NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Her 3-year-old daughter bounces a ball across the kitchen floor while Petya Milanova sits at the kitchen table. She is simply dressed in a T-shirt, her hair long and loose. It’s a rainy Friday evening 30 miles south of Newark. And though Milanova looks ready to relax, her workday is not over yet.
In a little while, she will leave the tidy motor home, clink down the thin metal steps and cross the patch of asphalt where they are parked today, on her way to the massive, red-and-yellow circus tent that looms against the sky like a mountainous mirage.
Under its twin peaks, Milanova’s job is to dangle, spin, and fly. An acrobat trained in gymnastics from age 5 in her native Bulgaria, the graceful and easygoing 33-year-old is one of the stars of the Cole Brothers Circus — and one of the few performers in the world practiced in an act known as the “hair hang.”
She has performed it once today already, in the early show that began at 4:30 p.m. Now she dons her sparkly costume once again, preparing for the 7:30 p.m. show. Her husband, circus superintendent Jaime Ramirez, 38, braids her hair for her, weaving rope among the strands, taking care to make the surface smooth and perfect. In the braid he secures a ring made of stainless steel. Then Milanova makes her way to the big top, pausing at the back flap of the big red tent, listening for the booming voice of the ringmaster to cue her entrance. In the center of the spotlit circus ring, she takes her place beneath a dangling metal hook. Someone loops the hook through the ring in her hair, and then she is rising toward the roof.
Twenty feet off the ground, she juggles and dances, her feet arched and her toes pointed like a ballerina’s. Her head is high, her face tipped toward the lights, the muscles taut across her back.
The first few times she did it, she was afraid of falling. There’s no net. But the fear has long since faded, along with the pain the hanging once caused in her scalp. Even after what happened in Providence last month — when an equipment failure at a Ringling Brothers show sent eight hair-hang performers, including Milanova’s friend and former partner, into a terrifying free fall — she is fearless. The minutes spent aloft seem like a gift: a fleeting, exhilarating reward at the heart of a demanding, unrelenting kind of life.
The night before, 100 miles away in Tannersville, the last show had wrapped after 9 p.m. Then a crew of 60 men descended, pulling the heavy, log-like tent stakes from the ground, packing everything into a caravan of trucks. They drove onto the quiet highway after midnight and arrived here, in a field just off Route 1, at 3 a.m. The crew was at work by 6 raising the tent. Milanova and her family followed in their RV. Two days later they would all pull up stakes again.
Milanova has not seen her mother in Bulgaria in several years. She misses her 12-year-old son, who stays with friends during the circus season so he can attend public school in Florida. The couple misses gardening when they are on the road, so Ramirez keeps a growing collection of potted trees — two dogwoods; a cherry; a fig — and lugs them outside the RV at every stop. They also bring along their dogs: the noisy Chihuahuas, Bonbon and Tequila, and Dexter, their cuddly Boston terrier.
“It’s a good life to me, an honest life,” says Ramirez, “to show the audience something amazing, that not everyone can do.”
Milanova agrees, sitting close beside him. For their children, though, she hopes for a different path. “I think they can have something better,” she ventures.
A long and weary road
The Cole Brothers season kicks off in mid-March and runs for nine months. The 130-year-old circus, one of about a dozen that tour the United States, visits 100 towns and cities in a circuitous amble across the East Coast, pausing for two or three days in each one. The show goes on two or three times daily; it will arrive in Marshfield, on the South Shore, June 16. There are no weekends off, no summer break, no stopping until the run ends in December. The living conditions along the way are spartan. Most crew members and performers sleep in trailer compartments no bigger than a walk-in closet, often with a roommate. The electricity shuts off at midnight. The hot water often runs out.
“It’s basically a nine-month-long camping trip — and I hate the outdoors,” says Elena Sanders, 28, a circus acrobat who studied fashion design at Mount Ida College in Newton and took classes at AirCraft Aerial Arts in Somerville before enrolling in circus school in San Francisco.
