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Flight School

Ben Courtnay has always dreamed of life under the big top. A now-booming industry has made it possible for him to run away and join the circus.

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Flight School

Ben Courtnay floats in a tangle of silk, ten feet up, arms and legs ensnared by taut lengths of bright fabric. He extends his body into a straight line, perfectly parallel to the ground, and pauses. His face reddens as he holds the pose for five seconds, then ten. Ben folds into a tuck and flips three times in the air before unravelling himself in a series of dramatic turns to land, one foot at a time, on the padded gymnasium floor of Vancouver’s oldest circus training school, Circus West. Looking on, his mother beams.

At five foot seven, Ben is slim yet intensely muscled, and walks with the spring-loaded bounce of an acrobat. He seems older than 17, but a hint of peach fuzz betrays his age. For nearly half his life Ben has practiced 20 hours a week at Circus West, tumbling on mats and swinging from hoops. He dreams of being an aerialist, and after consulting with his mother, Julia, he recently decided to take his training to the next level. In North America that means one thing: nabbing a spot at Montreal’s elite National Circus School (NCS), one of the best circus training programs in the world.

Each February the NCS holds auditions in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver (as well as Paris and Buenos Aires) to sniff out top talent. So Ben traded his baggy sweats for tights and a tank top, and queued up in the Circus West gym along with dozens of other teens and young adults hoping to impress the clipboard-wielding jury members.

The three-hour examination was gruelling. It assessed fitness, flexibility, muscle tone, motor coordination and acrobatic skill. NCS scouts look for the complete package. Has the student mastered the front handspring? The back roll to handstand? Can he or she hold a perfect front split, or bend backward into a bridge? Ben did sit-ups, push-ups and chin-ups while judges noted the quality and count of each exercise. He also did a solo performance to demonstrate stage presence and musicality. After surviving an early elimination round, he faced the three judges to explain why he wanted to devote his life to the circus.

Ben took up gymnastics when he was four, he explains to me later. “I was always climbing and jumping on everything.” But when he turned ten, he dropped out-the sport was too competitive to be fun. “I barely knew circus existed,” says Ben. “It just wasn’t around much in those days.” Then Ben saw his first show, a performance by the students of Circus West, and everything changed. There were kids riding unicycles and bounding on trampolines, kids hanging from trapezes and dangling from straps-and everyone was smiling. In Circus West, Ben saw the physicality of gymnastics infused with a creative sense of play. It was love at first sight. “I saw it-the aerial silks especially-and I was like, yes, I want to do that.”

(Photo: Courtesy of CircusWest Performing Arts Society)

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His mother signed him up. Between workshops, camps, classes and its rigorous performance program, Circus West has over 2,000 students aged five and up. Ben enrolled in a ten-month program that taught the standard elements of modern circus, including juggling, tight-wire walking and aerials. The sessions weren’t easy at first. His young body was thin and awkward; his legs and feet just wouldn’t straighten. Then-very quickly-things started to change. Ben grew stronger and his limbs began to follow his orders. Now he easily picks up tricks and skills from his instructors.

Yet more than any natural skill, it’s Ben’s work ethic that sets him apart. “I’ve been passionate about this since the day I started,” he says. “When you love something this much, you allow yourself to be pushed. Maybe it will give me a leg up on NCS candidates who are auditioning because they’re good, not because they truly love the sport.”

Is an NCS acceptance in the cards for him? Ben thinks he did well. Julia agrees, but with only 30 spots available each year, she insists they need a plan B. At her urging, Ben has started applying to local universities he hopes he’ll never have to attend.

Jay Nunns, the artistic director of Circus West and Ben’s coach, thinks Ben stands an excellent chance of getting in. “We have a lot of dancers and gymnasts who want to do something less competitive, something that has more room for personal expression.” But then there are the select few-such as Ben-“who set their sights on something bigger.”

“In the old days, circus acts were passed from father to son,” says Marc Lalonde, executive director of the NCS for the past 12 years. We’re sitting in the school’s large library. Through the window to our left, spandex-clad bodies swing by on trapezes. “Today, we require our students to become versatile in all the circus arts, and at the same time, master at least one discipline,” explains Lalonde. “It makes finding good candidates difficult.”

