ESAC ©Marie-Françoise Plissart

ESAC ©Marie-Françoise Plissart

First-year students at l’Ecole Supérieure des Arts du Cirque (ESAC) start their days early. I emerged from Metro Demey, a short subway ride east of the commercial center of Brussels, at 9:30 AM—fully one hour late already. I was beginning to panic. ESAC is in Auderghem, a relatively remote, residential area of the city, where patchwork Belgian architecture begins to give way to supermarkets and giant hardware stores and persistent greenery pushes its way up through untended cracks in the concrete. The road that my smartphone was telling me to take turned out to be a path through a concealed park. I broke into a light jog, Russian coaches already scolding me for tardiness in my imagination.

Miraculously, the trees parted and spat me out onto Rue Willam. I puffed up to the front door and pushed it open. Unlike other circus schools that I’ve visited, ESAC does not interrogate its guests before granting them access—the facility is shared with a primary school and a music school, and I found myself in the cavernous entry hall listening to echoes of children’s voices mixed with the familiar clatter and thump of a busy circus training center.

I was shadowing Léah Wolff, a first-year aerials student whom I had met in Québec two years before. First class was upstairs, she had warned me, and I climbed three reverberating flights to the acrobatics studio, a long room lined with cheerleading mats.

At ESAC the classes are not divided by skill level; rather, each graduating class trains together throughout the whole day. When I arrived at ten minutes to ten, the first year was well into their dynamic acrobatics class, sweaty and concentrated, pants rolled up and midriffs bared. The atmosphere was cheerful but serious. I perched on a vaulting horse and took out my notebook, my back to a wall of windows beyond which brownish roofs pushed quietly up into a cold, gray sky.

Acrobatics class was run like a standard gymnastics floor workout—two lanes of tumblers practicing an increasingly difficult series of maneuvers with two hovering coaches making corrections and giving tips. The focus was on proper form of basic technique, tailored towards tumbling on hard floor. “Lighter, lighter!” announced one of the two coaches to no-one in particular, “That is what makes the difference between a long and a short career.”

25 minutes before the end of the class, a burly Flemish man in a tracksuit—Marc, the school physiotherapist—came in and announced that it was time for “dynamic stretching.” Everyone found a space on the floor, and Marc led them through an exhausting-looking series of squats and kicks. Someone put on some groovy vocal house. Very little attention is paid to the aesthetic: the program is clearly tailored for injury-prevention, and it looks like effective training (Léah later tells me that this is the only formalized flexibility training at ESAC).

I took advantage of Marc’s intervention to sidle over to the acrobatics coaches, who were leaning against the radiator, and interrogate them about ESAC’s acrobatics curriculum. Of course it’s essential that circus artists have a good technical base in acrobatics, but it was clear that some students were capable of far more than the basics. When were the more acrobatic students allowed to push themselves to their full potential? Was there room in the program for original acrobatic research?

At ESAC, the entire first year is focussed on cleaning and refining basic technique—in acrobatics class, for instance, the first year is devoted to efficient and pretty gymnastics. As the education progresses, it becomes gradually more and more personalized and creative—in second year, acrobatics class is half personalized work and half group exercises, and in the last year it is 100% personalized.

After acrobatics were specialty classes. These all happen in the same studio at the same time—a meticulously-arranged collage of wild limbs and flying objects. There seemed to be a twenty-five minute grace period between classes; students milled around, stretched a little, and began, in a leisurely way, warming up on their apparatuses. Everyone was moving at their own pace, but assuredly, and despite the time of year—only two weeks until winter break—people seemed cheerful and motivated.

Which is impressive given that, as with acrobatics classes, specialty classes at ESAC in first year are repetitive and minutely focussed on performing the basics with good form.  Léah spent the the first half-hour of her two hour class practicing different kinds of swings under the bar, pivoting with precision. When she faltered slightly, her coach, Roman, would step in and patiently guide her movements with his hands.

Roman is a youngish, wiry Russian man with an odd haircut. During Léah’s class his demeanor was familiar but focused—he’s friendly with his students, but the understanding is that they’re here to work. When the skin on both of Léah’s hands started to come off in large pieces, he showed no sympathy. Sighing, he sent her off to get bandaged up so she could continue working.

While Léah tended to her wounds, I asked Roman a little bit about himself. He’s friendly and talkative, an ex-acrosport flyer who performed a horizontal bar act in a traditional touring circus before retiring to coach at ESAC. I asked him whether he has any input on Léah’s number: “A number is easy,” he told me, “we don’t start working on that until her technique is really good.” He seems a little non-plussed by her rips. “Soon this won’t happen,” he said. Her skin will toughen up, or her technique will get smoother: “We’re going towards hoop with less clothing,” purely as an exercise in control.