The circus seems a throwback, destined for extinction. Surely a spoiled younger generation would reject the schedule, lack of amenities, and modest starting pay. And yet, the current Cole Brothers cast of some 30 performers includes five young Americans trained at circus schools all across the United States. It is a cliché that sounds hopelessly dated — running away with the circus — but it still happens.
Sanders sits huddled in a lawn chair outside her trailer, near the back entrance to the big red and yellow circus tent. Inside the tent, it is intermission. Sanders has just finished her act — a mesmerizing, daring, and romantic pas-de-deux, performed with a male aerialist high above the ground — and has quickly changed from her costume to her street clothes: black hoodie, black athletic pants and black boots. She has lively dark eyes and freckles, and wears a striking, deep red, glittery lipstick.
“My trapeze coach used to say, ‘If you can see yourself doing anything but the circus — do it,’ ” Sanders says. The advice impressed her, but she found that she could not resist.
“When I started, I felt like my life had a purpose and meaning it never had before,” she says. “When I found out I could do it full time, I knew I had to.”
Xan Kaplan was going to be a lawyer, until her twin sister Violet — going through a circus phase — persuaded her to try juggling, and then the trapeze. They performed together in a cabaret-style show when they were 18. Then Violet went to college to study finance, and Xan (short for Alexandra) went to circus school in New York. Now in her second season with Cole Brothers, she still tries to coax her twin to join the circus.
“In the old days, running away with the circus meant cutting ties, [but] it’s not that way anymore,” says Kaplan, 24, who grew up outside Philadelphia with a researcher mom and a dad who worked for a health insurance company.
She keeps in touch with her family online, powering up her laptop in the tiny bunkroom she has to herself, a rare luxury. She has decorated it with butterfly stickers, hung a mosquito net over the door, and installed her collection of overwrought ’80s prom shoes, their aesthetic perfect for performing. The floor space is exactly big enough to roll out the yoga mat where she does her sit-ups, 500 a day, between shows and during intermission.
Not quite fearless
After the last show, after the audience goes home, the tent belongs to the performers — at least until midnight, when the generators power off, and the camp goes dark. Dressed down in leggings and leotards, they return to the quiet, empty tent to practice, play, and teach each other. They listen to their own music, flirt or gossip when the mood strikes them.
Kaplan is there on this chilly Friday night, clambering up the silks, practicing her splits. She leaves her rubber rain boots on the mat below. Her aerial artistry depends on these two slender strands of fabric affixed to the tent-top, and on her skill in wrapping them around her ankles, calves, and arms.
The silks, a recently developed aerial discipline, have surged in popularity in gyms and fitness centers. They are certainly popular with Kaplan’s parents, who much prefer their daughter’s latest act to the one where she drove a motorcycle on the high wire.
Kaplan acknowledges being affected by the Ringling accident. One night this month, she found herself pondering the safety of her own act. She opened up her laptop and did a Google search, to see how many people had been killed on the silks. The results, she says, were reassuring.
Indeed, deaths are rare — but they do happen. And no one is immune to fear. When she started performing her current act, Sanders would race back to her bunk afterward and cry. One day, she fought with her aerial partner before their performance, the two of them yelling at each other outside the big top. Their act went on as always, and she realized: If he didn’t drop me this time, he never will.
Still, part of their job is to court danger, or at least to create the illusion of it. Two hours earlier, the audience had gasped as Kaplan tumbled swiftly toward the ground, her planned and much-practiced but reckless-looking descent abruptly stopped by a silken knot around her leg.
After hours, the mood in the tent is laid back and playful. Dangling upside down, Kaplan reaches out to take the hands of a grinning off-duty clown, Marvin Parada, and hoists him up off the ground.
The late-night tent sometimes becomes a clinic, with acrobats schooling one another in new tricks. One co-worker Kaplan trained on the silks repaid her with tutorials on walking in extra-high heels, on less-than-stable surfaces including mud and grass. Another made her a pair of fancy false eyelashes, each one adorned with tiny, glittery jewels. Parada might help her learn a few more words of Spanish.
Often, at the end of a long night, Kaplan knots her silks and swings back and forth through the dim tent, the rocking motion slow and soothing as a bedtime cradle.
