She Ran Away and Joined the Cirque

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic. His last article for the magazine was a profile of film director Mike Leigh

"I just love the air."--Shana Carroll

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Settled comfortably one recent night under an enormous white tent topped with delicate spires, a capacity crowd of 2,500 in Antwerp, Belgium, is understandably astonished by the combination of circus tradition and postmodern inventiveness that characterizes Saltimbanco, the Cirque du Soleil show that has been touring Europe since 1995. As always, a special reverence and delight is reserved for the aerialist, the slender, blond trapeze artist in the silvery-bluish unitard whose dazzling moves and poetic presence on the bar 20 feet above the ground compel reverential silence followed by massive, relieved applause.

Yet dazzled as this crowd is, I feel considerably more astonished by the performance than anyone else under the Big Top. For I first met Shana Carroll, the young woman on the trapeze, 17 years earlier, when she was a 9-year-old scrambling around the Santa Monica Canyon home of her journalist father. Whatever your range of expectations may be for your friends' children, having one of them end up as the premier solo aerialist of the Cirque du Soleil's European tour is off the charts.

The younger daughter of Jon Carroll, once the editor of New West magazine and now a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and his former wife, Sandra Rosenzweig, a Northern California writer and editor, Shana is the only American of the more than 40 performers in Saltimbanco. She is married to a fellow circus professional, a remarkable acrobat named Huang Zhen, and is well aware that to the people who knew her in California, she has settled into "such a peculiar, out-of-the-blue life, the strangest thing anyone could imagine."

The norm in Shana's new world is typified by a scene glimpsed earlier in the day in the backstage practice hall, dressing area, game room and all-around home away from home, known collectively as the artists' tent. Casually perched high up on two parallel floor-to-tent-top ropes is a small boy of perhaps 8 or 9, being rigorously instructed by his Russian acrobat mother. Though in the front of the house, Cirque employees are selling tickets via computer, back here skills are being passed on in the old-fashioned way, which Shana, to her colleagues' surprise, did completely without. Equally out of the ordinary is that Shana did what she did by choice. After her performance, Shana introduces me to pair of charismatic Portuguese brothers, Marco and Paulo Lorador, masters of acrobatic hand balancing and considered close to circus royalty because their family has been in European shows for generations.

"They're working hard, trying to earn a lot of money so their children can be educated and have the kind of choices I had but didn't want," Shana explains, bemused at the contrast. "It's a hard lifestyle, and the people who had no choice think I'm a little crazy to be here."

This is the mystery I've come to solve: How did it happen that a California girl, dividing her time between her divorced parents, neither of whom are celebrated for their athleticism, came to embrace this arduous and foreign life?

Shana sees a possible parallel with her mother, Sandra, noting that Jon has written about her as " 'a woman of sudden and intense enthusiasms.' I'm an extremist myself, and this was the most extreme path I could take. I've always bitten off more than I can chew, and this seems the epitome of it."

Sitting in the small cafe on the Cirque back lot and wearing sneakers, green cotton pants and a plaid flannel shirt over a white sweatshirt, Shana Carroll could be a UCLA graduate student killing time between classes--except for the almost tangible air of physicality that she radiates, the self-assurance of the truly fit and the reveling in movement that has her run where others might walk. She throws herself into conversation, loving to talk when she gets the chance, she says, because it's so much the opposite of the physical work that takes up most of her life.

To spend any time with Shana is to realize that, far from being some idiosyncratic fling, the trapeze is a passion for her, an almost monastic calling. She expresses frustration at family friends who see this as the equivalent of a junior year abroad or "like I ran away and joined the circus. It's such a frivolous cliche and a misconception. What people are trying to find in meditation, that's what I find here."

All of which is ironic, for as a child Shana remembers not liking circuses at all ("I didn't get it, I didn't really believe it was real") and preferring the world of musicals and the stage. She did all the plays at Berkeley High School and, after graduation, thought she might become an actress. When that didn't work out, her father, a member of the board of the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, suggested a box-office job with the troupe as a stopgap measure.

In retrospect, there were indicators for what happened next. Years later, looking at family photographs, Shana saw someone who "in every picture was upside down, hanging from a tree or dangling off a diving board." And then there was an even older incident:"When I was 2, I tried to fly. I jumped right off the stairs and broke my arm." (Her father says "she hurled herself just like Superman.") But at the time she went to work for the circus, no one, least of all Shana, was prepared for what that minimum-wage job would lead to. "She went backstage," her father remembers, "and was transformed."

What Shana saw was the Pickles' trapeze artist, Sky De Sela, and so many emotions hit her at once that it's hard even in retrospect to sort them out. "I really fell in love. I thought, 'This is so moving, so close, so human, so simple.' I saw it as celebrating being human, testing the limits of what a human can do. Unlike the theater, this wasn't woven in metaphors: Instead of alluding to flying, someone was flying. When I first saw it, it seemed so automatic that this was what I was going to devote my life to."

De Sela was departing the Pickle Family Circus, but she had time to give Shana one lesson. "The first time I touched the bar, I felt at home--it just felt right," Shana says. "On the ground I felt heavy and awkward, but in the air I felt I could move gracefully. I'd never been athletic--this was the first time I felt a sense of pleasure in doing something physical."

"It isn't given to very many of us in life to find our calling," says her mother. "So the first day Shana came home and said, 'Mommy, I found it,' it was a major thing. She knew she belonged there."

Shana auditioned for and won a job as a performing apprentice at the circus, which meant doing everything from group acrobatics to selling T-shirts. Every day she put up a little practice trapeze, three feet off the ground, and began to teach herself to master it. "I had this funny idea it would be more impressive if I learned on my own," she says now. "I was lucky I had a very limited knowledge of the trapeze, or else I would've been intimidated about what I couldn't do. My knowledge of what was out there increased at the same rate I was ready to do new things."

