This summer, I caught up with Abby Neuberger and Michelle Troszak at a contemporary circus festival in Paimpont, a small town in the Northwest corner of France. They are students at Flic, a full-time circus preparatory school in Turin, and they were performing their end-of-studies collective show there at the festival, Arrête ton Cirque.
Abby, 20, is from McLean, VA, and she is a hand-to-hand flyer; Michelle, also 20, is from Asheville, NC, and she does aerial hoop. We sat down in a sunny field to chat about their school, their stories, and what it means to be an American in an Italian circus school.
How did you get into circus?
Abby: Well I did gymnastics, and there was a girl at my gym who about 6 years ago went to Europe to do circus. One day we were at a gymnastics meet in California and we went to the beach, and there were all these circus people and I was like, “Whoa, that’s so cool!”So then I called this girl who had already gone, and asked her where to go to circus school, and she told me Flic. I went and auditioned!
Michelle: I danced a lot my whole life. My brother actually got into circus before I did, he did fire spinning an a little bit of aerials stuff. And then he introduced me to my first aerials teacher, and I started doing tissu classes and a little bit of trapeze and hoop. My brother actually found Flic before I did, just through friends, and he recommended it to me when I was thinking about going to professional school.
Can you talk a little bit about how you made the decision to go to school?
Michelle: It was actually really easy! I wanted to go to a dance program and I didn’t get in, so I was like, ‘Well, I’ll try something else…why not give it a shot see what happens.’
Abby: I was actually supposed to college, until about May, senior year. I’d already gotten into the schools I wanted to get into, and then this circus thing came up and I decided kind of last minute not to go to college and go to Europe to the circus instead. I didn’t really know what contemporary circus was, other than Cirque Du Soleil!
Michelle: I feel like, for a lot of people, running away to join the circus is sort of a spontaneous thing.
What’s the process to audition for Flic?
Abby: It was three days in Torino, at the school. You do all the physical tests: physical preparation, flex, acro, dance; then the last day, you present your circus act. I presented a gymnastics routine. Everybody makes fun of me for that til this day! And then they tell you at the end of the auditions who made it.
Michelle: I actually didn’t audition, I sent in a video because I couldn’t afford to fly to Europe. So I basically did the same thing; they have a list of things—how strong you are, how flexible you are—and I just put together a video (which is really horrible, now looking back). Somehow they picked me!
Can you tell us a little bit about the different classes at Flic, and what a day is like there?
Abby: So we start at around 8:45 AM, we have attendance. If you’re not there for attendance you don’t go for the day, they kick you out. It’s pretty strict. The director’s an ex-gymnastics coach, so it’s pretty military. We normally start out with acro for two hours, with conditioning and everything, with the gymnastics teacher. Then dance for two hours, lunch for an hour, and circus for two hours. And then stretching. Once a month, we have the artistic director come and we have a workshop: a week of just acting, and acting with circus. We have a creation at the end of that week and do a show.
Once a month you do a show?
Abby: Yeah, once a month. It’s really good.
And what about learning Italian, do they help you out?
Michelle: The school doesn’t really help you out, mostly you just pick it up as you go. You maybe study a little if you have the patience to get a book and try to learn, but we both just picked it us as we went. Probably not the best way to do it, but it works!
For people that don’t know the program, what is Flic especially good at?
Abby: I think for acrobatics it’s really good, because the director is this ex-gymnastics coach. It also gives you a really good base for theatre in circus, because we work with directors, with Raymond Pegramour and Roberto Magro, who are really good at what they do, working with rhythm and changes in space etc…It gives you a good base. We don’t have that much time for disciplines, only two hours a day, but it gives you a good idea of what you want to do, what you want to specialize in. It’s good as a preparatory program I think.
What is the vibe at school?
Michelle: It’s great as far as a school goes! Because it’s a very specialized thing, no-one is forced to go there. Everyone who’s there wants to be there! It’s really interesting to see—there are people from all over the world, it’s really a great mix. It feels like a family to us. I spend more time there then at my house!
Abby: It’s a really good environment; it is a family. And especially within our class, we’ve all become really close and support each other. It’s not competitive at all, even though in our class, for example, there are five people who do rope. But each one’s different, so there’s no competition and everyone helps each other.
Is there something in particular that surprised you about Italy when you arrived?
Abby: Well, contemporary circus was a shock to me! When I started to see the shows at first I didn’t really understand, maybe because I was used to seeing circuses with the bright lights and costumes, very traditional. Little by little I discovered that I like [contemporary circus] more. That was the biggest shock. And also the weird cultural things about Italy maybe, like how the grocery stores are closed at 7 o’clock at night, things like that.
Michelle: Just the style of circus! I didn’t really know what I was getting into. It was a good surprise. I think the school is definitely very strong as far as theatre goes, because the teachers that we have a really excellent. The contemporary style was something I wasn’t really expecting, but it definitely opened by eyes to new possibilities.
And what is that contemporary style? What does that mean for you?
Abby: The contemporary shows that I connect with the most are the ones where the artists are really stripped down, they’re naked, they’re on a stage with nothing but their discipline and their skill. Kind of without having to show that they’re excellent, but instead using their vocabulary, which is their discipline, or their body, to express the things they want to express.
Michelle: For me too, the simpler the better. The more raw and personal a piece, the more I enjoy it.
And what are your plans for next year? You’re done with school now, right?
Michelle: I actually have no idea what I’m doing. I hopefully will go back home and find some work, but…a lot of people are like ‘I want to go to another school, or I want to do this, or that; I want to get into this company, or get to this level,’but I haven’t thought ahead that much. I’m definitely not going to stop doing circus forever, but I definitely will take a little break and explore other possibilities. We’ll see.
Abby: My base and I are going to go to [Académie] Fratellini next year. The auditions were two weeks ago. So I’ll stay in Europe. I actually got a German passport last year so I can stay in Europe for however long I want! So we’ll do another three years of school, and see. Maybe we’ll make a company!
How do you feel like you can bring what you learned here back to the States?
Abby: Once we know what we’re going to do and have everything planned out, I’d really love to bring whatever we’ve created back to the US. I think there’s definitely an audience, but maybe it’s not so clear at the moment because little circus companies just don’t exist in the US yet. I think it would be really interesting to bring back some of the things we’ve learned here, some of the things we’ve created in Europe, back to the US, and find people to start a movement!
Michelle: For me, it’s really astonishing to look back and see what I was doing before I came here, and just how totally different it is. And just how much is lacking as far as theatre [in the States]! The style we’ve been working with at Flic is very raw and very truthful, and that is one of the things that they’re trying to teach us: if it’s not truthful, then it doesn’t work. If you’re faking it, the audience can tell. I feel like in the US, that whole idea hasn’t really sunk in yet. I really hope we can bring some of that back. Circus in general is just not as popular in the US—it’s more of a very commercialized thing, if it exists at all. I feel like we can bring the movement to the United States.
Abby: Contemporary dance in the US has a huge audience, and now they are starting to bring a little more circus into the dance world, with aerial dance and things like that. So I think it is starting to move over to the US. In Europe there’s a lot of competition right now for circus. There’s a really good mix of people, so on one hand maybe its easier to work, but on the other hand you have a lot of competition, and it’s hard to do something new. In the US, there are a lot of possibilities.
Thanks! All the best to you, and see you down the road!