay?

And I don’t. 

Mr. Usukhuu sings and laughs and cajoles me through each day of painful training. He belts out “I LOVE YOUUUU” every time I want to start whimpering that I can’t hold the position any longer. We blast Biggie SmallsHypnotizeandBig Poppawhen it’s time to do the leg stretches that make me want to throw up. All these tiny distractions work. I get better. I get stronger.

Finally, on my second-last day in Mongolia, I bite down on the zubnik, bring my legs over my head,sit – and Mr. Usukhuu takes his guiding hands away. I fly alone inzubnik, feathering my way through 5 solid seconds of minute balance adjustments, half-disbelieving the surrealness of what feels like a frozen moment. 

There’s a saying that folks love to throw around in the self-improvement corners of the internet:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 

A hike in MongoliaExcept that’s exactly what we do . . . and different is exactly what we get.

Only in the final few days of my time in Mongolia do we put everything together again and attemptzubnikin its entirety. The biting drills and constantly deepening headsit drills have paid off: I’m finally understanding the minute adjustments required to balance; the proper muscles are engaging; I can breathe; and for a few beautiful, impossibly slow seconds on the last two days, I managed to balance all on my own. 

We perform this definition of insanity, and manage to move on through it to the impossible.

In the end, as I sit on the first of many planes back home to Toronto, I know that there is far more work to do before zubnikis safely and confidently in my scope of ability, and far more to learn from Mongolia itself. But I feel content. At peace with it. 

Because I’ve already planned my trip back. 

Ess Hodlmoser
Circus Artist -Canada
Ess Hödlmoser is a nonbinary circus artist from Toronto, Canada specializing in aerial straps and contortion. Ess' contortion work has been featured widely in TV and Film productions. They continue to perform internationally and push the boundaries of contemporary contortion expression with their duo contortion partner, Troy James. Their performance at the 40eme Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain was awarded the Prix Moulin Rouge.

Ess Hodlmoser

Ess Hödlmoser is a nonbinary circus artist from Toronto, Canada specializing in aerial straps and contortion. Ess' contortion work has been featured widely in TV and Film productions. They continue to perform internationally and push the boundaries of contemporary contortion expression with their duo contortion partner, Troy James. Their performance at the 40eme Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain was awarded the Prix Moulin Rouge.