Life at the Circus
The Big Apple Circus is in New York until January, when it heads to Atlanta and elsewhere across the country. Many of its talented performers are young and far from home. At 22, Bulgarian-born Mantchev is already an eight-year circus veteran. As a young teen, he traded his family for the circus community and came to America.
Virgile Peyramaure swings Andrey Mantchev up into a one-handed handstand in the air. Balancing the 115-pound acrobat on his raised arms, Peyramaure lies down and brings his young partner into a headstand – his skull on Peyramaure’s foot. The couple’s hand-to-hand act at the Big Apple Circus draws applauses and enthusiastic cheering. Their movements look elegant, almost natural. But as much as talent is part of their act, so is years of practice.
At 22, Bulgarian-born Mantchev is already an eight-year circus veteran with 16 years of gymnastic experience to his name. As a young teen, he traded his family for the circus community and came to America as a teeterboard flier.
Many of the performers at the Big Apple Circus are young and far from home. Performers come from Chile, China, England, France, Italy and Russia to live their dream in the United States. In this year’s cast, 17 of 36 performers are under 25. From October to January, while the circus is parked at Lincoln Center in New York, before it heads to Atlanta and elsewhere across the country, it is almost as if the city gains a new multi-national city within the city, an apple within the apple.
“It’s like a mini-town,” says Julie Parkinson, 29, the company manager. The circus even has its own One Ring School House, with six children enrolled this year.
“We call it: instant village just add water,” says Public Relations Manager Phil Thurston, noting the circus provides its own electricity.
While many young New Yorkers lead solitary lives in individual apartments, in the circus city, about 150 people live together in a 41-trailer-large community. Strong bonds develop as the circus citizens eat, sleep, train and travel together for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 10 months a year. “People take people under their wings,” Parkinson says. And skills are passed down from generation to generation, from friend to friend.
Mantchev has the distinction of being the only performer under 25 to not come from a circus family. His father was in the military, and his mother worked for the government. As the youngest of three brothers, Mantchev was the baby of the family. And it was hard for his parents to let go of their little acrobat. Between the somersaults, the vaults and the teeterboard flights, they always worried about him.
But he was determined. From early on he knew he wanted a life in front of an audience. At age 7, he toured in Bulgaria; at 9, in Moscow. At 15, in 1998, when the Boichanovi teeterboard troupe had recruited the lightweight acrobat to jump atop of their human pyramids, he came to the United States. (A teeterboard is a board balanced on a fulcrum. Athletes jumping at one end of the board catapult an acrobat positioned at the other end of the board up into the air, where the athlete makes vaults or somersaults.)
”I always wanted to come to America,” he says. His parents supported him because they knew how much he loved it and because he would have better job opportunities in America. But they have never had the opportunity to visit or to see him perform. “I send videotapes and pictures,” Mantchev says.
The close bonds that circus performers develop help to overcome the separation from family and home country. “Relationships progress so much faster than in the real world,” Parkinson observes. The risks inherent in the performances only serve to make them closer, says Ivan Stoinev, 40, associate performance director.
The leader of the Boichanovi troupe made Mantchev a part of his family. “They took care of me always,” Mantchev says.
Mantchev’s first real meeting with the circus world came with the Boichanovi troupe, and he fell in love with it. The troupe toured with various circuses about a year before they joined the Big Apple in 1999.
“It’s just something that gets into your blood, and you just can’t get away from it,” says Parkinson, who was born into the circus and started to perform when she was 11. “Sometimes you get down, and all you have to do is go and look at the kids, and it makes it worthwhile.”
It’s not an easy life, though. While the audience comes to be entertained, those performing put in lengthy hours of practice to perfect their acts. They rarely take a sick day.
“A lot of people grow up knowing that you must be really sick not to work,” Parkinson says. The Big Apple Circus performers are well insured in case of injury, circus officials say.
Mantchev is a hard-worker as well as talented, says 34-year-old Peyramaure, Mantchev’s teacher in the hand-to-hand act and himself part of a French circus family. “You need power, and power you gain from practicing every day,” he says.
“Talent is not enough,” he says. But with continuous work, “you can do whatever you want.”
Mantchev’s days are long. He wakes up at 8:30, and after a breakfast served from the cookhouse trailer or prepared in his own trailer, he puts on makeup — black eyeliner, mascara and blush — and heads out to practice for 90 minutes before the first show.
He changes into his first costume: a Charlie Chaplin costume with a short mustache, grey baggy pants, white shirt, black tails, bow tie and a derby hat. He has no time to be nervous, he says. “Once you go in, you just forget about everything and just concentrate.”
After the performance, there’s only a quick 30-minute break before another hour of practice and a second performance.
How many years an artist can perform varies from individual to individual and depends on the act. Parkinson, who is 29, used to do an aerial act with her sister but traded performing for administration. Peyramaure, 34, also is considering a change. It’s easy for longtime performers to become producers or coaches since this is “what they have studied their whole lives,” Parkinson says.
But Mantchev has no plans to stop performing anytime soon. “I just like it more than anything right now,” he says, adding he doesn’t even mind living in the small trailers. “I love the circus life, so they can put me in a shoebox, and I’ll be fine,” he says. Someday, he hopes, he’ll have a family to join him.