A Premature Retirement

On October 16, 2000, one year after a bad fall off of high bar had torn my right biceps tendon from the bone, I officially retired from acrobatics, aged 22.

I went about the process of extricating myself from my old life as a performer.  I had to contact film directors, stage directors, stunt coordinators, dance companies, gymnastics coaches, and training partners to let them know my decision.

For four years, while an undergraduate MIT student in New England, I had lived two lives.  The first was a life of classrooms, books and practically insurmountable volumes of coursework.  My mental limits were tested and strained, and intense focus and concentration was required to keep from losing any ground on the academic treadmill that I was running on.

The injuries showed no signs of improving, and in a letter of resignation that I sent to the director of the company I was dancing with, I wrote, “when i’m in a gym or… rehearsal these days, I’m fighting these terribly negative feelings regarding a whole mess of things… I just feel like my body is broken, and that I can’t communicate with it anymore.”

“I need to distance myself from my instinct to move artistically, because my feelings of failure that stem from it are just too poignant for me to deal with right now.”

My retirement lasted for exactly three minutes and six seconds.  At that point I realized that it was not up to me whether or not I was going to be a movement artist; this was all I could do in life.  The last 14 years of my life had been dedicated to overcoming my body’s natural tendency towards rest in order to present my ideas physically to the rest of the world.

I immediately recanted the letter I had sent to my director, and told her I would start rehearsing immediately.  I felt my workouts in the gymnastics gym improve 10-fold with this new realization that I was training not out of choice, but out of a personal need.  I felt a surge of confidence and self-motivation that I had only flirted with in the past.  I also felt myself daydreaming about something that I had forced myself to ignore over the last twelve months: living the life of a professional acrobat.

When I look back on my life, it doesn’t really seem so terribly odd that I’ve found myself called to the romantic circus arts.  After all, they embody all of the tenets of life that I hold most dear: strict self-discipline, emphasis on excellence, and an intense focus on personal creativity and innovation.

My background is one of physical theater, and I find the circus arts to be a distillation of all that I find magical in physical theater.  When an artist relies purely on physical movement to communicate to an audience, there is no room for pretension; the art that is created is by definition one of honesty.  As I told a good friend of mine recently, ‘water can’t pretend to be wet.’

Later in life, I became involved in gymnastics.  From the sport, I learned how to push what everyday people consider to be the natural limits of the human body.  The insight I gained with respect to the discipline and training that it takes to mold a person’s natural ability into the capacity for wingless flight, I found that I was able to identify a common string that connected everything I admired about human accomplishment.  I saw a connection between the movement arts, such as dance, theater, and martial arts, with athletic excellence as well as with other arts, such as painting, music, and philosophy.  For the first time in my life I understood that these pursuits represent our species’ desire to communicate with itself.  I saw artists, athletes, and scholars as individuals on an endless human pilgrimage into enlightenment.  I wanted desperately to join in this journey, and the way that seemed most clear to me was through the movement arts.

I put these thoughts in the back of my mind until December, when I heard about a school in Montreal that was dedicated to the education of circus artist.  In my research, I learned that although the school was terribly selective, it provides its students with training that is unparalleled in the Americas.  Practically on a whim, I sent away for the application form.

At age twenty-three, I was in late-middle-age for an acrobat.  I felt as though I had no shot at getting in, but I also knew that it was something in life that I had to do now, if ever.

Applying to the school was a two-step process.  First, I had to send in a basic form which included my personal data, as well as a resume and three short essays.  upon reviewing my application, the school might select me to be one of the one-hundred potential students called to the school in February to attend a two-day long audition.

I sent off my application form on January 30th and did my best to put the school out of my mind.  I knew it was crazy; I had been a college graduate for less that six months, and I was in the process of applying to college again?  ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I thought, ‘they’re not looking for people like me.’

But it did matter, and it was impossible to put it out of my mind.  On Friday, February 9th, I received a letter from the school requesting my presence at 8:30 in the morning on February 23 and 24.  The letter was in French, so I asked one of my housemates to translate it for me several times over to make sure that i had understood it correctly.

Now knowing that I was at least going to step inside of the school, I felt fear of failure for the first time.  It’s one thing to have been turned away right off the bat: ‘you’re too old; you don’t have enough experience; we have too many applicants this year, sorry!’  it is quite another to be offered an audition and then to face personal rejection.  But the life of a performer is one that demands personal strength in place of external congratulations, and if this was the path in life that I wanted to take, I would have to face this first step both without reservations and ultimately, completely alone.