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A COVID-era balancing act for survival at world-famous Le Petit Cirque

Le Petite Cirque during a performance at the Montage Laguna Beach.
Le Petit Cirque performer Bixby Baker, 11, front left, with her fellow circus artists backstage as they watch the onstage action during an October fundraiser at the Montage Laguna Beach. It was the troupe’s first live performance before a socially distanced live audience since the pandemic shut down their shows in March.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)
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One by one, three girls in colorful unitards and fluffy red headdresses grabbed a two-bar trapeze. Twisting and spinning, bending and lifting, they contorted their slim bodies like red, sparkly pretzels, as the stage filled with dense fog.

“Can we spin faster? It was just a little stale,” director Nathalie Yves Gaulthier yelled from the front of the stage on a Saturday afternoon. “Smile. Watch your legs. A little higher. Form,” she reminded them before lying back on the floor, iPhone in hand, recording the young performers from below.

Charlene Hoover, 13, and identical twins Brinkley and Brooklyn Baker, 15, spun faster and pointed their toes emphatically. Their smiles beamed wider.

“Seventh time’s the charm,” murmured Bixby Baker, the twins’ little sister, sitting nearby.

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In a typical year, the young professional circus artists of Le Petit Cirque would be coming off a live, holiday-season performance frenzy, awing audiences worldwide. But the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans. Cancellations in Norway, Portugal, Canada and Italy and beyond turned into dozens of others. The troupe lost more than $150,000 in revenue.

Kids perform a move at Le Petit Cirque's Inglewood studio as  Nathalie Yves Gaulthier photographs them from below.
Twins Brooklyn and Brinkley Baker, 15, perform for a virtual show at Le Petit Cirque’s Inglewood studio, while CEO and founder Nathalie Yves Gaulthier records them from below.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

“All of a sudden, we went from being on top of the world … to poof, the plug was pulled,” said Gaulthier, 54, who was a child performer, gymnast and trapeze artist in Quebec before moving to Los Angeles in 1997 as a talent agent. In 2012, she founded Le Petit Cirque, a sort of mini Cirque du Soleil for gifted youths ages 6 to 18.

Indeed, about 20 Le Petit Cirque artists have gone on to join Cirque du Soleil, and others have been featured on the NBC shows “America’s Got Talent” and “Little Big Shots,” as well as at corporate events and galas, including the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize concert and a birthday celebration for the Dalai Lama.

Yet like countless other acts and venues in Los Angeles and beyond, the Inglewood-based troupe and circus training program is scraping by.

Le Petit Cirque performers do the Chandelier
Le Petit Cirque artists perform the Chandelier, one of the troupe’s signature acts for a virtual performance at the group’s Inglewood studio.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

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“We are fighting hard to keep it,” said Gaulthier. “Every penny is going toward the rent.”

From a glance, the studio tucked inside an industrial plaza on Aviation Boulevard doesn’t pique much interest. But inside, the two-story, 10,000-square-foot space is a wondrous, colorful playground. Hula hoops, chandeliers and aerial silks dangle from the ceiling, along with swings and trapezes. Unicycles, crash pads and gigantic bouncing balls abound. On a wall hangs a bejeweled golden cape once owned by Flea, bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

To maintain the studio, where much of the training has moved outdoors and instructors and performers are regularly tested for COVID-19, Gaulthier was forced to lay off most of her staff and come up with new ways to bring in money. She started an online fundraiser, virtual classes and ads for other businesses to use the space when it’s empty. She’s also turned the studio into a full production company, capturing performances on video, then selling the recordings customized for clients such as JPMorgan and PayPal Global. Appearances on shows such as Fox’s “Game of Talents” and Netflix’s “Family Reunion” have also helped.

Le Petit Cirque members the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival Premiere of Hasbro Studios' "My Little Pony Equestria Girls."
Before the pandemic, Le Petit Cirque performers appeared at Hollywood events such as the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival Premiere of Hasbro Studios’ “My Little Pony Equestria Girls.”
(Angela Weiss / Getty Images)

A socially distanced fundraiser in October at the Montage Laguna Beach resort was the troupe’s first performance with a live audience since March. It was followed by a December drive-in show of “Santa Saves Christmas” in Del Mar, Calif., where performers shared a stage with the Broadway leads of “Jersey Boys” and “Les Misérables.”

