Watching circus artist Erin Ball in action, it’s hard to believe her when she says she wasn’t an active kid. Ball runs Twisted Circus Arts in Kingston.
Today, she averages between eight and 12 hours daily working out at Twisted.
Jane Kirby, a teacher at the school, joined the interview and performed in duo with Erin Ball on the silks.
Erin Ball has a background of personal training, fitness and yoga. After studying at George Brown College in Toronto, she completed yoga teacher training.
Her life took its own twist in 2008. She discovered the circus arts.
“I loved it,” she said. “I’d seen performers in the Buskers Festival and started to train.”
She still trains at the New England Center for Circus Arts several times a year.
“It’s refreshing and fulfilling,” she said. “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my life.”
Jane Kirby said she met someone in Halifax who had been raised in a traditional circus. That prompted her to study and train in the circus arts.
Kirby, like Ball, has trained in yoga. She’s working on her PhD in cultural studies at Queen’s University. Her cultural interests carry over to her circus arts. She explained that Duncan Wall, in his book The Ordinary Acrobat, explores the history of the circus. She said the modern circus isn’t so much growing away from its roots as returning to them.
“What we call contemporary in the circus arts is really going back to the origins of circuses,” said Kirby. “The period of the 1950s and 1960s with all the animals involved was a low point in the history of the circus. It was really a bit cheesy. What we’re seeing now is a return to storytelling.”
You don’t have to look any further than this year’s Broadway revival of Pippin, which prominently features circus arts. The current Broadway vision of Pippin, like the original, is dark and magical, unlike the rather watered-down and limp version licensed for public performance over the past several years.
As a child I wanted to run away and join the circus. Same when I was a teen. Frankly, I still have the fantasy. Not because I want to run away from something, but, I’m drawn by the magic, the mystery and the wonder. The trapeze artists soaring high above the audience thrill me. The acrobats, tumblers, jugglers, magicians and mime artists mesmerize me.
The animal trainers, not so much. I always felt uneasy with those aspects of the modern circus. Even as a little kid, I felt something wasn’t right about the animal acts, although as an 8-year-old, I couldn’t put it into words. The days of such animal acts are waning.
Traditional circus arts have a strong connection to other arts.
“Increasingly, a lot of theatre and dance people are doing circus work and integrating it,” said Kirby.
Even historically, there’s been lots of crossover. The mid-19th century song The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze was about Jules Léotard, a French trapeze artist. Léotard invented the eponymous one-piece flexible article of clothing. It allowed unrestricted movement, vital in Léotard’s risky act. The leotard became standard dancewear. It’s not surprising to learn that some circus artists, Kirby included, have a background in dance.
Ball emphasized that there aren’t many physical restrictions to becoming involved, but becoming competent requires a lengthy period of training.
“I’ve seen people who couldn’t get on the trapeze in their first class go on to become professionals,” she said. “Most people can attain a certain degree of skill. You’re always working toward a higher level of skill. It happens over time. Once you reach a goal, it’s very gratifying.”
She said some people are scared to start because they don’t think they have upper body strength.
“I tell them they are going to learn all kinds of skills,” she said. “They’ll learn to be in the air, hang in the air and will develop strength and flexibility.”
I asked both artists how they would describe their arts to an outsider who’d never seen a circus.
“When my friends ask, I tell them I hang upside down a lot,” said Kirby, smiling, only half joking.
“I would describe it by saying I climb up two vertically suspended pieces of fabric (the silks), tie myself up and create various positions, like dancing in the air,” said Ball
As I watched the pair climb, twirl and pose, I couldn’t help envying the freedom of flying through the air. It’s the same feeling I get when flying a plane. The Earth and it’s problems are below. In the sky, well, the sky’s the limit.
They agreed that there is a strong emotional component to their arts.
“If someone is afraid of heights, they get used to it the first time they’re standing on a trapeze,” said Ball.
“You get past the physical and emotional limitations,” added Kirby. “That what makes it so exciting and good for a lot people. I find it addictive. I can’t imagine not doing it.”
“Everyone is welcome,” said Ball. “It’s never too late to get into it. We have teens and we have people in their 60s. Twisted offers a positive, supportive and empowering space that is open to everyone. People work hard to achieve long-term goals that they never thought possible, all while enjoying the journey.”
She added that people who become involved develop close friendships.
“Seeing the circus/aerial community develop has been amazing,” she said. “I am excited to continue to share my passion through both performance and instruction.”
Ball’s passion continues to inspire her work.
“You keep learning,” she said. “There’s always new stuff to work on. I recently tried work on a triple trapeze (three people can go on the trapeze).”
Erin Ball and her crew offer group classes, private lessons and will perform at cabarets and parties. Some of their summer classes will be held outdoors at City Park. You can find class schedules on the Twisted website.
For more information: http://twistedcircusarts.com