André Simard’s class begins promptly on weekday mornings at 9, as in any normal school. By almost every other measure, however, the instruction is extraordinary. The classroom is a huge cavern inside a converted railway station in downtown Montreal, and Simard’s teaching method appears to consist largely of hauling furiously on ropes and pulleys while barking advice through his long, shaggy beard. His students are also unusual. They include youngsters like Xavier Lamoureux, a muscular 15year-old with a dyed blond forelock who, on one recent morning, was hurtling through the air 32 feet above the floor on a wildly rushing trapeze. By his side, Marie-Josée Lévesque, 21, swung slowly on a more sedate trapeze, balanced on her head. And several feet below, 18-year-old Jennifer Tellier and Robert Bourgeois, 24, were fluidly entwined as they slid
across a thin ribbon of steel. “They are all mad, of course,” said Simard, a 47-year-old former Olympic high-bar gymnast, as the class drew to a close. “But you have to be a little mad to want to study in this place.”
Simard’s version of a classroom is L’Ecole Nationale de Cirque, the National Circus School. For the past 12 years, the singular Montreal institution has been capturing the imagination of young people seduced by the age-old desire to run away and join the circus. It has given hundreds of hopefuls an authentic taste of circus life and helped to transform the talented few into fully fledged—and gainfully employed—circus artists. Without the National Circus School, Montreal’s acclaimed Cirque du Soleil, which opened a new season last week, would not have grown from a humble troupe of street performers into an internationally celebrated enterprise (page 53).
The student body is divided into three categories. There are now 26 adults and six younger people, aged 9 to 16, enrolled in the fulltime professional program. Another 15 students, mostly children, attend initiation classes three times a week. Finally, 125 youngsters and between 40 to 60 adults show up for weekly sessions specifically designed for people who, as Achard said, “want to learn a little about the circus just for the sheer fun of it all.” It is the professional program, however, that is the National School’s main focus. Each of the 32 students now in the program appears to have been terminally afflicted by circus madness. Each pays $1,600 annually to participate in 35 to 40 weeks of gruelling, individually tailored instruction aimed at turning out an accomplished circus performer eventually capable of gaining employment in a professional circus company. Those determined young hopefuls can be found in the morning at Dalhousie Station working on fundamentals in the school’s gymnasium, on makeup and costumes in the wardrobe room, studying in the base-
Like the Cirque, the school itself has blossomed since it was founded in Montreal’s working-class east end. It now operates out of the handsomely refurbished and splendidly equipped Dalhousie Station in the city’s historic Old Port, where the first transcontinental train set off to cross Canada in 1886. Over the years, the school has acquired an international reputation, drawing praise— and students—from as far afield as Europe, Asia and Australia. “We are a world power in the circus arts,” declared the school’s director, Jan Rok Achard, pausing to add with a trace of irritation, “even if few people in this country seem to have recognized it yet.”
The National Circus School is, in many ways, unique. Unlike the majority of circus schools in the world, which are owned and operated by professional circus companies, the National is completely autonomous. It is a private nonprofit corporation funded by a combination of tuition fees and subsidies from the governments of both Quebec and Canada. There are no other institutions of the kind in North America offering both full-time training in the circus arts and a comprehensive high-school and junior-college academic program which, in the National’s case, is licensed and supervised by Quebec’s educational authorities. Ten teachers and five administrators make up the staff.
ment or developing routines in the enormous 71V2-foot-high classroom they call the chapiteau—the big top.
Jennifer Tellier hauled herself from the gymnasium’s “crash pit,” filled with 12,150 yellow foam cubes, to explain the reasons that persuade a freckle-faced 18-year-old to submit to the daily punishing grind. “Sure it’s tough sometimes,” said the Montreal native, a student at the school for the past two years, “but I’ve always been a kind of hyperactive kid. And from the moment I saw my first circus, I just knew deep down that it was a world that I badly wanted to belong to.”
Many students have been drawn by the National’s growing international renown. The school has always been a training facility for the Cirque du Soleil, particularly in the early years, when it was partly funded by the professional organization. But it has also won its own place in the world.
For the past four years, all of the National’s entrants in competition at the Paris-based Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow, an annual event open to both professionals and circus students under 25, have won medals.
In Paris, last January, the school produced bronze medallist Jeannot Painchaud, a trick cyclist from the Magdalen Islands, in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, and two silver medallists: Swiss-born trapeze soloist Titoune and Magdalens acrobatic trio Damien Boudreault, Robert Boudreau and Jeannot Chiasson. That kind of success on the world stage has resulted in invitations for the school to participate in performances next year in locations as diverse as Verona, Italy, and Wuhan, China. It is also reflected in the fact that seven of the 32 students enrolled in the current professional program are from outside Canada—four from
France, two from the United States and one from Switzerland. There are likely to be more in the future: of the 83 applications that the school has received for the 12 places available in the professional program next year, no fewer than 81 are from foreigners.
Shana Carroll, 21, of San Francisco, hopes to be one of the lucky dozen. She is currently enrolled in a basic introductory program at the
National, after arriving unannounced on the school’s doorstep last September only to find that there was no space for her. She had been performing as a trapeze artist at San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus, a small, politically oriented troupe, but decided that she needed advanced instruction. She said that she went to Montreal for two reasons. “The National is the only school in North America, and maybe one of the few schools anywhere else in the world, that still focuses on the circus as an art form rather than all the tired old stuff you get in places like Ringling and Bamum and Bailey,” said Carroll, taking a break from a choreography lesson on the floor of the chapiteau. The other motivating factor was teacher André Simard. “He’s the best,” she said. “In terms of trapeze, there’s simply no one better.”
Simard dismisses praise with a shrug, but in fact, he is one of the National’s prime assets. After competing, unsuccessfully, in the 1972 Munich Olympics, he went on to coach the Canadian national gymnastic team for seven years before joining the staff of the Montreal school in 1988. While fond of describing himself as “nothing but a technician,” he is responsible for helping to implement one of the school’s abiding principles. “I’m basically a guide rather than a teacher,” he said. “I try to help each of these kids see where their particular strengths and weaknesses lie so they can go on to develop their own distinctive style and technique.” He added: “If they get it right, if they can make the impossible look easy, then it’s nothing short of magic.” Magic, and maybe just a little mad, too.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.