There are two sides to every circus. Under stage lights, acrobats tango with laws of physics in an aura of glamor. Jugglers show their dexterity, aerialists perform at dangerous heights and trapeze artists drop and catch one another with daring and grace.
A look backstage reveals another story, rife with performers’ uncertainties, foibles and vulnerabilities. “NoNet,” a circus production that will run November 8 and 9 at the Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard, aims to show “the theater behind the theater,” a view of the circus from “the back side of the tent.” Between daredevil acts, spontaneous interactions and personal stories will unfold, offering a more exposed view of circus life.
Three years in the making, “NoNet” is the conception of Meaghan Muller, a former Cirque du Soleil artist who lives in Atlanta. She has gathered a cast of nine circus performers — and one actor — with international stage, film, and television credits. Many of them have worked extensively with the Cirque.
For Muller, it’s a chance to introduce Atlanta to a high-quality but small-scale production, more intimate than big-top circuses like Cirque du Soleil. Shows like “NoNet” have taken place in other cities; but in Atlanta, “NoNet” is likely the first of its kind.
It’s also a chance for Muller to get back in the ring. She’s developed an aerial routine that’s as breathtaking to the audience as it is a vehicle for creativity and personal expression. Through the lens of a character drawn from her experience, Muller is reflecting on aspects of her past, both the good and the horrific, and is contemplating whether, at 35, she’ll continue to perform.
Muller’s apparatus of choice is the cerceau, a three-foot-wide, 22-pound steel hoop. When attached to a framework above, the ring can become an aerialist’s partner, suspending her off the floor. She can control its speed by playing with centrifugal force. Slow half-turns make visual beats, like a coin that’s constantly flipping sides. When the spinning ring accelerates, her spiraling body forms seem to carve through concentric spheres.
Muller, who balances circus work with a job in mental health counseling, trains at her childhood gym — a large, prefabricated building near the eastern edge of town. Inside, the air smells like sweaty kids; mats, parallel bars, balance beams and other apparatus fill the open space.
There’s an instant connection when meeting Muller — both warmth and clarity in her bright brown eyes. Soft brown hair frames her face. She’s in plain practice clothes — a beige sweater, with charcoal grey cotton tights folded over at the waist. Her long limbs and lean muscles are in the athlete’s state of relaxed readiness.
Aided by her husband, former Cirque performer Felippé Barros, Muller climbs a 24-foot extension ladder that’s propped against a narrow ceiling beam. The ladder bends precariously as she hangs her hoop at about waist height.
She hops up onto the ring and slips through it with effortless ease. Set to a bluesy electric guitar solo by Marc Ribot, Muller’s routine is understated, deftly rendered and emotionally charged. Perching on the ring’s lower arc, she pulls her body in to build speed, then reaches a slender leg upward. She presses to the top and drapes her body around the tether, arching into the spin. It’s dazzling yet unassuming — a blend of egoless matter-of-factness and divine grace.
Muller’s feet touch down. She arrives in a state of repose, almost as if rocking on a porch swing or leaning against a fence. She looks up and to the right, as if a thought just came to her and the whole sequence had swirled through her mind in the instant.
For Muller, performing with Cirque du Soleil had been a childhood dream. Muller competed in artistic gymnastics, but a shoulder injury brought that to an end. She changed to rhythmic gymnastics; within four years, Muller was on the U.S. national team, where she remained for two-and-a-half years. While there, a sports psychologist taught her to face competition with an acceptance of both her strengths and weaknesses, a realistic attitude that has remained with her.
Muller found a calling in psychology and majored in the subject at the University of Georgia. She minored in dance, and was introduced to aerial dancing, a blend of circus arts and dance aesthetics. This prepared her for her first job with Cirque du Soleil performing a 60-foot high Tissue, or Fabrics, routine in an Orlando, Florida production of “La Nouba.”
“NoNet” is largely inspired by Muller’s first day backstage at the Cirque. She expected to see acrobats warming up, just as she had done before gymnastics competitions and dance concerts. What she saw blew her away. One performer sat on a Swiss exercise ball, reading a magazine. Another stared at his reflection in the mirror for about 15 minutes. Still another stood by himself in the corner. Muller was warned not to disturb him.
Little rituals, like spitting in the same spot on the stage before every show, disgusted Muller, but she eventually realized that many of these performers have done such things since they were children. “They don’t want to die today, so they spit, because yesterday they spit and they didn’t die. So we’re gonna do it again,” she explained, with a laugh.
