Beyond Smiles and Splits: Giving 100%? - StageLync
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Beyond Smiles and Splits: Giving 100%?

Circus artists repeat the same tricks over and over again to reach a level of excellence and performance quality that is stage-worthy. They are taught early on to give their best each and every time they go on stage. The show must go on is their golden rule. Considering that each is invested in other activities and has other duties to fulfill, is it possible to really “give it all?” What are the healthy habits that contribute to an artist feeling as strong and proud walking on stage as they do on a sidewalk? These are some of the questions at the heart of this first episode of Beyond Smiles and Splits.

The light is shining brightly, nearly blinding those watching a masterful demonstration of dexterity and precision. Beads of sweat run down a woman’s temples as she squints to focus, to stay centered, and to block the nervousness that would make her hand tremble at the worst time. She has learned to perform under pressure and to give her best regardless of how many are watching or how much being physically and emotionally involved pays. Meanwhile, in a different time zone, people clap and cheer for a young man who releases all the tension from his hands, having flawlessly executed one last maneuver. Each gave their very best, which is what’s expected of the surgeon performing an organ transplant and the pilot landing a plane. Is giving their best and 100% the same?

Circus performer Baptiste Clerc hangs upside down above a prop chair on a dark stage backdrop
Baptiste Clerc

Any individual who likes and is invested in their job aims for that perfect score and wants to do great work. Documents must be on the boss’ desk before the deadline, dishes have to leave the restaurant’s kitchen at the right temperature, and a soprano’s voice can’t crack on the infamous note the audience has repeatedly heard on the radio. The latter has heard the nine-to-five crowd saying that her job is easy, that artists “only work two hours per day.” Whilst every juggler and flyer knows that, unlike the chef and the accountant, a significant amount of their work is done in near-secrecy prior to hitting the stage, some spectators see that five-minute act or these acrobatic ensemble tableaux as “all the work” an artist accomplished on that day.

In the same way that the surgeon is expected to be entirely focused on their patient, and the pilot, on each action that safely gets passengers to their destination, the circus artist must deliver a flawless performance. Acrobats are expected to be in the moment, connect with the audience, and “give it all.” They can’t drop nor miss a trick and must convey strength and sensibility. However, is it healthy to give 100% each time the lights go on, sometimes twice or three times a day? What kind of an impact does such selflessness have on one’s body and mind? Considering the off-stage life and the energy required to run errands, connect with a loved one, have fun on a climbing wall, or do small home repairs, is it smarter, even necessary, to save some fuel? Is giving 100% of their energy on that day the healthy approach to balancing personal and professional lives?

In a gloomy posture, trapeze artist Leela Masuret sits on her trapeze with her back to the camera
Leela Masuret

Circus artists are high-level athletes. A wire walker trains and demands as much of her body as an Olympic diver. A Russian bar porter feeds himself and is as concerned about his dietary needs as a weightlifter. Both hockey players and trapeze flyers share excellence as their common goal and perform in arenas. These highly-maintained bodies are trained to perform under pressure, to be as strong as they are precise. Both the sport and the stage worlds believe that repeating leads to mastering, but only the circus crowd is asked to publicly and regularly do so to earn a living.

In her memoir Open Heart, Open Mind, Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes describes how single-minded one must be to get to the Olympics, the pressure of having the eyes of the world watching every move, and how physically and emotionally draining such an event can be. No athlete in their right mind would attend the Olympics twice a month, but circus artists face the audience and perform multiple times a week to keep their employers satisfied and their peers’ approval. Holding that one-arm position and keeping ten balls in the air isn’t enough; one must execute such tricks with the same precision show after show, six, eight, ten times a week. One must remain in excellent physical shape while staying psychologically balanced and keeping some sort of freshness for spectators who keep on coming.

Acrobat Antino Pansa, a young Black man with short dreadlocks in a sleeveless shirt, rests on his back after a training studio session
Antino Pansa

The mental pressure that some put themselves under or that a coach, director, or producer puts on them can get very high. Broadway and West End shows have stand-bys who can literally jump in in the middle of a performance if a lead can’t go on. Ballets have understudies willing to replace Soloists and Principals in a heartbeat. In spite of some circus productions having a rotation system and alternates, “the show must go on” is the norm for acrobats who have yet to learn how to regulate the pressure they’re under.

As previously mentioned, a circus artist’s work goes far beyond what the audience sees. Artistic administration, training, researching, scheduling, and traveling hours require as much energy and focus as the performance itself. Looking at what the profession demands on and off stage, giving 100% at all times and to each task would be inhuman.

