Every day until the second weekend in September, Gorilla Circus Flying Trapeze School is in Regent’s Park teaching beginners to fly. The Journal went along to hear the stories of its multinational crew of instructors
Interviews: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Orlando Gili
Holly Watson, school manager and instructor
Everyone can fly—you just have to believe that you can. We do have limits, but as long as we manage expectations, there’s no reason why everyone can’t have a go. And you don’t have to be strong—you just need to obey me.
For our beginners and intermediate students there’s almost no risk. You are all in safety lines, strapped in, and attached to someone on the other end who sees you making mistakes before you’ve made them. Everyone’s scared the first time they climb up the ladder. They climb up, freak out a little bit, get on the bar, have their first go, come down and say, “that was alright”—generally! Some people never want to do it again, but at least they tried, and that’s what’s important.
A typical lesson for a beginner starts with us talking you through all the safety rules, before doing a warm-up to avoid injuries. We then teach the beginning trick—a knee hang—on the low, static bar. After that we teach you how to take off and how to dismount before strapping you into a belt and sending you up the ladder to practise that trick on a flying trapeze. Each person has three attempts to get it right, and on the fourth go we send up the catcher. And most people are very capable of achieving that in their first class.
So, after doing this knee hang, they’ll say: “That was fun, now what?” And that’s when they start coming back. Flying trapeze is a long, slow process but once you’ve grasped all the basics you can really push yourself and get a long way. Many of our amateur students are highly skilled, just because they’ve been doing it for a long time and are committed. They spend all their time talking about flying trapeze, watching videos and travelling all over the world to do it. I’ve met half of my students on different continents.
I did a degree in French and philosophy, but after graduating realised that I‘d spent a lot of money on not being especially qualified at either. That summer I went to Glastonbury and saw a flying trapeze show by Mike Wright’s Above and Beyond and another by Arcadia Spectacular. I decided that was what I wanted to do and, to my utmost surprise, managed to successfully audition for the Circomedia circus school in Bristol. Mike Wright was a teacher at the school and during my time there, he invited me to fly on his rig. I remember calling my mum after that first day and telling her that I knew what I was going to do with my life. I spent the next three years doing as much flying as possible, just putting in the time and getting stronger. When Gorilla Circus sent out an appeal for instructors, I got in contact, saying: “Hey! I’m not actually an instructor, but I’m really keen to get into this world.” And here I am, three years later.
Getting to perform at Glastonbury with Mike Wright’s Above and Beyond—the company that got me into flying trapeze in the first place—was a big highlight. It was pretty early on in my career to just get thrown into Glastonbury. Other highlights include doing a small show in the Dominican Republic and performing with Bassline Circus at Fusion Festival and Boomtown Fair.
For me, being up there, it’s freedom. You feel so self-empowered. You feel strong. You feel under your own control. Really there’s nothing else like it. And you can’t think about anything else. You have to be in the zone, totally focused and committed. How often do we get to live in the moment like that?
I came pretty close to being a French teacher, but am desperately glad that I didn’t. Though obviously I’m still a teacher—I always knew that I’d end up teaching because I’m hugely bossy and I love people doing what I tell them—I’m teaching them something that lets people be free and to trust themselves. Everyone needs to learn how to live in a world together where we can all continue to coexist and not destroy the planet. So many of our recreational activities are hugely wasteful. Flying trapeze generates no waste—just tons of joy.
Walisson Machado, instructor
I left Brazil to join a circus school in Rio de Janeiro aged 17, and during my second year finally started on the flying trapeze. I couldn’t get to sleep after that first day and just lay awake the whole night. All I could think about was flying trapeze. To become good takes passion—I even have dreams about flying, doing some trick or other, and it was like that from the very beginning.
We learnt lots of different techniques at circus school, which means I can perform as a juggler, a clown or on a monocycle as well as doing flying trapeze and fire shows. I can go anywhere—it changes every season—and it could be a traditional travelling circus, festivals, theatre, events or even a party. But the most important thing is to be with wonderful people and to do the thing that I love. I don’t mind if it’s the biggest circus in the world or just a small show.
Flying trapeze is very hard to do and sometimes things do go wrong, but the first thing you learn is how to land safely. I have hurt myself, but that’s the same in every physical activity, because we are always trying to push ourselves to the limit. As a performer you always want to do the hardest tricks. In circus we like to do the impossible. That’s our goal.
Lindsie Arthur-Hulme, instructor
I started flying trapeze 10 years ago, back home in Sydney. My mum bought me five lessons for my 15th birthday. I hated the first lesson because I was so scared, but by my third or fourth I was completely hooked. I had danced previously and so had a background in movement, but I’ve had to work really hard to get to the level I’m at now.