These were welcome but strange experiences for the young performers. For Bixby Baker, 11, it seemed as though “everything had just paused and then played again.” Her older sister Brinkley had grown used to the virtual performances, “so it was kind of weird to have actual people again.” Adding to the weirdness, she said, were the masked spectators: “It was almost hard to tell if they were reacting.”

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An office trapeze bar

Brinkley Baker, Charlene Hoover and Brooklyn Baker on the trapeze during a performance.
Brinkley Baker, Charlene Hoover and Brooklyn Baker on the trapeze during a performance at a charity event — one of the group’s first in-person performance since the start of the pandemic.
(Josie Norris/Los Angeles Times)

Gaulthier had been working as a talent agent and manager — Ryan Gosling, Hayden Christensen and Elisha Cuthbert were among her clients — when actress Christine Lahti noticed the trapeze bar hanging in her office. “Can you teach my daughter?”

Gaulthier’s “yes” prompted requests from other parents, including drummer and composer Stewart Copeland. The growing demand encouraged her to open a circus school in Santa Monica. By the time she moved the studio to Inglewood four years ago, it had transformed into a production company. Currently, there are performers training with the Le Petit Cirque curriculum in Las Vegas, Norway, Uganda and Canada. Outposts in Miami and Montreal are in the works.

The transition, Gaulthier said, happened organically. “I’m very demanding, and my coaches are very high end, so we started churning out some really high-end athletes,” she said. “This is more than little Sally sitting on a trapeze and holding a pose. These are actual athletes who will lift their bodies 30 times in a row ... so it became a natural progression.”

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She’s brought on board well-established trainers and creators, including aerialist Dreya Weber, who’s worked with such stars as Christina Aguilera, Rihanna and the late Michael Jackson, and longtime Cirque du Soleil choreographer Debra Lynn Brown. Aguilera’s songwriter, Heather Holley, writes the troupe’s music.

Still, to develop that high-level talent, you have to start with untrained kids — which is why Le Studio LA, the home of Le Petit Cirque, offers classes for all levels.

Le PeTiT CiRqUe founder Nathalie Yves Gaulthier and performers at their Inglewood Studio on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020
Le Petit Cirque CEO and founder Nathalie Yves Gaulthier shows footage of a virtual performance by the troupe to the young circus artists during practice in their Inglewood Studio.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Performers who make the cut to the professional troupe are paid $50 to $150 per show.

“I’ve seen kids come in all stuck, like their arms are close to their bodies and their arms are crossed in front of their tummies and their heads are down and their gaits are down, and within six months, we transform them,” Gaulthier said. “It’s literally like a butterfly coming out of a chrysalis. It’s amazing to see this transformation of confidence.”

The Baker sisters of the “B Hive” family are living proof of that metamorphosis.

Brooklyn,  Bixby and Brinkley Baker get excited over something they see out the car window in Los Angeles.
The fabulous Baker girls, from left: Brooklyn, 15, Bixby, 11, and Brinkley Baker, 15. “We kind of just do everything together,” Bixby said. “We never really argue.” Brooklyn added. “But if we do, it’s pointless bickering.” Bixby was quick to clarify. “I think most kids are not as close to their siblings as we are,” said Brinkley.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Identical twins Brinkley and Brooklyn remember their bashful, pre-circus days. It’s true confidence comes with maturity and growing up, but they swear the circus helped them emerge from their shells.

“It definitely helped me to be less shy, because I used to be like, really awkward,” Brinkley said at her house in Playa Vista, where a framed image of a pooping balloon dog hung — a gift from the sisters to their mother, Brigitte. Their rescue dog Mr. Bumbles, a white “cockadoodlemoo” (Cockapoo and Maltipoo mix), lay nearby.

