Arts & Life, Theatre

Up in the air

Gabriel Whitford is balancing on a double rolla bolla — a wooden plank laid across a foot-long-tube that balances on another, perpendicular tube. That’s three axis of instability (if you’re counting) the 24-year-old could mess up on, but he’s on top of the situation.

Until he starts juggling to shake things up. His balance slips, physics gets mean and Whitford falls two feet onto his knees. Hard. He sucks in breath through clenched
teeth and waves off help from nearby jugglers, clowns and amateur acrobats.

Welcome to the circus.

The Broadway Neighbourhood Centre’s gymnasium is full of feats, crashes and retries during the Central Canadian Circus Arts Club’s January practice. Across the room, about 30 performers ranging from seven- to 35-years-old gather to practice different acts; fire manipulators spin unlit torches; hoopers gyrate plastic rings around their bodies; a belly-dancer shimmies while clinging finger cymbals. Most people are in street clothes, usually with eccentric, colourful twists. No one is alone. The omnipresent sound over bowling pins being caught and the occasional crash of dropped equipment is relaxed conversation.

The CCCAC is a mash-up of existing Winnipeg circus groups and new recruits united by local performer Asa Nodelman and Isaac Girardin from Skill Toys Canada. The two launched the club in September 2012 as a home for circus arts in Winnipeg. “I ran into Isaac at the Fringe while I was devil sticking,” Nodelman says. “He invited me to some fire and prop manipulation and we both ended up talking about how much talent there is in Winnipeg, but how little organization.”

Nodelman, unemployed at the time, poured his efforts into finding a practice space and recruiting friends, local groups and children who’d attended Girardin’s past workshops. He arranges the West Broadway practice space where, for a $5 drop-in fee (or unlimited $25 membership), anyone can attend a session to hone their skills or pick up a new trick from one of the club’s more senior members.


Aron Durrant-Eunson got into performing attending raves, spinning poi (glowing balls in fabric bags) before graduating to fire manipulation. He practices spinning a Kevlar-tipped stick around his neck and shoulders, prepping for the solo shows he wants to launch to make some money.

Shannon Kohut started hooping two years ago when she met a group practicing in Linden Ridge Park. “I like all the friends I’ve made doing it. Plus the exercise, it’s super healthy,” she says. “And my toys can light up, so that’s really fun,” she smiles, before she starts her hoop going around her waist. She carefully raises a black-and-pink-stockinged leg out of the hoop’s orbit and planks her body, keeping her toy spinning with her one standing leg.

While watching 12-year-old Gilon Lazar practice a trick Nodelman just taught him on the meteors (two heavy balls on the end of a long rope), the club ringleader reflects on the comfort he finds in the circus. “I find the world a confusing place. In the world, people do something stupid, but they still succeed… the circus is always cause and effect.”

“What you see when you get to the circus is not the same as what the performer sees. They see the culmination of hours of work. For performers, the circus is this room,” he gestures around. “It’s practice and sweat and trying after failing, failing, failing, failing.”

Whitford is carefully walking off his last failing. He’s been keeping his balance on the rolla bolla, slackline and tightwire since he was ten. “My school was sending at-risk kids to the children’s festival. I was at that age where people start to recruit for gangs and I was living in the West End… I went to the festival and attended the training camps until I was too old to be a camper, so I work there now.

“I don’t know where my life would have gone without circus. I don’t know if I would have gotten into a gang, but yeah, this is what I’m into. It’s my addiction, challenging myself with new things. You can never fully master juggling.”

Practice ends and the troupe starts cleaning up. Nodelman is building the group toward a show at the Gas Station Theatre on March 17, a fundraiser to expand the group’s practice times and subsidize workshops. Until their next practice, the performers disperse. A unicyclist takes off up Sherburn. A girl walks to her bus stop,
hoop slung over her shoulder.

Another day at the circus.


For more information on the CCCAC, head to


Matthew TenBruggencate is a Winnipeg-based writer. He is owned by two cats. Follow him @tenbruggencate, where is he spreading nasty rumours about you.