Tonight, the theme of The Party by Ostbahnhof is Berlin underground. The house music is so loud that it punctuates bodies and walls. A heaving crowd populates the dance floor as video screens radiate kaleidoscopic images. Then, suddenly, the music stops. A woman in flapper pearls and a black lace teddy is covered from head to toe in powdery corpse paint. She raises a helicopter pilot’s microphone to her mouth and shouts a string of German words, brave and harsh-sounding.
From the ceiling, two silk drapes fall. The crowd parts, leaving a circular space below. Another woman, in a pixie haircut and silver sequined dress, skirts the dance floor. Her posture is perfectly upright and her arms and legs ripple with muscle.
Madeline Hoak uses a foot to anchor one of the fallen silks in place, creating a point of support for herself. She climbs until she’s ten feet in the air, suspended above the staring nightclub crowd. Then she begins an aerial routine of sideways splits, drops, and intricate poses.
Over and over again, the silks enwrap her and then unwind. Every position seems symmetrical, mathematical, as close to one can get to perfection. Below, a man in a Circus Warehouse t-shirt studies her movements closely, ready to catch her if she falls. His name is Sam Stage, and he is Madeline’s partner in both performance and life.
Over the last ten years, recreational circus has boomed. People from all walks of life are now learning trapeze, lyra, contortion, aerial silks, and tightrope. Many dance and fitness studios now offer circus-themed classes. The New York City area boasts several formal circus schools: Circus Warehouse, Aerial Arts NYC, The Muse, and Circus Place. Circus-specific booking agencies now link acrobats with performance opportunities across the nation. The decline of “big top” circus companies like Ringling Brothers has had a trickle-down effect; acrobatic acts have found their way into nightclubs, music videos, concert halls, and other venues.
According to Linda Simon’s The Greatest Shows on Earth, “hundreds of small circuses have reinvented the genre, some creating a magical, dreamlike space of imaginative transformations.”
Madeline and Sam have been working together for about three and a half years. Since the fall of 2015, they’ve been living together as a couple. They’re professional circus acrobats, trained in skills like static trapeze, hand balancing, aerial silks, and corde lisse (a vertically hanging, smooth rope). Sam is an accomplished unicyclist and fire juggler. Aside from aerial silks, Madeline does harness and bungee routines, some of which involve running along walls.
Madeline was initially drawn to the circus because it seemed dreamlike and untethered. She remembers seeing an aerial performance at the now-defunct Spiegeltent, near the South Street Seaport. The female performer was seated in a cloud swing, a rope hung like a hammock.
“It was just so smooth. All of the moves connected, all of the transitions were so beautiful,” Madeline recalls. “I’d never seen an apparatus like that before. It was like dancing in the air.”
Today, Madeline is affiliated with three separate circus gyms, where she has a full roster of students to whom she teaches recreational acrobatics. She’s also involved with a company called Cirque-tacular, which books her out for corporate, circus-style gigs. When Madeline recalls her aerial performance at The Party by Ostbahnhof, she says that the club owner asked her to appear looking like “a human disco ball.” Madeline and Sam once performed at the birthday party of a B-rated Indian pop star, an elaborate affair during which they did ambient-style poses. Madeline has professionalized circus to the extent that she holds two adjunct professorships at Muhlenberg College and Pace University. At both places, she leads courses in aerial arts. This spring, she’ll be teaching circus history.
Sam installs massive, 300-gallon aquariums as his full-time job, but he teaches and performs alongside Madeline when time permits. In most circus duos of this kind, there are separate roles, usually determined by strength and body size.
“In duos, there’s a base and a flier. There are different positions where Sam can secure himself on the silks, a trapeze, or really any apparatus. And he’ll support me either underneath or above. That way I can do flips or turns or drops into his grasp or stability,” Madeline explains. However, there are exceptions. “I can support Sam’s weight in certain ways even though he’s much bigger than I am.”
Sam and Madeline often practice floor routines in their spare time at The Muse, a circus gym located in Bushwick. These are not typical gymnastic tumbling routines—full of running, backflips, and round-offs. Instead they’re fluid, smooth and slow—more like paired yoga. When Sam lifts Madeline, his hands move with the grace of a priest performing a sacrament. She is the icon, the vessel, to be held aloft for all to worship. But she is also breakable, and must be treated with the utmost care.
Madeline stands upright, her feet balancing in Sam’s two hands. They promenade over the foam floor; Sam’s steps are so measured and careful that Madeline seems to be gliding through the air. She scans the eyes of an imaginary crowd while making swanlike gestures with her arms. Then slowly, slowly, she descends, sliding her legs over Sam’s shoulders until he can ease her to the ground. All the while, they speak to one another in low tones, their lips barely moving.
It’s incredibly sexy.
When Madeline talks about how she and Sam became partners, you can both see and hear her smile. “It’s so much about trust and risk and trying things. You have to be really brave. If you’re trying something new for the first time, you don’t know how it’s going to go. So that exploration process needs to be really clear. The communication has to be very clear. I mean, I feel like acrobatics and circus are just ripe for romantic relationships, or close friendships, or close business working relationships. Then, on the other side, there’s all of the heat and frustration which goes along with that.”
For Madeline, the serious physical risks of performance can be daunting, as she relies on the sport for her income. “If I get injured, I can’t do any of my job.” she says. “That’s something that I have to think about in terms of security. I have to ensure my own welfare so that I can actually work and play and do what I do every day.”