Brinkley Baker, 15, walks her dog down her street in Playa Vista.
Brinkley Baker, 15, takes family dog Mr. Bumbles for a walk in her own acrobatic way. She says, “I hate when I can’t do something, so I keep working my best at whatever I’m working on.”
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

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Brinkley is older by a minute and wears a pink wristband to distinguish herself from her twin, who wears a blue one. They often finish each other’s sentences, or they comment in unison.
Every morning, Brigitte Baker selects three identical outfits for her daughters. “God knows what they’d put on without me,” said the former model and ballerina, laughing. If one sister spills something on her shirt, they all change. On a particular sunny weekday afternoon, they donned jean shorts, pink T-shirts and pink masks with white polka dots. Their long, blond hair cascaded down their backs.

“You can’t be shy if you’re performing in front of a lot of people and doing character and all of that stuff, and also, all of my friends at circus, we’re all just really weird together,” said Brinkley, whose stage character is named Streutella. Brooklyn’s character is Crutella, Streutella’s crab twin, names inspired by “crouton,” “Nutella” and “strudel.” (Bixby’s character goes by Pinora. “She has a twitch in her butt and she’s very happy,” Bixby said. Her favorite color is pink and she has a pet she describes as “a fur ball of orange, red and yellow. A mix of a ‘this’ and a ‘that’ with a lion tail... Sort of a Muppet gone wrong.” Its name is It.)

Circus artists form a conga line at Le Petit Cirque’s Inglewood studio.
Bixby Baker, 11, leads a pre-filming conga line at Le Petit Cirque’s Inglewood studio.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

The girls at circus are like family. They come up with silly rhymes and songs and handshakes; one involves all the girls belting out in unison: “Save the worms!”

The sisters all agree that circus is one of the few places they can be themselves.

“It’s kind of like my second home, because I’m always there,” said Brinkley. “Everyone who I’m always there with is like family, so it’s almost like I live there.”

“You know every nook and cranny of that place,” added Brigitte. Some of their fondest memories of the last few years are affixed to that space.

When they’re not in Inglewood, the sisters are doing laps on their unicycles around a local park, creating performance acts or practicing hand balancing at “rainbow French fry land,” another park close to home. Passersby often stop to watch them in awe.

Bixby Baker, 11, Brooklyn, 15, and Brinkley, 15, create handstand line  Whole Foods in Playa Vista on Sept. 11, 2020.
Bixby Baker, 11, joins the handstand line with sisters Brooklyn and Brinkley, both 15, at their local Whole Foods. When one sister does a trick, the rest will follow suit, often grabbing the attention of those around them.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Their interest in the circus started early, after the twins, then 2, attended a performance of Cirque du Soleil. The toddlers were completely enthralled. They went to every circus under the sun after that: the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Zoppé, Circus Vargas and UniverSoul Circus. They enrolled in the local circus school Kinetic Theory, taught themselves how to unicycle and eventually learned about Le Petit Cirque through a friend.

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“They had no form. They didn’t know anything about pointed toes or nice, straight knees” when they walked through the doors, Gaulthier recalled. “It was a mess.” But they worked hard and got better. “Now they’re at the top of their game... they’re barely human.”

Brooklyn and Brinkely Baker practice a potential new act atop the shoulders of friends at the studio.
Brooklyn and Brinkely Baker, both 15, practice a potential new act atop the shoulders of friends outside Le Petit Cirque’s studio in Inglewood.
(Josie Norris/Los Angeles Times)

Jai Carter is also a wonder. At age 8, he’s the youngest, the only boy and among the few performers of color in the company. Gaulthier spotted his talent during a summer camp session and encouraged the Los Angeles youngster to stay on. He’s a newbie and doesn’t have any big acts yet, Gaulthier said, but “he’s absolutely incredible.”

Though the company offers circus scholarships through Inglewood’s Faithful Central Bible Church, it currently doesn’t have any students from the city.

After attending Zoom classes at the height of the pandemic‘s first wave, Le Petit Cirque performers are back to training in the studio three times a week — five hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, seven on Saturdays. Performing for a camera has been challenging. “You can’t really connect with an audience; you have to connect with the person filming,” Brooklyn said. On the plus side, messing up during a recorded performance means you can redo it.

