It’s hard to say which is cooler: the moment when two of the four Circus Smirkus wire walkers slide into full splits on the wire or when they all walk across as one, their feet sliding beneath the instep of the person in front of them, spiderlike. Either way, by the time they finish their act, Jesse Dryden, Smirkus’ creative director who has slipped into the backstage tent where the company is rehearsing, has his hands over his mouth, and his eyes are gleaming.
Dryden is speechless. For the first time since 2005, the Vermont-based traveling youth circus has a wire act, and it feels pretty good to have it back, he says.
“There are always certain disciplines that tend to peak,” Dryden explains after the initial rush of watching the wire walkers has faded. “And once it’s peaked, it’s in our best interest to shelve it. But the trouble is, if you shelve it for too long, it ends up hibernating. Especially with wire. It takes years to get that together.”
Luckily for Smirkus, four performers joined the tour this year with the right combination of focus, strength and balance — as well as some experience walking on wires and slack lines — to make a wire act possible.
At the circus’ headquarters in Greensboro, where troupers, coaches, choreographers and counselors live together for three weeks each June and prepare for their summerlong tour of New England and New York, the wire walkers rehearse. They work in pairs, attempting the tricky split part over and over, tumbling to the floor and climbing back up. At one point, they hang upside down from the wire like bats.
Repetition is key to getting comfortable on the wire, they say. So is focus.
“You want to try to have as much contact with the wire as possible, because if you lose contact, there’s a chance you’ll miss it,” says 16-year-old Ezra Weill. “If you get frustrated and fed up with yourself, it doesn’t work.”
Their coach, Estelle Borel, sits cross-legged on the ground, encouraging them to try again every time they lose their footing.
“Don’t yell,” she reminds Taylor Wright-Sanson, 18, after a roll onto the wire lands him awkwardly straddling it. “The audience doesn’t want to know you’re in pain.” He brushes himself off and starts over, seemingly none the worse for wear.
Pain comes with the territory of wire walking, apparently, as does pretending it doesn’t. The wire, six feet off the ground, is about half an inch wide. The walkers wear leather jazz shoes, but after about three hours a day of sliding their feet across the wire’s rough surface, dangling from it with the tips of their toes, twirling around it — and falling off it — the performers’ feet, legs and hands can get pretty beaten up.
In line for lunch in the barn, Greylin Nielsen, 18, proudly shows off the three-inch wire burn on her ankle, and Maia Gawor-Sloane, 15, unwraps the bandage around her foot to reveal a flush of calluses. “We compare at night,” Gawor-Sloane says, grinning.
Then Borel flashes her own callused hands. “Everything in circus is like this,” she says.
Borel should know. Now a professional circus coach and performer, she dreamed growing up of becoming a ballerina. For 10 years she danced in her native Switzerland, squeezing in circus camps over the summer. Gradually, she recalls, she began falling in love with the circus and growing bored with dance. At the same time — when Borel was about 14 — a new circus school opened in her hometown of Geneva. She enrolled and spent the next four years learning the basics: trampoline, acrobatic tumbling, theater, trapeze and wire.
From the first time Borel tried wire walking at summer camp, it came naturally to her. “I liked it at first because it was easy for me,” she says. “Also because the teacher was really pretty and she looked like a ballerina, so I was, like, Ah, you can be a ballerina on a tightwire.”
You can see the influence of dance up on the wire: the grace of the walkers’ movement, the control of their postures, the deliberate phrasing. Borel talks about it in Zen-like terms.
“I’m not someone who is easily focused, so I have to work really hard on this,” Borel says. “But I really like [the wire] because, for me, it is the only place where I can think of nothing. Because I’m crazy and hyperactive in my mind. But when you do wire, you just have to focus on one thing. So it is kind of my yoga.”
A coach once told Borel it takes a decade to make a good tightwire walker. “So I’m still learning, too,” she says. Balance is so fragile that you need to train for years, until it comes easily, as if you were walking on the ground.”
For Nielsen, who tried out the wire her first summer on the Smirkus tour in 2005, it’s all about the challenge.
“It was kind of like an obstacle,” she says. “Somebody gives you this tight-wire, and they’re, like, ‘Go ahead, walk across it.’ And you’re, like, ‘OK, I trip just walking on the ground, but sure, I’ll try it.’ And then you get up there, and you’re using your whole body: your shoulders, your back, your legs.”
Most of all, Nielsen says, you’re relying on your mind.
“There are days when [the wire] works with you and there are days when it works against you, and you have to get used to that,” she notes.
During the first week of rehearsals, Wright-Sanson had one of those days when the wire works against you. He took a nasty spill, and the wire caught him sharply under the arm, pinching a nerve and leaving him with some gnarly bruises. It felt “insanely crazy,” he says, but he just got up and tried again.
Wright-Sanson has had a thing for equilibristics — those circus skills that rely primarily on balance — since he was 12 and his parents gave him a unicycle for Christmas. He taught himself to ride it in the kitchen, grabbing the counters for support. His sense of balance has always been strong, he says.
“I started walking at 7 months old,” Wright-Sanson adds. “I kind of skipped crawling.”
After lunch in the barn, the wire walkers rush to the farmhouse where Smirkus’ offices are based. A package waiting for them contains four pairs of new jazz shoes, which they will reinforce with leather soles and most likely replace again during the summer tour. Already Nielsen’s current pair, new just a week ago, is filled with holes.
Then the group heads to another tent for one more hour of rehearsal. This time, they practice their choreography on the floor using tape to represent the wire. If they’re feeling any kind of post-lunch haze, they don’t show it.
For some of these troupers, circus isn’t just a hobby; it’s what they hope to do professionally someday. Gawor-Sloane is one of those. The Richmond teen, says she has known she wanted a career in the circus since her dad started taking her to Smirkus shows when she was 3. She has a steely focus on the wire, but when she talks about how it feels to be up there in front of people, she gets dreamy.
“You can feel the audience holding their breath,” Gawor-Sloane says. “And when you do a trick, they let it out. But then you get back up, and they’re, like, What is she going to do next? Oh, my God!”
Gawor-Sloane hopes to study somewhere like the National Circus School (École nationale de cirque) in Montréal, and her parents, she says, are thrilled. “They’re jealous of me, they’ve told me,” she says. They’ve both tried out the wire their daughter has set up at home. “I have to help them, though,” Gawor-Sloane says.
Her friends have tried it, too, and can’t believe what she does is even possible.
“Then they find out you’re going away for the whole summer to do it, and they’re totally baffled,” she says. “And when it’s something you want to do for the rest of your life, or for part of your life, and they just totally don’t understand ... It’s hard for them to let you leave.”
Then Gawor-Sloane recalls something the directors said when she first arrived in Greensboro.
“People who do circus, they’re different,” she says. “They come here and they’re all together, and that’s what makes it so magical.”
Gawor-Sloane will have one more rehearsal hour with Weill on the wire today. After that, the wire walkers have about a week to nail their tricks and learn to trust their balance before they start touring New England.
“This is the hard part,” Weill says. “I can’t wait to get out there and start performing.”