The NCS has evolved at the same breakneck pace as the industry it feeds. Founded in 1981 in a community gymnasium, the institution is now located in Montreal’s north end in La TOHU, one of the world’s largest spaces devoted to circus activity. The site includes Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters, the NCS’s state-of-the-art facilities and a brand new performance hall where straps and ropes hang from 40-foot ceilings above giant pits filled with foam cubes. The NCS offers three professional training programs: a 13-hour-per-week preparatory program for children age nine to 13; a full-time, provincially approved residential high school; and a three-year diploma program in the circus arts.

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The recruiting tour is part of the NCS’s plan to strengthen connections with its sister organizations and ensure a common vision. While there are circus schools in nearly every province and major city (with Circus West and the Toronto School of Circus Arts among the bigger ones), programming and training haven’t evolved as quickly as they have in Quebec-still one of the global hubs of the circus arts revolution. Most schools remain recreational, which means students aren’t pushed as hard as they would be at the NCS. “What’s important,” says Lalonde, “is that whatever they teach, they teach the right way.”

Those exacting standards are a far cry from how Guy Laliberté and his ragtag crew of Quebec street performers conceived of Cirque du Soleil 30 years ago. There was no audition, no physical assessment, no instructor, no training routine and no athlete’s diet. But along with performers from France, Australia and the U.S., those Quebec artists helped transform the circus from a lineup of sad animals, freak shows and crude clown acts to a spectacle of what the human body can do when pushed to its limits. It’s an idea that has proven incredibly lucrative: In 2011 Cirque du Soleil alone employed 1,300 performers and cracked the $1 billion revenue mark. In 2012 it will produce 22 shows.
Because NCS graduates are bred to be bold, they are snapped up by Quebec’s big three-Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Éloize and Les 7 doigts de la main-as well as by international outfits such as Munich’s Circus Krone. The school has a graduate employment rate better than many mainstream Canadian universities. If and when Ben enters his first year of full-time employment he could expect to earn around $40,000. Beyond entry-level, salaries can climb as high as $100,000.

The circus surge has taken even Lalonde by surprise. “There aren’t enough good performers to fill the current demand,” he says. The bar keeps being raised, as each company seeks to distinguish itself, and audiences expect increasingly dramatic feats of daring. “We need kids who can create their own act, while also contributing to the collective process and serving the director’s vision,” says Lalonde, who adds there is little margin for failure. “Students have to arrive physically, mentally and artistically prepared.”

Six weeks after the audition-an agonizing wait-Ben’s inbox lit up with an email announcing his acceptance. He was elated, and swears his mom was even more excited. But what does a parent really think when her child says he plans to join the circus? “I worry about how short his career might be, how punishing it will be on his body,” says Julia, who, back at Circus West, is watching Ben dangle 20 feet up, his limbs tangled in thick straps. For all the daredevilry, circus injuries are mostly related to overtraining-stress fractures, for example, or tendonitis. But while these injuries may not seem as dramatic as an accidental fall from a trapeze, they can end up being just as devastating to a career.

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Julia strives to stay involved without being overly controlling. She was up the night before the audition helping Ben pick out the music for his solo. “He went with the theme song from Sin City.” She rolls her eyes, catches herself and then smiles. She has never gotten over the thrill of watching him onstage: “You see your teenager go out there and perform something beautifully and with feeling. That’s when you realize that what they’re doing requires training, hard work, commitment-you see the character they’re developing.”

According to Nunns, Circus West has always depended on a high level of parental involvement. “The parents buy into it: They help backstage, make costumes, watch rehearsals,” he says. For students in the performance group-the group Ben was enrolled in-the combined cost of classes, costumes and equipment can easily exceed $4,000 a year.

Unlike soccer or hockey, argues Nunns, circus is more of an art than a sport, so the competitive element, while there, is less toxic. This means there are fewer aggressive parents, pushing their children to be the best. Remarkably, even fraught events such as the NCS audition don’t leave lingering bitterness. “The parents I see are generally thinking, I want my kid to have fun and be healthy and be around positive role models,” he says.

But Nunns agrees with Julia: The job will likely take its toll on Ben. As with any profession dependant on physicality, circus work favours the young. “A clown can be a clown for the rest of his life,” he explains, “but even the strongest acrobat-after 40, it gets difficult.”
Ben, however, is too excited to worry. “Best-case scenario,” he says, stretched out in the bleachers, taking a rare breather, “is Cirque du Soleil. That’s the dream for most of us.”

Then, as if feeling he should do more than merely talk about his dream, he gets back to his practice session. He walks onto the mat and grabs each of the aerial straps. He lifts, bends and extends, oblivious to a small group of students and staff who, now far below, stop to watch.