Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Studies in Harlequin

Four students of the National Circus School

Anouk Vallée-Charest spent most of her childhood wishing she could fly. “To be honest, I never really liked the idea of gravity. I didn’t understand why you couldn’t take up space any way you wanted.”

To achieve her goal, Anouk signed up for countless dance classes, willing herself to leap as high as possible through the air. As she grew older and stronger, her attentions switched to gymnastics, where she discovered that acrobatics could suspend her in mid-air even longer. But it wasn’t until she enrolled in Montreal’s National Circus School (NCS) at the age of seventeen that she accomplished her dream of defying gravity.

With the help of tissus, a flexible band of silk fibre hung from the ceiling and used as an acrobatic aid, Anouk learned to soar skyward. “I was scared [at first] that the silk would slide out from my hands and I would plunge to the ground.” Trainers on the floor supported her, though, shouting encouragement and helping her maintain stability with a rope-and-pulley system.

“It’s important to help students break down illusion to overcome fear,” says NCS counsellor Rénald Laurin. “Through repetition, students learn to grow more comfortable with themselves and their skills in the big top environment. This is a crucial step to being able to stay in the moment and become at ease with the rigours and perfection involved in performance.”

To prepare, Anouk spent up to twelve hours a day perfecting her specialty and doing supplemental training in classes as diverse as juggling, dance and music appreciation. By the time she graduated last year, Anouk, now twenty years old, had become known for creating her own version of tissus. “Most tissus performers prefer to do their tricks starting from a fixed point, but I have learned to go vertical. My trainer and I have figured out a way to make the silk move and twist, allowing me to fly out from the rigging and rise through the air.” 

**

Flight of a different sort was required for Olaf Trieblel to join the circus. The young German acrobat heard about Montreal’s world-renowned circus arts program while performing in cabarets and street fairs across Europe during his teens. After graduating from high school, he applied for one of the school’s fiercely contested foreign-applicant spots. Academic records, test results measuring musculature and flexibility, as well as sample videos showcasing his dance and acrobatic abilities were all required.

When Olaf found out he had been accepted, he was overjoyed. He packed his bags, bought his plane ticket and flew straight to Montreal. But there, he discovered that the real tests were only just beginning. First, his partner in hand-to-hand—a discipline in which one person catches and throws a partner—opted not to join him in Canada. He decided to switch to trapeze, but the aerial tricks didn’t seem to suit him. He spent many difficult weeks trying to find his specialty—often training up to nine hours at a stretch—but most days he was beset by bruises, aches and longings for home.

In addition to the gruelling schedule and intense workout regimen, Olaf was out on his own for the first time, living on a student budget in a country where he didn’t speak either of the two languages and didn’t know a soul. Needless to say, the adjustment was “quite intense.” When he wasn’t at school, he tried to find time to learn how to cook and do the laundry, and to figure out how to decipher the local bus maps.

It was finding his balance—literally—that made Olaf believe he was meant for circus life. “The balancing act gives you the possibility to experiment, to find a way to make things work,” he says. After discovering his specialty, everyday tasks slowly became easier; while training remained difficult, it also became substantially more “fun.”

**

High-spirited joker Philippe Trépanier always knew he wanted to be an entertainer. After spending a summer juggling and trying his hand at the comedy circuit, circus life seemed the natural next step. But after a few sessions of hand-to-hand work at the NSC with classmate Marie-Elaine Mongeau, he quit clowning around.

Marie-Elaine was everything Philippe was not: petite, disciplined, a lifelong acrobat and performer. Their disparate performing styles and personalities complemented each other, and they soon hooked up as partners in both performance and life.

A year after graduation, they are still together, performing hand-to-hand routines for corporate events and teaching part-time at the Verdun circus school, where Marie-Elaine got her start as a suburban youngster. “I loved it there—spending afternoons on the tightrope and trampoline. I want kids to be introduced to circus life at a young age, just like I was.”

Despite the demands of their jobs, the couple still manage to practice together seven days a week. Afternoons are spent with Marie-Elaine climbing, standing and lying on top of Philippe’s shoulders. Philippe describes their routine as a constant “push and pull to make it work.”

Marie-Elaine loves the physical and emotional intimacy involved in dating a fellow performer: “There’s just a connection there. Hand-to-hand is a unique discipline, where we have to be linked both technically and spiritually. We feel each other’s feet and breath, joining so that while we appear to be two separate people to the audience, when we perform, we are one.”

Philippe agrees. “Circus performing with the person you love is definitely a strange and wonderful thing. The rhythm and momentum—there’s nothing else like it.” 

**

Sabine Jean, a first-year student at the NCS, is a dark-skinned pixie with short-cropped hair and energy to spare. Some of her earliest memories are of “crawling on tables and climbing up the cabinets when I was too small to reach what I wanted in the kitchen pantry. I was always moving: breakdancing with my brother, doing handstands, generally acting the fool.”

To harness her interests, her mother encouraged her to take up gymnastics and dance. Though she spent numerous hours at mall and studio recitals in her youth, Sabine says that she only really got the performing bug during her teenage years. “Initially, I thought I wanted to be more behind the scenes, like a coach or a choreographer. But as I got older, the circus life began to interest me more.”

“Once I told my family about my desire to join up, they were very supportive. My mother’s reaction was great. I asked her if she was surprised by my decision and she said, ‘Duh! I’m just amazed you didn’t decide to do it sooner!’”

Though still unsure what direction her studies will lead her, right now Sabine is happy. “It’s nice that I’ve found a place where I can be myself. I wake up every day excited to get into the big top.”

And indeed, to watch Sabine backflip across the floor amid tightrope walkers and contortionists is to observe passion at work. Like her fellow performers, her movements are a celebration of elasticity, intensity and enthusiasm, all brought together in the circus ring.