MenagerieBetween the ropes: A look into the exhilarating art of trapeze
Between the ropes: A look into the exhilarating art of trapeze

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Julie muttered to herself as she anxiously looked around the sea of people she was silently drowning in. She’d hated crowds for as long as she could remember—especially noisy, restless, and sweaty ones. Though her eyes darted from left to right, rabidly searching for a way out kind of like a rabbit caught in a trap, she had no choice but to keep her feet firmly planted on the ground. After all, it wasn’t like there was any space to walk out and leave.

Someone coughed behind her, which made her want to scratch the skin off her back. Somewhere to her right, a child let out an annoying whine, which only further solidified her inclination to never have kids (somewhere deep down though, she knew that wasn’t true…crowds like this just always brought out her nasty germophobic, child-despising alter ego). She didn’t want to breathe in the same breath that everyone in that space was breathing out. She had half a mind to push her way through the crowd and leave–but then again, her editor assigned her to cover this event, which only meant one thing–her hands were tied.

 

 

Caught somewhere between suffocation and hyperventilation at both the relief of the cool air from inside the theatre rushing out to meet her face and the sudden backward motion of all the people in front of her as they stepped back to make room for now-open doors, Julie clenched her fists. Had it not been for the wall of people in front of her, she would have run straight into the safe confines of the cushioned theatre walls.

The dark, air-conditioned room was heaven compared to the hot, crowded space she was stuck in earlier. As soon as she was settled in her seat, she sent her mother a mandatory “I didn’t get kidnapped” message before switching it off to comply with the theater’s rules.

The theater was pitch black at first, the mere outline of the curtains already a chore to gaze upon. Silence swept across the room like a wave. Then, slowly, the lights came on—not like at home, where you flip a switch and suddenly, there’s light—this was like the sunrise. The gradual fading of the absence of light as brightness slowly began to illuminate the room leaving no clear definition of which moments were dark and which were bright–seemed to whisk everyone’s (including Julie’s) restlessness away, leaving a heavenly, almost too-good-to-be-true serenity in its wake. Several audible gasps rose as the spotlight grew, shining on a petite figure. Julie squinted until the center of everyone’s attention came into focus.

The woman illuminated by the light was the embodiment of poise; her spine as straight as a ruler, but with an aura of grace as she walked on the tiny platform at the very top of the stage. The audience didn’t have to wait long–in an instant, the petite figure turned into a blur as she grabbed hold of the bar, swinging her whole body into a perfect arc. A few seconds after the mesmerized onlookers’ collective gasp, some more terrified on behalf of the woman in the air, than entertained by the daredevil trick such a dainty-looking woman could perform so many feet above the ground, the crowd goes wild with thrill and excitement at the ever-lurking danger behind the graceful stunts that were being pulled off right in front of their eyes.

She was too caught in the beautiful confusion of the moment—in which careful, calculated grace crashed into fiery, violent passion and elegant beauty collided with reckless abandon. How could this be? How could this “act” be considered some sort of “parlor trick” to entertain grown children with nothing more to do than kill some spare time? If this is what being a trapeze artist meant, Julie found herself sitting up straight in her seat, set with a newfound determination to bring justice to this misunderstood breed of gravity-defying superhumans. The woman suspended in mid-air was not a mere circus act. She was a trapeze artist.

 

The devil is in the details

When people are asked about trapeze artists, their eyebrows usually join in confusion before the question, “What’s a trapeze artist?”. When Georgina, a 15 year old from Makati was asked about her knowledge of trapeze artists, she giggled before answering, “I only know that they fly, hang, and swing around with the bars.” A usual description of a trapeze artist, as they are depicted as such in movies and television. For Mabri, a Grade 2 student from Las Pinas, that was the case. When she was asked the same question, she laughed and answered, “Zendaya from The Greatest Showman.” It seems as if for the younger batch of teenagers these days, the art of a trapeze artist is slowly shifting from a concrete paying job to a role in an albeit poorly plotted musical. We can almost imagine the melancholic smile of Julie as she hears how the youth see her craft today.

The works and whys of a trapeze artist is somehow shrouded in mystery; people know that painters go to studios to paint, dancers are on stage to perform, photography is done almost anywhere and everywhere—but the masses still cannot jointly decide where trapeze artists work and for what purpose did they, out of all the choices laid out before them, choose their particular profession. We asked Georgina and Mabri those questions. The most common answer? The circus. It almost sounds ridiculous compared to where other artists work, but a trapeze artist is someone of a different kind; a studio is too small for them to practice in, the streets don’t have the necessary equipment, and the stage may or may not cater to the specific needs the unique artists have. But a circus, with its collection of various (and almost otherworldly) arrangements, most especially a high platform just customized for a happy Julie, more than makes enough.

