National Circus School in Montreal isn't clowning around

It used to be enough when all else failed to simply run away and join the circus. And in today's difficult hiring environment, it turns out the circus may still be a reliable source of job openings.

"There's lots of employment opportunities in this field. It's an unusual field, admittedly, but we offer a very unusual training," said Marc Lalonde, the executive director of the National Circus School in Montreal, one of North America's top schools for the "circus arts."

Lalonde said the National Circus School has a high success rate in finding work for its graduates because there are more jobs available than the industry can find suitable applicants for. "In some years," he said, "nearly 100% of our students find work within the first few months of graduating."

Still, the life of a circus artist isn't always easy. Pay will vary widely by discipline, and it can be a short-lived career.

"It's very difficult to say how long a circus artist's career will last, or even what they get paid because it varies from discipline to discipline and artist to artist," Lalonde said. "If you're a juggler, you can have a very long career, but you won't get paid as much as an acrobat, where it's much more difficult on the body and chances are after the age of 40 you will probably retire or find another specialty. A clown, on the other hand, can have a very long career. And if you work in the cabaret in Germany, for example, where it is very popular, you might perform night after night and earn quite a lot."

Lalonde, a former dancer, presides over an institution that offers intensive training in such specialized disciplines as cloud swing, antipodism, Korean board and the rola bola. And the National Circus School, Lalonde said, is one of a handful of training centers globally that is heavily geared toward producing professionals for what he called an emerging or "underdeveloped field."

Lalonde said that he has not noticed any decrease in the number of available jobs for his graduates as a result of the economic downturn. "There are very few schools … training circus artists in the Western world right now," he said. "And there simply aren't enough performers to meet the demand at the moment. It's as simple as that."

With the U.S. jobless rate hovering near 9%, is it worth learning Chinese hoop diving? One complication is that there is little information about the size of the industry or where the job growth is.

U.S. census data show that in 2007 there were just 31 — very narrowly defined — circuses in the U.S. employing a total of 1,174 workers and generating $184 million in revenue a year. This compares with about 1,000 circuses operating across Europe, according to the European Circus Assn., although that body does not track any industry data related to revenue, markets, number of employees or average salaries.

And the data that are available underestimates the size of the industry and how it's far more these days than marching elephants, old-time hucksterism and high-wire acts.

Canadian entertainment group Cirque du Soleil, which describes itself as "a dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment," is one place where the circus arts have found a more resume-friendly relevance. Its shows, which combine jaw-dropping aerial feats with elements of fantasy, have performed to more than 100 million spectators since the group's founding in 1984, and its traveling tours have visited more than 250 cities around the world.

The Montreal company is also a major employer for the circus industry, with more than 4,000 workers, including more than 1,000 artists. Cirque du Soleil wouldn't divulge general salary information for its employees, but on its website the firm says "artists are generally offered one- or two-year contracts" and that "artists are paid per show they perform in."

Kenneth Feld is chief executive at closely held Feld Entertainment Inc., the company behind Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's the Greatest Show on Earth, a family-entertainment group that has been running in the U.S. for 140 years. He said that the circus industry "is a pretty unique business" and that the industry is very difficult to research because "everyone defines the circus in a different way."

Feld said that his company employs about 750 people for the three touring companies that make up the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey unit. (Feld also produces Disney on Ice and other shows.) "There's always been this mystery about the circus because many are part of a tradition that is handed down from generation to generation," Feld said. "And in today's economy where everything is a little tough, the circus is actually a field where a lot of people are saying, 'Wow, I could get a job there.' "

Feld said that there's no limit to the salaries that can be earned in the circus. "You could start on an income of, say, $40,000 a year as a clown," but then expect to earn a lot more getting shot out of a cannon or as an acrobat.

Hjelmgaard writes for

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