The training is rigorous, exhausting and sometimes painful: The Bakers have pulled muscles, twisted ankles, burned skin, fallen on their wrists, drawn blood on their ankles from unicycling. Bruises and blisters are as common. Spinal fractures are not unusual, especially among contortionists. Gaulthier knows it can be dangerous, so she does her best to keep the kids safe.

Bixby Baker, 11, tossed in air by Brooklyn Baker, 15, and Bella Gnatt, 14, while filming at Kenneth Hahn Park. 9/9/2020
Bixby Baker, 11, is tossed into the air by fellow Le Petit Cirque performers Bella Gnatt, 14, and her older sister Brooklyn Baker, 15, while filming an act at Kenneth Hahn Park in Los Angeles.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

“We start them low — no one is high up in the air — and slow,” she said. The first year is about building an athlete: The kids have to be able to do 10 chin-ups, back handsprings and hold a handstand for one minute before they can start training for acts. At age 12, performers learn about rigging.

But the hardest part for the Baker sisters is balancing performances with the demands of training and school, which they take on the road when they’re on tour.Pre-pandemic, their days would go something like this: Wake up at 6:30 a.m., get dressed, eat breakfast, be at school by 8 a.m. Get picked up at 3 p.m., rush to circus on Tuesdays and Thursdays, get home just after 8 p.m., eat dinner, shower, do homework. On noncircus days after school, they’d head to the beach or a park and practice until dinner.

“Sometimes they stay up until 2 a.m. doing homework,” said their mother. But they’ve never let their grades drop. “They’ve always been on the honor roll. Always. They excel at everything they do,” she says.

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Bixby Baker reads a book while bracing herself in a doorway at home.
Bixby Baker, 11, reads a book while bracing herself in a bathroom doorway at home.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Still, because of circus, they’ve missed weekend birthday parties and social gatherings with family and school friends.

“It’s worth it,” Bixby said matter-of-factly. Besides, they have a collective dream: to make it to Cirque du Soleil, which has had its own pandemic struggles after shutting down dozens of productions worldwide in March. (In November, Cirque du Soleil emerged from bankruptcy protection after filing in June and cutting 3,500 jobs. It’s been sold to creditors with hopes of reemerging when live shows can be safely performed.)

Brigitte said Le Petit Cirque has taught her daughters discipline, responsibility, independence, forethought and time management.

“But I think almost more than anything else, they have such confidence in who they are,” she said. “And that to me is the most beautiful part of the whole thing, is that they’re so sure of who they are and they’re so OK with who they are.”

The hard work has paid off. Brinkley and Brooklyn were recently accepted as members of UNESCO’s International Dance Council; the organization’s affiliates include notable companies, individuals and federations.

Wonderful as these experiences can be, performing among adults runs the risk of making troupe members targets of predatory behavior. That’s where the wigs, full body costumes and heavy makeup come in. “Their identities are camouflaged” when they’re touring, said Gaulthier. Their jackets and bags don’t bear their names when they travel, and an adult chaperone is assigned to every three children.

Le Petit Cirque's artists during a performance.
Le Petit Cirque’s artists during a performance at the Montage Laguna Beach.
(Josie Norris/Los Angeles Times)

Despite the challenges Le Petit Cirque is facing, things should turn around as long as the pandemic abates this year. Among other things, the company is planning tours in Canada and New Zealand and a trip to Uganda to film a documentary with a circus orphanage. There’s also a series with MGM Television in development. The company has also partnered with Brown, the Cirque du Soleil choreographer, to launch Merveille, a circus troupe in Inglewood and Las Vegas for young adults.

Gaulthier certainly isn’t going to give up her Inglewood studio without a fight. “I believe that Le Petit Cirque is really blessed.... this company is full of kindness and goodness. Anything that’s good and driven by God, or driven by light, will always be OK. So I’m just going to keep going and keep fighting.”

