Juanita Harris is a professional singer, but her real dream is to run away to join the circus. That’s why she’s here, at a recording studio in Santa Monica. She’s auditioning to be a singer for Cirque du Soleil.
Harris lives and works as a jazz singer in San Jose. She flew down today, because the economy’s making it harder to find work.
“This is the type of job that I think I have been working toward my whole life,” said Harris. “I’ve seen it decline. I’ve had, I was very plentiful with gigs, probably last five years ago or so, and yeah, I’ve seen a steady decline: clubs changing hands, management changing hands. It’s been tough. It’s definitely been tough. So you know, this is something that could offer me a more permanent gig and pay me on top of it.”
A contract with Cirque du Soleil means a steady paycheck and benefits. Beyond that though, Harris is a fan of Cirque du Soleil, and has been ever since she saw a performance years ago. When she learned the company would be holding auditions for musicians, she had to go for it.
Auditioning for a gig is nerve-wracking, and the bar is very high. Dozens have come through, and many haven’t made the cut.
If the music scouts like what they hear, they’ll enter Harris into a database as a potential performer. But it’s still no guarantee of work. A position that’s right for her singing style would have to open up first.
“So sometime it’s like now, but sometime it take like two, maybe one year, two years, sometimes seven years. So, we never know,” said audition coordinator Charles St. Onge.
So much for that age-old idea of dropping everything and running away to join the circus. Getting a job with Cirque du Soleil is tough. Even if she does make it into the database, there are thousands of performers already in there.
Cirque du Soleil can afford to be picky about who it takes, because it’s one of the only circuses successful enough to do a lot of hiring. The company has more than 20 shows running around the globe, and it pulled in nearly a billion dollars in revenue last year alone. Its artistic shows don’t look like the circuses of old — there are no rings, no animals — but the public loves it. It’s changed how people think of the circus, in more ways than one.
“I just feel incredibly fortunate that I happened to enter into the market at a time where it was a legitimate career not only financially but also full of respect and adoration,” said Aloysia Gavre, a former aerial acrobat for Cirque du Soleil. “When I first started in the early ‘90s, and I told my grandparents about this, it was a moment full of terror for them, because they imagined me in the fishnets, in Ringling Brothers, getting spun by a web and sliding down and landing on an elephant. So that has all changed because of Cirque du Soleil.”
Even if you do manage to become a professional circus performer, you still have to hustle. It’s a lot of traveling and a lot of performing. Gavre says that for a while, Cirque du Soleil’s popularity made it easier to break into the business. Companies were hiring a lot of acrobats to promote their wares or to perform at private events.
“Those types of shows were happening nonstop 10 years ago to, I would say, up about two years ago,” said Gavre. “That was definitely a good market for circus artists to enter into, and also retire into, because they weren’t having to leave their families or being on the road for a long time. It was like just a quick one-off. That has definitely decreased.”
While corporate interest may have decreased, public interest has stayed strong. In fact, the circus is the newest fitness trend. Several gyms have popped up offering classes in aerial acrobatics and other circus arts. Gavre opened her own, Cirque School L.A., a few years ago.
At her school in Hollywood, students stretch or practice balancing on their hands. Gavre watches over two young women rehearsing a routine on a trapeze 10 feet in the air. As they count, they pull toward or lean away from each other, each dangling from their perch by four fingers and a thigh. Teaching them is a way for Gavre to make a living doing what she loves. And she’s helping other circus professionals by hiring them as instructors.
“It offers them stability and income while they’re waiting to hear the news about if they’re going to get accepted into the next show,” said Gavre
She says she doesn’t know if the trend will last, but she has reason to hope. See, she opened her school during the heart of the recession, and business has remained strong. “… somehow our students have really not abandoned this part of their lives. If anything, they’re sacrificing to make sure that they don’t lose the circus,” said Gavre.
Losing the circus is not implausible when you consider how many have already disappeared. Lavahn Hoh is a professor at the University of Virginia where he teaches a course on the history of American circuses.
“Circuses are very difficult business to be in, especially with the economy the way it is,” said Hoh. “It’s almost like every year I read about one circus or two circuses that disappear - maybe one replaces them - but not always. There’re just not that many out there.”
Juanita Harris, for one, hopes there’ll continue to be a future for the circus. That’s because back at her audition, she’s about to get some good news: she passed.
She’s more than a little relieved. “I am excited! I am so excited!” said Harris.
But, excitement aside, she knows she might have a long wait ahead of her. So, in the meantime, she’s going to keep on with her life. “I’m gonna continue getting gigs, and you know I actually have a gig when I get home. And yeah, I’m just gonna continue playing music.”
She heads out to catch her plane back to San Jose, because for her, the next step in running away to join the circus means going home to wait.