Though at 18 she was twice as old as most trapeze beginners and didn't have the gymnastics background considered critical, Shana compensated with hard-core desire. "It was an insane amount of hard work," says her father. "She worked incredibly long hours training and lifting weights. I wouldn't have stood for it, but it never occurred to her not to do it."

Then in November 1989, about a year after she'd first experienced the trapeze, a genuine Hollywood moment occurred. De Sela's replacement abruptly left the Pickle Family Circus, and Shana was asked if she thought she could learn the aerialist's act in two weeks before the group's grand opening at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts. She agreed to try.

"I was so nervous I was crying all the time," Shana says. "So elated I couldn't sleep." Her father stayed away from rehearsals, not wanting, he later wrote, "to embarrass myself by screaming 'my daughter, my daughter!' like some grieving peasant woman at the site of a Mediterranean aircraft disaster." And, in fact, there was a horrible moment when Shana, not realizing that her head was still in a rope loop, let go and nearly hanged herself. "I just got a big yank" is how she describes it now. "By the time I realized what had happened, that I could've died, it was over."

"She came home with rope burns on her neck, sobbing, and I was terrified," remembers her mother. "I didn't know anything about her world--I was helpless. I had to just respect that she was going to take care of it. It gave me emotional calluses right away, and I haven't worried since."

Shana stayed with the Pickle Family Circus for a year and a half. "It was not glamorous," she says. "There were two shows a day, with training after and before, because I was always pushing myself to gain strength. We were living in tents, without heating, backstage, rained on, playing to three people. You have to be loving it to do it, and that's what made me sure."

That was also when Shana met circus artist Huang Zhen, a specialist in pole climbing, who had been taken into the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe in his native city when he was 9 years old. "When representatives of the troupe came to his school to look for recruits, he was scared, so he jumped up and crouched over a door frame to hide," Shana relates. "When the men turned around and saw this, they said, 'We want him, that kid up there.' "

Shana and Huang Zhen were married three years ago, and he is now attempting to start his own Chinese acrobatic troupe in the United States. A highlight of their wedding was a trick, done by an old friend of the groom's, that involved balancing three raw eggs on the tip of a chopstick, in turn balanced on the bridge of the acrobat's nose. "It defies all notions of conventional physics," says Jon Carroll.

Though she adored the Pickle Circus, after a year and a half Shana knew she needed more schooling if she was to progress. She got a one-way plane ticket to Montreal from a friend, hoping to study with Andre Simard, considered one of the top coaches in the world, at the Ecole Nationale de Cirque. The school said it was full, but Shana showed up anyway, and after nearly a year, her persistence paid off and she was able to work with Simard. When he moved to the Ecole de Cirque Rosny-sous-Bois outside Paris, she was one of the two students he asked to make the trip with him. The stint with the Cirque followed soon after.

As it now stands, there are two parts to Shana's act, called the ballant and the fixe in French, usually translated as "swinging" and "fixed." The more showy ballant requires raw physical strength to stand on the trapeze, swing it in a 180-degree arc (the hardest part) and then do a series of moves while in motion. Shana is drawn to the beauty of the physics involved, but she considers the ballant a series of tricks that she has mastered. What she loves is the fixe.

A fluid series of expressive/acrobatic moves on the unmoving bar, the fixe is, in effect, a choreographed modern dance moment in midair. It is, Shana explains, "a performance piece I do on the trapeze, using it as a dance partner. Fixe is more free-form and creative than the ballant, and there are no prescribed moves I need to incorporate. It's considered passe if you can recognize classic trapeze positions.

"What I learned in circus school was that everyone had a different style, and the ways I wasn't a typical trapeze artist were advantages. I was from Berkeley, I had all this other background and I had to use it. I wanted to be different, not just fill a mold that was already there."

The amount of strength (but not bulk) and conditioning necessary to do trapeze work was and continues to be considerable. Even now Shana (who alternates with a duo trapeze act done by a pair of Canadian twins) practices every day for at least an hour whether she performs or not. Her hands are callused, she wears leather ankle guards to prevent painful and possibly dangerous rope burns, and it takes but two weeks off her routine to get out of shape.

"The bar is solid steel, very heavy and very hard, and when you're sitting on it every day, it deadens the nerves in your thighs," Shana explains. "When I come back after two weeks off, the nerves have grown back, and it's so painful I can't even sit on the toilet."

Doing all these stunts 20 feet off the ground without a net may look death-defying, but, Shana says, "I know people outside the circus who take many more risks with their lives. All my risks are calculated. And there's a difference between something being dangerous and feeling scared. Losing fear completely is what's dangerous. You don't want to be nonchalant--that's when accidents happen."

Shana has, in fact, fallen twice in the more than 500 performances she's given, with a rigging system of safety lines having absorbed the fall both times. "It's mildly embarrassing. You have to try and figure out what you did wrong and get back up and do it again," she says. "It's an incredible feeling having the audience behind you, to hear 2,500 people gasp at one time, and I was overwhelmed by that amount of support. The fact that someone can always fall makes the performance feel quintessentially live, more than any other kind of performance does. The people who were in the audience the nights I fell, they're not going to forget it."

The Cirque's Saltimbanco tour ends next February, at which time Shana will take stock and see where she wants to go next. She believes she has at least another five years of the strenuous ballant ahead of her, more for the fixe, and after that, teaching is a possibility. For now, there is always the lure of the air. To see her is to understand it all, and the question becomes not how this young woman from California became a trapeze artist, but how anyone could have thought she'd be anything else.

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