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Hanging with the fabulous Baker girls

PHOTOS BY JOSIE NORRIS

Brooklyn Baker, 15, swings on a trapeze hung outside her home in Playa Vista.
Brooklyn Baker, 15, swings on the front porch trapeze of her home as sister Bixby, 11, does a hand stand on top of their dog Mr. Bumbles and Brinkley, 15, talks with their dad, Billy. The girls are always climbing and perfecting tricks when and wherever they can.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

From left, sisters Brooklyn, 15, Brinkley, 15, and Bixby, 11, apply circus makeup at home in Playa Vista, Aug. 27, 2020
The Baker sisters, from left, Brooklyn, 15, Brinkley, 15, and Bixby, 11, apply their circus makeup at home before heading to Le Petit Cirque studio to film a virtual performance.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

At Whole Foods, Playa Vista, Brinkley Baker, 15, lifts her sister Bixby Baker, 11, above her head on Sept. 11, 2020.
As they wait in line to check out at their local Whole Foods, Brinkley Baker, 15, lifts her sister Bixby Baker, 11, above her head.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Brinkley, Brooklyn and Bixby Baker brush their teeth together before bed.
Brinkley, 15, Brooklyn, also 15, and Bixby Baker brush their teeth together before bed. The sisters are very close.
(Josie Norris/Los Angeles Times)

Brinkley, 15, blows glitter off twin sister Brooklyn Baker's face at Le PeTiT CiRqUe Aug. 29, 2020
Brinkley Baker, 15, blows excess glitter off of her twin sister Brooklyn Baker’s face as they finish up their makeup before filming a Le Petit Cirque virtual performance. They’ve been on the troupe’s A team for more than have two years.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Brinkley Baker, 15, holds her braids at Kenneth Hahn Park in Los Angeles.  Sept. 9, 2020.
Brinkley Baker, 15, plays with her braids at Kenneth Hahn Park in Los Angeles. Brinkley and her twin sister Brooklyn wear matching braids almost daily.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Brinkley Baker, 15, left, and Brooklyn, 15, help each other with homework at home while their family relaxes 9/9,/2020
Brinkley Baker, 15, left, and Brooklyn, 15, help each other with their homework while the rest of their family relaxes.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

From left, Brooklyn Baker, 15, dad Billy Baker, Brinkley Baker, 15, Bixby, 11, and Brigitte Baker in Playa Vista, 9/9/20
The Bakers at home, from left: Brooklyn, 15, dad Billy, Brinkley, 15, Bixby, 11, and mom Brigitte Baker burst into laughter over a funny video playing on Billy’s phone. During the pandemic, being indoors and Zooming all day is hard on the girls, their mom said: “It’s not their thing. We’d like to get back to life.”
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

From left, Bixby Baker, 11, dad Billy, mom Brigitte, Brinkley, 15, Brooklyn, 15, at home  on September 25, 2020.
The Bakers at home. Bixby Baker, 11, left, watches as her dad Billy Baker catapults a potato into Brooklyn Baker’s, 15, mouth across the dining room table with mom Brigitte and Brinkley, 15, at center.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

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Bella Gnatt, 14, with Brinkley Baker, 15, Bixby Baker, 11, and Brooklyn Baker, 15, at Kenneth Hahn Park on Sept. 9, 2020
Bella Gnatt, 14, tells the Baker sisters Brinkley, 15; Bixby, 11; and Brooklyn Baker, 15, a story while climbing a tree at Kenneth Hahn Park. Bella and Bixby have an act together and hang out whenever possible.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Bixby, 11, Brinkley, 15, and Brooklyn Baker, 15, pose together along Abbott Kinney in Venice on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.
Sisters Bixby, 11, Brinkley, 15, and Brooklyn Baker, 15, pose together.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Circus artists perform, in an in-camera double exposure image.
In an in-camera double exposure image, Brooklyn and Brinkley Baker, during a virtual performance at the circus’ Inglewood studio.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Brinkley, 15, Brooklyn, 15, and Bixby Baker, 11, pose atop their playhouse on their front porch on Sept. 25, 2020 in LA.
Brinkley, 15, Brooklyn, 15, and Bixby Baker, 11, pose atop a playhouse.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)