Rope burns, bruises, blisters, and pulled muscles are par for the course, and then there are the “near-misses” when catastrophic injuries are only narrowly avoided.
Though Madeline has managed to support herself through circus arts for many years, she’s exhausted by the constant presence of financial insecurity.
“My first five years or so in New York were definitely month-to-month, you know, piecing it all together, many different jobs. And it still is, but my university work has eased that immensely…. Summers are still up in the air, and I have to piece everything together.”
Madeline has felt the lure of Cirque du Soleil-style shows for some time. She recently auditioned for one based at the Wynn Hotel in Vegas. The show is fittingly called Le Rêve, or “the dream.” It’s a contract position, which would mean a steady paycheck. “It’s a very good company to work for, I’ve heard. To have that on my resume would be pretty outstanding,” she says. “It would mean not teaching at Muhlenberg, it would mean putting on hold everything that I’ve started at Pace. It would mean relocating to Vegas. It would mean, ‘What happens to my apartment and Sam?’”
She pauses for a long moment.
“You know, I would want to be able to say yes, hop on a plane, and go. With like, a backpack. But I’ve created a lot of stability in my life here. It would take a lot of thinking and assessing. Le Rêve is nice to dream about. But then, if something really did happen, the reality would hit. Everything waxes and wanes and I feel like you just have to go with what’s right at the moment.”
As things currently stand, Madeline doesn’t expect to have a job with a 401k in the next five years, if at all. “Circus is a hustle, like any other art form,” she says. “You have the work that you do and you sell it. You are your own product in that way. Just like for dancers…You have certain skills or a certain look that you’re selling… It is a viable career, but it’s not yet part of the mainstream.”
Circus performers know how to stretch a dollar. Once, Madeline was asked to pay an entry fee to one of her student’s performances. When the doorkeeper wasn’t sure whether he should charge her, she turned up the charisma and smiled, “It would be great if you didn’t.” Instead of offering money, Madeline just stood there and waited until she got in for free.
This sort of practical maneuvering gets tiresome after a while. Sometimes Madeline yearns for the freedom of her college years, when she studied abroad and backpacked around Western Europe. “I definitely would say I have some wanderlust….Constantly,” she says. “I really like to see new places. And I mean, I still travel a bit for work. Probably like once a month. You know, with Cirque-tacular, I’m kind of in and out of different places. Just getting on a plane is really fun.”
“The older I get, the more settled I become. Being in a relationship and sharing an apartment with someone… You know, all of the things that sort of tie you down. I’m a little like, ‘Uh oh!’ Because I love that feeling of just being able to pick up and go.”
Dave Paris’ apartment is not your typical Brooklyn abode. His kitchen doubles as an observation deck of sorts. If offers an unrestricted view of the room below: a lofted, fully-stocked circus gym. A system of cables, pulleys, and support harnesses is rigged to the 18-foot ceiling. A rectangular trampoline rests haphazardly against the side wall. An Everlast punching bag lies forgotten by the staircase. Its image is reflected by a floor-to-ceiling mirror like you’d find in a ballet studio. A wooden stand, used to practice balancing technique, sits by itself in a corner. Mattresses and thick mats are strewn everywhere.
Today, Madeline and Sam have scheduled a private lesson here with a local Cirque du Soleil performer. When the doorbell rings, there’s an uptick in tension in the room. A man in jeans and a grey shirt bounds gracefully down the stairs, all smiles. He introduces himself as Marh-teen, in an accent that has an attractive, French hitch to it. He’s one of the leads in Cirque du Soleil’s newest Broadway production, “Paramour.”
Martin starts by gauging the skill level of his students for the day. Speaking in low tones, he invites Madeline to practice a hand-balancing technique. They pause for a moment to plan the exercise, then face each other. After nodding to Martin, Madeline springs off of the floor, her hands clasped in his. Mid-jump, she rotates her body into a handstand with Martin supporting her.
“Don’t search,” he says when Madeline adjusts her balance in midair. “Easy. Tranquile. Hold the line.” The two acrobats read each other, their faces inches apart. After a few moments, Madeline dismounts, her legs forming an elegant triangle before meeting with the ground. On her way down, she almost clips the staircase railing with her foot. Sam, standing a few feet away, looks unsettled at this near-injury.
In aerial acrobatics, precise communication is a must. Performers share a basic lexicon, and their commands to one another are usually quick. This allows them to make corrections mid-technique, when it counts, in order to avoid calamity.
A major focus of today’s practice is a technique known as le banquine. Its execution requires three acrobats, two forming a base with their hands and one being propelled straight up into the air. (It’s basically a high-flying version of a cheerleading throw). After all is said and done, the in-air acrobat is supposed to land, in a standing position, back on the base.
Sam and another student form the base. Madeline dons a safety harness. Martin acts as a spotter, holding a ceiling-bound rope attached to the harness. This way, he’s able to slow Madeline if she falls.
The first few banquine attempts don’t go well. Madeline flops sideways in midair, off-balance and off course. The men beneath realize that they’re boosting her unevenly into the air. They try to balance out their efforts.
Their next try goes more smoothly. Afterward Madeline beams, looking exhilarated. “When you get it right, it feels good,” she says. “It’s like WHEEEEE!!”