They thought Muller was crazy. She thought they were nuts. But she learned to accept their habits as part of a centuries-old circus tradition.
“In the Cirque, you run two shows a day, ten shows a week,” Muller said. “You’re living and breathing it. What becomes most important is the backstage stuff, not the front stage stuff. So the cuing, making sure you slap-five the guy as you walk from stage left to stage right. If you don’t, uh-oh, something’s wrong. It made you feel that much more connected to your group, the ones you’re relying on to catch you.”
“NoNet” aims to merge these quirky backstage behaviors with the circus’ polished stage shows — to acknowledge both sides of the circus and create a more authentic performance.
In every “La Nouba” show, Muller did “six tricks and some poses, 60 feet high,” she said. “I didn’t feel connected to it, as you would if you’re creating.” But as soon as she touched the cerceau, she loved it. She began training and developed her own routine. Movement ideas flowed with ease.
A few months later, the Cirque brought her to Montreal to prepare a hoop routine for “Quidam.” But she never performed in the show.
Muller was practicing on a hoop about 15-20 feet in the air. There was some tape on the hoop; during a difficult trick, her hand became stuck on the tape and she flew off the apparatus, landing chin first on the concrete floor.
Muller broke her left hand and both of her wrists. Her jaw was broken in four places. A year passed before she could get medical care outside of Canada. After three years and 13 surgeries, Muller was back in one piece. She returned to the Cirque, like an athlete determined to get back into the game. She also knew that going back was necessary in order to figure out her next steps in life.
Muller became an acrobatic creator for the Cirque. She helped develop “Wintuk,” working with some of the best creators and directors in Montreal, she said.
“And then I was just finished one day,” Muller said. “They said they had nothing for me. And so that was it.” She had given five years of her life to the Cirque; she felt bruised and scarred. Although such experiences are not uncommon in the Cirque, the abrupt end felt almost like a bad divorce.
Muller regained balance through psychology. She started an online graduate program in Mental Health Counseling. She toured with Barros to Russia and Japan as he finished his Cirque contract; then the couple decided she needed to return home.
In Atlanta, choreographer Lauri Stallings needed an aerialist, and Muller got involved. She danced in gloATL’s “Bloom” at Lenox Square Mall. Flux Projects founder Louis Corrigan put an idea in her head to bring a circus to Atlanta. She hesitated, but once she set foot in Goodson Yard, Muller said, “the story became real.”
The warehouse space wasn’t a conventional theater; there was no concealed backstage area. But Goodson, it its raw, natural state, seemed ideal for showing “the back side of the tent.”
The title, “NoNet” came from the word “nonet,” an expression Muller defines as “a group of nine people or things creating symmetry and dimension.” The idea of “no net” implies that there is no safety net for performers’ egos. “And it plays with the fact that I didn’t have a net when I fell,” Muller said.
The idea appealed to Anthony Harper, co-owner of the Goat Farm, who offered Muller an Arts Investment Package.
Circus performers intrigue Harper. “It seems to be an oversimplification to think that they perform merely to entertain,” he said. “It ruins some of them physically and steals every ounce of privacy. The pressure and anxiety is immense. It’s a great sacrifice.”
Asking circus performers to reveal their off-stage personae has added another layer of risks. So Muller has invited performers she knows and trusts. David Figlioli, a Los Angeles-based actor who has done Cirque character roles, will appear as ringleader and will help create “back stage” scenes between acts. Stéphan Choinière, who has helped develop the show, will perform “Fugazi,” a Body-2-Body act (similar to Pilobolus) with rhythmic gymnast Tsvetelina Tabakova. Also appearing will be Quebec City circus trio Flip Fabrique, rhythmic gymnast Emilie Livingston, and the Seattle-based trapeze artists of Duo XY. Atlanta choreographer Sarah Hillmer has created a solo for Muller; members of Atlanta’s D’Air Aerial Dance Theater will open the show.
The two-evening run will be one of a kind. Unlike the Cirque, performers want to keep “NoNet” unscripted.
Even as Muller acknowledges painful past experiences, she is discovering more expressive ways to use the cerceau. As with her solo, she hopes “NoNet” will give audiences more personal connections with performers when they share both sides of circus life.
“I want the audience to see the real life of us (rather) than having the big costumes and the weird facial expressions that Cirque is so famous for,” Muller said. “How many times do we see them make a bird or an insect? We want to take that all away and say, ‘This is who we are.’”