Lives in the balance
in The Big Issue on 7 December 2009
Young people still want to join the circus, even if they don’t always have to run away from home to do it. In Australia, one school is dedicated to training aspiring balancers, clowns, jugglers and trapeze artists.
It is just before lunchtime at the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne. The 2009 showcase performance is just weeks away. In a stuffy rehearsal room, 14 final-year students listen carefully as the show’s directors give staging instructions for part of the act. The details are precise. Circus is a serious business.
Meanwhile, one of the muscular young men, Aidyn Heyes, bends nonchalantly into a handstand. He stays there, waggling his legs for a while, then shifts from two hands to just one. Minutes later, on his feet again, he amuses a classmate by putting a milk crate on his head.
“We’re all the kind of people who try to get everyone else to look at them,” Heyes says later. His speciality is balancing on his hands.
The institute – the only school of its kind in Australia – opened in 1999, and accepted its first bachelor students two years later. Each year it accepts 24 performers from the scores more who audition.
The students train five days a week, from nine to five, and miss out on the long holidays granted by normal universities. Even so, with the showcase performance approaching, Heyes says preparation time is short. “A lot of the stuff we do in our acts pushes our limits as far as they’ll go. Even though we rehearse and rehearse, no one ever feels like they have enough practice time.”
Heyes grew up in Rosebud on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and spent his spare time surfing and doing yoga. “Ever since I was young I could always jump up into a handstand and stay there,” he says, constantly stretching and shifting his limbs as he talks. “I’d chill out a few hours a day just doing handstands at home because I enjoyed it.”
Like other circus artists, the 22-year-old uses and experiences his body in ways that gravity-adhering members of the community could scarcely ever comprehend. “When you hit the balance properly, especially with one-arm handstands, it feels like something else is holding you there,” he says. “It feels light, like you’re floating in water.”
The showcase performance is the final step before the students try to enter the real circus world. Some aspire to joining international companies, hotels or cruise ships; others, to making a living from corporate gigs, events or busking. Heyes plans to set himself up as a freelance circus performer, mixing work and travel.
For now, however, he must train and focus for the show. “Hand balancing, like juggling and tightwire, requires single-point concentration,” he says. “When you’re performing, you’ve just got to block everything else out.”