Self-regulating is one way to understand what it means to give its best and reach expectations with a healthy approach.

Aerialist Tanya Burka performs on red aerial silks in the show
Tanya Burka in “Quidam”

“I give 100% of about 70% onstage. That 70% is pure, joyous, unstinting, genuine, capable, sustainable, and on top of its game,” says aerialist Tanya Burka. 16 years of performing worldwide taught her that keeping that remaining 30% for what makes her a functioning human being offstage does not weaken her performance. When the light hits the stage and she rises above the crowd, she is fully aware of each sensation going through her body and how every limb reacts to her apparatus. She is entirely in the moment; she connects with the audience and her castmates. Dosing her energy and knowing how far she can go to avoid the breaking point makes her a better performer. “The audience deserves the best me, NOT all of me,” concludes Burka.

Sara Pokalob, a Broadway performer starring in 1776, echoes the aerialist’s words and sees giving 100% to everything all the time as a recipe for disaster. She gives 75% on that stage and reaches 90% in a particular song with a deeper connection. 75%, but the greatest 75, nevertheless! The freelancers’ reality that they don’t get to only do their own work and often put others’ vision first is something that she also takes into account. “If I’m compromising my desire to do my own work, but the resources are there, it really just comes down to labor. If I’m compromising, I’d better be getting paid a lot more money and ask, ‘Do I want to give 100 percent of myself to this?’” she told Vulture in 2022.

An artist who knows how to use their fuel and where their energy reserves lie is more likely to know how and when to hold back. Keeping some energy to cope with homesickness, the death of a loved one, or the hint of an old injury’s return is a self-regulation technique to stay mentally balanced. It does not mean dropping all clubs, not having fully extended legs in a double twist, or focusing on what’s for dinner rather than on the audience.

We live in a success-driven society that values productivity. Consequently, many use professions to label individuals, for some of whom their core identity resides in their job title. Whether one works in a cubicle or a cabaret, our society needs to realize that we aren’t just what we do. The crisis that shook our world in 2020 prompted the discussion and provoked a change in mentalities. Some people left their jobs and considered different avenues in a quest to better balance their personal and professional lives. Nobody is physically and psychologically equipped to give 100% full-time, whether sitting at a desk from 9:00 to 5:00 or standing on a wire from 9:00 to 9:05.

The ensemble cast of Anthony Venisse's Minutes Complètement Cirque, a group of ten-plus circus acrobats, arranged in an embrace-like pose on a stage with blue lighting
Anthony Venisse’s Minutes Complètement Cirque

Lastly, giving every drop of energy and sweat can be destructive for the artist who lives entirely for the show and gauges success and happiness on how their performance went. If the stage is the place for which they save all their strength and sensibility—if their identity resides solely in what they do up there—they are bound to hit a wall whenever a slide isn’t as smooth as the previous one felt, a salto doesn’t feel as high as it did last week, or the evening crowd sounds less responsive than the matinée’s. It can’t always be a perfect, Olympic ten, where the artist, the audience, the technicians, and everyone involved is in an unshakable symbiosis, but it can be the best that one has to give for that show while still managing to get through the rest of their day.

Image credits: image of Tanya Burka taken by Brooke Meyer. All other images by Rénald Laurin. Images shared by Martin Frenette.
Martin Frenette
Circus Artist, Writer - Canada
Impassioned by performing arts, Martin Frenette started intensive dance training at a very young age before trading pliés and barres for ropes and somersaults at Montreal National Circus School. He has spent a decade performing in several shows in Europe, such as Circus Monti, Chamäleon Theater, Wintergarten Varieté, Cirque Bouffon, GOP Show Concepts or the Max Entertainment Palace, to name a few. Writing has always been one of Martin's passions and he's thrilled to join Circus Talk's team to share his views on shows, the stage and what's going on behind the scenes with other performing arts enthusiasts!

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Martin Frenette

Impassioned by performing arts, Martin Frenette started intensive dance training at a very young age before trading pliés and barres for ropes and somersaults at Montreal National Circus School. He has spent a decade performing in several shows in Europe, such as Circus Monti, Chamäleon Theater, Wintergarten Varieté, Cirque Bouffon, GOP Show Concepts or the Max Entertainment Palace, to name a few. Writing has always been one of Martin's passions and he's thrilled to join Circus Talk's team to share his views on shows, the stage and what's going on behind the scenes with other performing arts enthusiasts!