Circus performers get creative with lockdown training

Luke Powell, PA

Few lockdown routines involve swallowing swords or back garden acrobatics, but for out-of-work circus performers it is a necessary part of their week.

Dozens of trapeze artists, contortionists and acrobats and have been forced to find other forms of temporary employment or survive on Government grants after circuses closed during the Covid-19 lockdown.

And with gyms shut, performers have had to get creative in order to maintain their unique talents.

Anastasia Sawicka, 33, and her 49-year-old sword swallowing husband Hannibal Hellmurto would normally be touring across the UK with the Circus of Horrors at this time of year.

Instead, they are having to practise their routines from inside their home in Northampton.

Mrs Sawicka, whose stage routine involves her swinging and spinning high above the ground while hanging from her hair, told the PA news agency: “We tend to do everyday tasks in a circus way.

“For example, I have a little bar in the living room, so I will hang myself from that to watch the (Government coronavirus) daily briefings, that sort of thing.”

Her husband, meanwhile, said he practises swallowing swords “once or twice a week” inside their home.

The self-employed couple said they had been supported with Government grants over lockdown, but were looking forward to returning to work.

Mrs Sawicka said: “It’s been hard for everybody, but the entertainment industry has been really hit hard with all this, and how long will it take to recover?

“I have seen other performers become online fitness instructors, some people I know have gone into lorry driving or delivery drivers. Circus people, in general, are very resourceful.”

Circus performer Hannibal Hellmurto practises sword swallowing as Anastasia Sawicka, a ‘hair hanger’, looks on at their home in Northampton
Circus performer Hannibal Hellmurto practises sword swallowing as Anastasia Sawicka, a ‘hair hanger’, looks on at their home in Northampton (Joe Giddens/PA)
Circus performer Anastasia Sawicka practises her ‘hair hanging’ skills at her home in Northampton
Circus performer Anastasia Sawicka practises her ‘hair hanging’ skills at her home in Northampton (Joe Giddens/PA)

Fellow performer Stephanie Bates, whose “Iron Jaw” act sees her hoisted high up into the air and supported only by a mouthpiece which she grips with her teeth, said she had moved her training to her garden – and now looks after dogs to fill her free time.

The 35-year-old, from Wimbledon in south-west London, said: “It’s very easy to think ‘I’m just going to sit back and not do anything’.

“Then before you know it, you can’t lift yourself up like you used to, or I can’t hang by my teeth like I did before.

“I do have free-standing pull-up bar, so at the moment we have got that in the garden, and I can hang some silks from it, or put my mouthpiece on it and hang from that.”

Circus contortionist Stephanie Bates squeezes herself into a kitchen cabinet at her home in London
Circus contortionist Stephanie Bates squeezes herself into a kitchen cabinet at her home in London (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Coronavirus – Sun Feb 7, 2021
Stephanie Bates performs on an aerial rig set up at her home in London (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Trade union Equity, which represents performers across the UK, said 16% of its 47,000 members were now considering leaving the creative industry due to the impact of the pandemic.

Union general secretary Paul Fleming said the “stark reality” facing many of its members was whether their new temporary jobs become permanent.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the circus sector was being supported as part of its £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund.

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