They were asked as well why they thought these artists chose to be suspended in mid-air with a chance of plunging towards an unfortunate death.For Georgina, it’s about the money, and more, “To earn money and maybe they like hanging from the rope because it feels like you’re flying.” For Mabri, it’s because they’ve always wanted to be a gymnast, and satisfy their need to fly; qualifications to be a good trapeze artist, as Julie is.

For performers to persist amidst the demands of maintaining a trapeze artist’s physique, Ronaldo Auguis sees a clear reason why the long hours of practice are much easier to endure: Because of family.  “Nageentertain sila para makatulong sa pamilya,”  he surmises. (They entertain to help the family) “Dahil sa karamihan sa kanila, kapag nakahiligan na, pwedeng iyon na rin ang pagkakuhanan ng kita.  Iyon na rin iyong gagamitin nila hanggang sila mismo magkapamilya na.” (Because for most of them who have grown accustomed to it, it eventually becomes their source of income. That’s what they’ll depend on until they start to have a family)  A performer’s motivation might be a mixed bag of emotions and necessity, but at it’s very core, a lot of it can be traced back to one thing: Love. Be it the desire to entertain, the love for one’s family, or simply for the love to perform—across different faces of passion—it’s a career no different from its bottomline with the others; kept alive with wonder, unextinguished by complications.

 

Local swing

A Filipino is never in a shortage of talent.  Ranging from different shows that highlight the colorful variety of every performer’s mastery, it’s a rich flora of talent matchmade with skill.  But even though the performing arts industry is teeming with artists at par with international standards, it’s an alarming incongruity that their visibility and the appreciation for their craft in the country is scarce.

Sa TV ko sila madalas napapanood,” Edmalyn Castillo observes. (Most of the time, I only see them on TV)  “Parang sa ibang bansa sila mas sumasali.” (More often than not, they join international competitions more)  Whereas talent shows that spotlight Filipino trapeze artists are occasionally visible every now and then, the attention they receive in the country contrasted with the appreciation received by performers abroad represents a stark imbalance.

Dominated mainly by giant talent show mainstays like singing and dancing, the trapeze artist’s presence is eclipsed by mainstream acts already widely accepted.  Still surrounded by the stigma of two extremes—for being a tacky performance in a provincial perya or for being a fancy, Vegas-grade entertainment that not many truly know about—trapeze performance is not always an easy sell. But for Edmalyn, regardless of the venue it is performed, the excellence is consistently world-class.   She continues, “Sa kilalang lugar man magperform o sa perya, magaling pa rin.” (Wherever the place, be it in a known form or a simple carnival, they’re still good)

 

Mesmerized from a distance

Though Frances Carrillo has never had a personal encounter with such a daredevil of a person, she has experienced watching a couple of trapeze artists practice from a distance. One eventful day, as she found herself in BGC, the graceful figures seeming to leap through the air caught her attention. To her, it wasn’t the thrill of watching a human being perform amazing stunts (which could very much end in pain and death) that was captivating, but the allure of the moment in time when the trapeze artist spun, rolled, and twirled through the air—the complex movements all coming together to create a beautiful, magical lull in time.

With all the daredevil tricks trapeze artists perform, one would think that as people, they’d be quite the daring, adventurous types—Frances definitely isn’t alone in thinking that. However, when it comes to the feasibility of this “act” (though in different perspectives, the term “livelihood” may be the better choice of word), there is quite a divide between the romantic perspective and the realist perspective. Whereas in the cinematic world, trapeze artists are portrayed to be only elegant and disciplined (and everything else The Greatest Showman made us appreciate about these superhumans), in reality, trapeze acts aren’t as glamorous as their Hollywood portrayers.

 

Defying gravity

This leads one to wonder…why do it then? Why put yourself in danger and risk injury, agony, pain, and even death for an amount of money (in fair and unfair amounts)—and sometimes even no money at all? Is it the addicting thrill of the moment? Is it the sense of adventure as one walks on a seven-inch-wide stick suspended thirty feet above the ground? Is it the beautiful, exhilarating feeling of having no ground beneath your feet—if only for a few seconds—a wrinkle in time where you defy the force of gravity itself and escape the pull of this (oftentimes) disappointing, overbearing world?

But then again, they do say that we’re safest when we’re on the ground. Or are we?