Florida. Sunshine, beaches, Everglades and retirees, right? Well, add to that circus. Sarasota, Florida, is the circus capital of the world. The oldest youth circus training camp is located there: Sailor Circus. But circus isn’t just for the young. As it turns out many performers who retired to Sarasota aren’t ready to get down from the trapeze just yet. After Circus (dir Viveka Melki) is a moving film about those who gave their youth to the circus and now make retirement less dreary by keeping performance in their lives.
The film covers the lives of several former circus performers — a horse trainer, a clown (Jackie “Ambassador of Goodwill” LeClaire), and several aerial acts, especially Dolly Jacobs. Jacobs enjoyed a long stint as mistress of the rings, winning a highly coveted Silver Clown at the Monte-Carlo International Circus Festival. We see her bidding on ebay for a collectible plate of herself and sharing her home with a dog and her husband, also a circus aerialist, Pedro Reis. At 58, Jacobs is not ready to stop. Not only does she run a circus school, but she is perfecting an act for the 2015 Sarasota Circus with another retiree, Rafael Placos, who is 52.
Jacobs is one of the youngest in the film. Her mother, also a circus performer, gleefully sticks her legs behind her head with ease while sitting in a chair, but can barely walk across the room. We meet octogenarians and older who now live in trailers and modest studios, chock full of memorabilia and memories, all of whom seem nostalgic for their past and unwilling to let go of its magic.
While I expected to see a film of people bitter about how the circus wore out their bodies, in the way we sometimes see professional and amateur athletes, I could not have been more wrong. These performers loved the circus, seem to have enjoyed every moment they spent in it. Norma Fox, now aged 90, says “Every minute was beautiful.” They retired in tears and took time recovering from the unwanted change to their lives. They speak of the hardships they endured as part of what made being in the circus great. They miss the travel and the camaraderie, but also the opportunity to delight an audience.
Circus arts remain in their lives in many ways. Many of them still dream of their acts. They stretch, put on make up, and still incorporate aspects of their circus performances where they can. Jackie says he is sad if he doesn’t make at least one person laugh each day. The horse trainer comes to watch her daughter (also a retired performer) and ends up unable to help out running the horses through their moves. In a beautiful scene, Jacobs gets up on a set of rings and runs through an impromptu routine that easily outclasses most I have seen. She is breathtaking in her flexibility and fluidity, strength and grace.
A few talk about how the circus has changed. Jeanette Williams, now 73 and an agent says animal acts aren’t desirable because of the protests they draw. Thelma Kemp, 82, talks about how body paint has replaced costumes. Something is lost in the mechanization of different elements. None of them complain though. Even though most are poor, they never suggest that their life choices were the wrong ones (only one does — she says she shouldn’t have listened to her mother to quit performing for her child!). The other thing that strikes me is how none of them have retired into lifelessness. One carves circus sculptures, another tends fish and plants. They surround themselves with colour and life.
Another feature that struck me is how close the performers are. Many come from circus families. They meet monthly in their own club, the Showfolks Club, and reminisce about each other. They help each other out where necessary. When one woman’s property where she keeps her trailer is sold, the community steps in to help out.
Overall, After Circus is an optimistic and touching film about aging and old age. There is much to learn from these artists who keep their arts going even when it is not possible to do so at the same level they once did. They were awe-inspiring as performers and continue to do so as models for courage, light hearts, and spirit.
After Circus shows on November 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the Pavillion Judith Jasmin Annexe as part of the RIDM. $11.50/$9.50