My favourite tricks are the ones that scare me—where I think I hate it, until I do it. It’s that sense of achievement. There’s a trick called ‘the layout’, which is essentially a backflip off the bar, but you do it with a straight body rather than tucking; it’s not necessarily a difficult trick, but it’s one that for me was hard to overcome, so now every time I do one, I feel that wash of satisfaction. The thing I love most about teaching flying trapeze is getting somebody to achieve something that they never thought they’d be able to do—I know they’ll have that feeling too.
Nothing has gone seriously wrong during a performance, but definitely during a practice. And it shakes you. Just last week I had a fall, but I’m fine, it’s all part of it. And that’s kind of what makes it what it is, because you come in every day feeling scared about what you’re about to do—but then you overcome it.
Giovana Cattaruzzi, instructor
I love teaching beginners. When they watch flying trapeze it all looks so far from their normal lives that some don’t believe they can really do it. I love seeing all their faces at the end of the class. It makes them more confident: if you can do something as hard as flying trapeze, just imagine what else you could do.
Though I have an Italian name, I’m actually from Sao Paulo in Brazil. I was a very active child. I did gymnastics, dance and martial arts and when I found the circus, I realised I could put all of these things together and do something really artistic and creative. I loved flying trapeze the first time I tried it—it changed my life.
The winter before last I went touring with a traditional circus in Italy called Moira Orfei. That was an incredible experience: travelling around the south of Italy, moving onto a new place every week and with a different audience watching the show each day. The lights, the music, the adrenaline—it makes you fly higher and do your tricks better, and I loved seeing all the facial expressions from the audience, like: “Wow! That’s incredible”. It was very special. I really love what I do.
Bruno Luna, instructor
I was a normal kid until I realised that normal life wasn’t for me. I decided to run away and join the circus because I wanted to be with my girlfriend who worked for them. Mum wasn’t happy, but she knew that I’d escape even if she tried to stop me.
The circus was in Tijuana, close to the border with the United States—I am originally from Mexico City. I knew absolutely nothing about circus and had to learn how to put up the tent, how to drive the trucks, how to feed the animals—everything.
I made friends with some Chilean flying trapeze artists, who invited me to have a go. It started as a game, but after a month they were like: “Oh, you’re good.” And so I trained for six months—training, but playing. Then one of the guys got injured and so I ended up covering for him. That was my first chance to work in a show.
I can fly, but my main job for Gorilla Circus is being the catcher, which requires technique as well as strength. I get nervous because my partners—my team—depend on me, I have to take care of them. But you need nerves to do your job well.
Flying trapeze has been my life since I was 16. I could never have imagined that I’d get to do all the things I’ve done, meeting awesome people, working with the best and travelling the world. I have a tattoo of the world on my arm and every country where I’ve performed has been inked in. I can’t tell you how happy and blessed I feel that I decided to join the circus. It was the best decision of my life.
Agathe Thomas, instructor
I started circus when I was six years old, because my mother thought it would be a good idea for me to do that instead of climbing trees. I took up flying trapeze when I was maybe 14. I am from Bordeaux and this is my first season with Gorilla Circus. I find it fascinating to see just how quickly people can improve. I would love to perform at some point and maybe teach more, but I’m also really enjoying studying political science. Flying trapeze is my hobby; my passion.
Justin Wood, instructor
What I love is teaching people who come in afraid of it, then when they leave, they are no longer afraid. And I like the people who come back after that, after they’ve conquered their fear, because that was me: I was terrified of heights and never dreamed of doing this until I actually picked up the trapeze bar.
Back in Wyoming, where I’m from, I played hockey with the husband of a lovely woman who was tired of having to travel to flying trapeze schools as far away as Washington, California and New York and so she put up a rig in her own backyard. When she asked if I wanted to try it, I was like: “Are you kidding me? I know how high that is.” I watched for a year before finally deciding to have a go. I was absolutely terrified, and hated it for the first month, but kept going back because I wanted to conquer that demon. So now I’m here, halfway across the world, and loving what I do. I still get nervous, sure, but it’s designed to be scary. It’s also very safe. I live in Hampstead Heath and I cook a lot. I would like to be the chef at a trapeze school—that would be the coolest thing. These guys are always starving—and there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing all your food devoured.
Matthieu Blateau, instructor
I come from the Loire Valley, the famous wine region in France. I used to be a gymnast but gave it up at the age of 20—sadly we have to work to make money. I spotted an advertisement for Club Med, which has resorts all over the world, some of which have flying trapeze and circus schools. I trained for six months, learning how to perform and how to teach the circus activities, and then did my first season. I stayed with them for five years until quitting to perform full time.
Four years ago, I suffered a shoulder injury out in Spain and had to stop. I was in a show at a theme park in Benidorm and had an accident during training, a bad landing, and dislocated my shoulder. I have only been back on the trapeze for the past three months and can’t wait to start performing again. It’s great to be back on the trapeze. Up there you forget about everything and just focus on yourself and on your catcher. When you first try flying trapeze, you feel fear—most people start with the fear—but then you fall in love with it. We have an expression: “First time’s for fear. Second time’s for fun. Third time’s for life.”