Léah returned and continued doing tempos under the bar. Feeling restless, I wandered off to check out the rest of the scene in the studio. The playlist was pretty killer: I picked out Grimes, Disclosure, and “Wrecking Ball,” and all of the students seemed intent on their drills but without too much stress or tension. I watched an acrobatic trio practice straight jumps for a full hour, sharing a coach with a lone hand-balancer who went through his whole workout almost entirely independently.

At 12:30, the students had a little more than an hour for lunch. Léah took advantage of the time to go grocery shopping. As we walked, I gulped down a chicken sandwich with cheddar cheese and pepper sauce. She filled me in on the latest school gossip: I quickly learned who’s sleeping with whom, who’s hard to work with, who’s injured and why. It’s standard fare for a small group of college-age kids who spend almost every waking hour together. In fact, given their circumstances, I was surprised at how congenial everyone seemed to be, and said so to Léah. Her eyes lit up. “I know, right? Everyone is here because they want to be here.” The students have only been training together for a couple of months, but already they feel like family, more supportive than competitive.

Returning to ESAC, Léah led me to the student lounge. We continued our conversation over the quiet hum of someone’s latin mix. I ask Léah how it felt to be the only North American in the room. This seems to be a slightly sensitive subject. “Everyone’s great, but sometimes we just don’t share the same references.” Despite cultural differences, though, she seemed really happy to be in Europe. She told me that she thinks the school has lower visibility than an institution like ENC in Montréal, purely because ESAC lacks ENC’s PR office and advertising budget. “I’m always really excited when a video from ESAC gets big on Facebook,” she told me, “I really want circus people in Canada to see what’s happening here.”

After lunch was trampoline. The students set up four trampolines and split up into groups, taking turns doing drills. Basic trampoline class is almost impossibly boring to watch, so I took the opportunity to do a little exploration. Retracing my steps back towards the student lounge I noticed a bulletin board with job opportunities and advertisements for circus, theatre, and dance shows. There is a lot of contemporary stage work that comes to Brussels—in many ways the city is a European capital for contemporary dance—so the board was full, and many of the shows new to me.

Also posted were schedules for the first, second, and third year classes. In first year, every day starts with two hours of acrobatics (tumbling, handstands, or trampoline), followed by two hours of specialty class. In the afternoon, from 2:30 until 6:30, the students do workshops (this week trampoline intensive and music), and the workshops change every week. Sometimes these workshops are physical, but often they are theoretical classes like dramaturgy, history of art, career management, history of circus, or anatomy. When students graduate, they have acquired not only the physical aptitude to create circus work but also the skills necessary to self-direct.

Chatting with the students between drills, it became pretty clear that most of them intend to create their own material after school. In striking contrast to most circus students that I’ve encountered in North America, the focus in Brussels is less on graduating with a number that’s a product to sell fully-formed and more on finding your voice as an artist and learning how to function in the complex world of the contemporary circus (“It’s a European thing,” says Léah). The first years weren’t clear on the details, but they said they were pretty sure that ESAC helps graduates find money and space to produce original work.

Exhausted by all the journalism, I retreated to the student lounge for a power-nap.

Waking up groggy and disoriented, I spent some time trying to locate music class, which ended up being in a large room behind the acrobatics studio that I hadn’t noticed before. About half of the students had instruments—a clarinet, an accordion, a didgeridoo—and they hung about in clusters as a large man with a trombone attempted to herd them into file. It was ten to five in the afternoon and the students were obviously tired after six hours of physical work.

Music class began quite ordinarily, with some exercises in choral singing and three-part harmony. Soon, however, the work became much more directly relevant to circus: students did solo improvisations, first with voice and then in movement, in response to the teacher’s agile trombone improvisation. The exercise promoted musicality, facility in movement, and openness to improvisation, all essential skills for a contemporary circus artist. “Improvisation,” said the music teacher, “starts out when we lose ourselves.”

At 5:30, music class was still buzzing, but my day was over. I slipped quietly out of ESAC and walked off into the night. I was impressed but tired. ESAC offers a program of superior quality, teaching more than just innovative physical technique. Survivors of ESAC’s 30-hour per week program graduate with all the tools necessary to contribute to the future of contemporary circus. We should all look forward to seeing the fruits of their labors.

…did you attend a circus school in or outside of the US? What were your experiences? If you could create your ideal educational and physical training program, how would you organize it to progress the circus arts?