Safety in the details
The next day, the sun is out. A breeze lifts the heavy flap of the big red-and-yellow tent, carrying the earthy scent of mud and elephants. Yesterday torrential rains fell; performers hopped through puddles on their way into the tent. Wood chips and gravel have been spread across the mud. Bigger crowds are expected at today’s three shows; the tent holds 2,000, but they are happy with a half-full house.
The morning pace is lazy, a rare lull. Performers wrapped in bathrobes emerge into sunlight, carrying their shower caddies to the bathroom. Crew members hose the caked mud off their shoes and head to the cookhouse, where Maria runs the kitchen and knows how they like their eggs. Jaime Ramirez goes to the laundromat with his brothers; after loading the clothes into the washers, they sit together at McDonald’s drinking coffee.
Petya Milanova keeps watch over her daughter, Elinor, who has come down with a fever. The mother employs a trusted Bulgarian remedy, soaking a pair of socks in a mixture of vinegar and water and pulling them onto the girl’s feet.
As the final hour ticks away before the first show, Elvin Bale sits alone in his golf cart under the big top. His head is tipped back, his eyes trained skyward. He resembles a Wellesley businessman in his blue-striped, button-down shirt and red tie, but the dapper, courtly Bale is circus royalty, a fourth-generation performer whose daredevil feats are legendary in the business.
These days, though, no audience watches him work. His blue eyes trace the lines of rigging overhead, lingering on each wire and vital clamp, working from a long-established checklist in his head. He sees something he doesn’t like in the spotlit distance, a crooked O-ring in the web that holds up his acrobats. He worries it could slip, and calls for a crew member to climb up and check it out.
Bale, 69, the vice president of operations for Cole Brothers, performs this quiet solo duty before every show. His searching gaze, trained by decades of experience, is among his most valuable assets. No one knows better the effort it takes to make the circus look effortless. No one knows better how much the details matter.
“People might say I’m crazy, and maybe I am,” says the London-born Bale, with a trace of a British accent, “but maybe I can stop someone from getting hurt. It’s sometimes the tiny things that make a big difference.”
It is the mission of the circus: to do things most people would never do; to consort with tigers and step off the trapeze platform. The risk is the attraction — it’s what people come to see. Everyone here knows that sometimes accidents happen. The flirtation with danger is not just an act.
Bale needs no reminder of that. The son of a Ringling tiger trainer, his own career as an acrobat ended with a crippling spine injury in a circus accident in 1987. Shot out of a cannon, he missed the landing cushion and crashed into the ground, leaving him dependent on braces and crutches to walk. It happened, he says, because a test dummy was wet, and the extra weight threw off the placement of equipment.
Life’s a blast
At the end of every show, the red truck rolls into the tent, the cannon on top, Dale Thomsen standing on the hood beside it. Thomsen, 28, a former college cheerleader from St. Cloud, Minn., is the human cannonball, who flies 90 feet across the ring at 65 miles per hour.
His cannonball career began in March, with rigorous training under Bale’s direction. For two weeks, he performed the stunt 40 times a day, internalizing every inch of its breakneck arc. Now, instead of experiencing it as a blur, he knows precisely where he is at every instant.
Thomsen’s circus job is more demanding than most. He is responsible, with a partner, for the elaborate daily calibration of the cannon. He is also a key part of two other circus acts, partnering with Elena Sanders in the aerial ballet, and performing on the trapeze with the Ponce Family. Like all the performers, he has more mundane duties before every show, as an usher showing patrons to their seats. When the circus relocates, he is in charge of driving the 26,000-pound truck carrying the motorcycle cage known as the “Globe of Death.” Driving the truck scares him more than the cannon shot, he says.
The work of the circus never ends. “The military of sequins,” Thomsen jokingly calls it. Yet the blond, blue-eyed Midwesterner could not be happier. “It feels very serendipitous,” he says. When he leaps into the cannon, braces himself in the barrel and waits for the countdown, he looks out and sees a circle of the midnight-blue tent ceiling, flecked with gold stars. As he emerges, he raises his arms and reaches for them.