Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

"That Kid Should Be in the Circus!"

Susan Briscoe’s son didn’t run away to the circus—she drives him there, five nights a week

Nathan was always a happy kid—cheerful and angst-free—until a year and a half ago, when he fell into a funk. Depression, he called it. I hoped it was one of those stages that would pass in its own mysterious way, but the months dragged on. “I’m just not excited about life anymore,” he said. Ten years old. I had to do something.
Circus was not the most obvious something; Nathan hadn’t even enjoyed the Cirque du Soleil show we took him to and asked to leave before the end, complaining that it was too loud. He’d once taken a beginner’s session of recreational circus too, but only shrugged when asked if he wanted to go back.

Still, he did rather surprising things with his body—crazy things, at alarming heights and speeds, with natural strength and agility and joy that was wonderful to watch. He walked on his hands and climbed lampposts and tried all sorts of tricks on the swing set. He was persistent and fearless and incredibly creative: a terrible example for other children. (At his first swimming lesson, his class was told to jump into the water from the edge of the pool; four-year-old Nathan did a somersault.) Nothing delights him more than discovering new things to do with his body. “That kid,” friends and family would say, “should be in the circus.”

I could see the glow from Montreal’s glittering circus constellation from our home in the Eastern Townships, so I researched the renowned National Circus School, or ENC, which shares Montreal’s circus arts complex, known as Tohu, with the Cirque du Soleil. Maybe, I thought, Nathan’s earlier circus training had just been too slow and dull. Maybe he needed a serious challenge. The ENC had an open entrance exam coming up for its Preparation for Advanced Training program, for kids from nine to eighteen. However, the School suggested that successful candidates would have had some previous training in a related discipline, like gymnastics. Since Nathan didn’t, I figured it was unlikely he’d get in.

So I didn’t bother to think the whole thing through—what about the distance, or the danger?—and requested an application package. Figuring he ought to prepare for the exam somehow, I asked an acquaintance, a circus artist formerly with the Cirque du Soleil, to meet with him. “Wow, you’re really small—that’s great!” she said. It was the first time his size had been termed a positive. She suggested some exercises and stretches and quickly showed him how to do a back-walkover. She thought he’d get in.

On the first day of Nathan’s entrance examination, the ENC told us to be prepared to stay the whole day, though they would make the first cut before noon. I hung out all morning in the cafeteria with some other anxious parents. We were not allowed to watch. Eventually, they called the names of those who had made it to the next round; Nathan was among them. Suddenly I was anxious: what if he were actually accepted? What then?

The ENC called two days later and asked Nathan to come back for yet another audition. By the time it was over, he’d spent close to twelve hours being examined. They had tested him for strength, coordination, flexibility, and spatial orientation. They’d watched him do gymnastics, trampoline, improvisation, and dance—none of which he’d done before. They’d considered his focus, commitment, attitude, and endurance. Especially with younger candidates like Nathan, the examiners try to evaluate potential rather than accomplishment, a tricky endeavour. Later I was told that the admissions committee had tightened its selection process to match the rising standards of other internationally-recognized circus schools. This year, they would take only five new students, the youngest nine, the eldest eighteen, for the PFS, in which there are twelve students altogether.

While we waited to hear from the School, I finally considered the possibility of circus as my son’s future. Finding happiness for now was one thing, but what about the rest of his life? Career duration in acrobatic performance is short. There is also some degree of danger, though skiing accidents are probably more injurious—and more common—than circus accidents. After this year, Nathan has another eight years of intensive training ahead of him, should he follow through with the ENC’s college program; it’s sobering to think that it could all abruptly end with one small mistake. My thoughts were morbid: What if Nathan, whose joy in life is so physical, wound up severely disabled?

I decided I should at least try to make the risk clear to him, to explain the circus’s possible price, because I wasn’t sure he understood. His earnest response wasn’t particularly comforting: “Mom, I need to do something like this with my life. If I don’t do circus, I’ll have to do something just as thrilling to be happy.” Something probably more dangerous, like rock-climbing or extreme snowboarding. At least the ENC has safety equipment and trained supervision.

When the School called to tell us Nathan had been accepted, he was immensely proud, though I think he had little sense of what circus school would entail. For our family, it would be more than just adding an after-school activity. Since the program involves sixteen hours of training over five days a week, ten months a year, we would have to move to the city, which I had so gladly left nine years before. Circus school meant giving up our home, Nathan’s school, my work, our community. That was a lot to give up for the tenuous possibility of his happiness.

At first, it wasn’t clear Nathan would be happy. The ENC program begins with a two-week training camp in August, and after his first day, he said, “If I had the choice of living this day over again, I’m not sure I would.” I reminded him that he found new situations stressful and suggested giving it a few more days. It wasn’t long before he told me he felt “normal” at circus school. I think this meant he had finally found a group of peers, people who shared his pleasure in physical exertion and creativity, even though he was the only eleven-year-old there. Most mornings Nathan was so sore he could hardly get out of bed, but by the end of training camp, he loved his new life. “Circus school feels like home,” he says now.

Perhaps his biggest thrill was doing things that weren’t normally allowed: balancing atop four other kids riding a single bike, or being thrown forty feet into the air to fall back down into a pit of foam cubes. Even running in the halls was liberating after the strictness of his regular school. There is a sort of redemption in this for me, too. I’ve received plenty of disapproving scowls over the years for allowing him to trust his own limits. How often he’s been told by others to get down off some monument or railing! Now his escapades outside of circus are often tolerated, even respected, as a display of his passion. (The circus’s recent popular makeover—from marginal, kitschy carnival to elite art form worthy of corporate sponsorship and government grants—doesn’t hurt.)

But once the school year started, the demanding schedule of regular day school (now in French) plus the ENC from six to nine, four nights a week, and Saturdays from nine to one, became a serious strain. “I don’t think I can do this all year,” he said, more than once. But he never considered giving up circus; it was regular school he wanted to drop. Fortunately, a sympathetic teacher at the new school lightened the load as much as possible, and Nathan has stuck it out. But I still worry about him getting overtired—that’s when accidents happen.

And accidents are a real concern. There seems to always be somebody on crutches or cradling an icepack at the ENC, and I have been told to expect injuries. In fact, every student gets an introductory appointment with the school’s full-time physiotherapist in the first weeks. Even everyday muscle pain can be significant—Nathan’s fantasy now is to spend a day at a spa. Then there’s flexibility class, where the students are often stretched to the point of tears. Even Nathan, worryingly tolerant of pain and naturally very flexible, sometimes cries through forced stretches.

I have to quell my maternal instincts. “You have to trust me that it’s okay, Mom,” he tells me. “It’s my body, and I’m okay with this.”