If the United States of America has a circus capitol, it might be Las Vegas, home to casinos, conventioneers, and 6 different Cirque de Soleil shows, plus endless variety shows that feature circus acts. It is here that the professionals go to get steady work if they prefer staying local to being on tour.. But while Vegas has big circus, it lacks in small to mid-sized circus companies—the kind that often produce shows that redefine what is cutting edge artistically and draw a dedicated audience. Instead, the performers are employed by the rich tradition of ever changing variety shows that are after the tourist dollar. Cirque du Soleil may have a tremendous presence, but they draw artists from their system of scouts and their global database, meaning in town artists rarely have access to that level of employment.
On a recent visit to Las Vegas, I took in the oldest permanent circus show in town, Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère, checked out the popular and scurrilous show Absinthe and met up with several circus industry people to discuss how to make it work as a performer in Las Vegas. Nick Karvounis knows more than most how tricky it can be to set up shop in town. When he and his twin brother Alex moved to Las Vegas in 1997 with their seasoned 7-minute juggling act and a dream, they had trouble even figuring out where to audition. “There was a print publication that came out once a month. There wasn’t internet so you had to go to a bookstore and pick it up and if you missed the deadline you missed auditions because everything had to be done so far in advance. So we launched the subscription service VegasAuditions.com as an online trade paper in 2002 out of frustration about how to get audition information and get it quickly.”
Nick has seen the entertainment industry in Las Vegas become more circuscentric over the years, “There used to be more traditional reviews like Folies Bergere and Jubilee. All of those shows featured show girls doing 20 minutes of dance and singing numbers and then curtains would come down and you’d have a variety act. Since Cirque du Soleil came to town, many of the shows started booking circus acts as the curtain act, so it’s no longer the Vegas style act that’s popular, its trapeze and other aerial acts. That has
attracted more circus people to town too.”
Nick and Alex lived in Las Vegas and performed there for 17 years before relocating to San Diego. Although they still perform, managing Las Vegas Auditions and Vegas Report (an industry news outlet) has become their full time work. Nick says Las Vegas is still where it’s at still for the aspiring circus professional. “It’s one of the cheaper places to live in the country. There’s inexpensive housing and variety acts get paid very well.” He admits that there is a robust turnover rate for many shows, but says “The longer you are in town— the more connections you make with performers and booking agents—and there’s work out there for people. It’s a very small entertainment community. The directors and booking managers that are in town know everybody and they go to the same events— the red carpets, the show openings and closings— and you know these people and it makes it a lot easier.”
He advises newcomers to come with their act together. “You move in and from day one you can present your act and producers know exactly what they are going to get. That doesn’t mean you can’t get work if you don’t have an act though. Las Vegas has many training facilities and people out there are willing to put together an act with you.”
In some ways, Las Vegas’ entertainment methods seem outmoded. In cities like San Francisco, New York and all over Europe, contemporary shows are developed through aesthetic and marketed in mysterious ways through word of mouth and social media. But Las Vegas is a big machine that operates on older principles. It is the convention capitol of the USA, churning out 22,000 conventions a year, with over 42 million tourists, and all of those people expect to see a show or two. As soon as a visitor steps out of their airplane they are inundated with competing advertisements for every production. Giant billboards, magazine ads, the sides of busses and even hotel lobbies advertise, vying for the purchasing power of every visitor. Las Vegas therefore is not subtle, and their shows and marketing techniques need to be big in order to stand out. Because of this rigorous environment, Nick says there is a constant influx of shows opening and closing, extending and auditioning new acts.
Portrait of a Circus Artist
What is all of this like for a working performers? Sarah Romanowsky, a freelance aerialist, sees a different side to Las Vegas. “I love hiking because its physical and its outside and I get to explore and there are so many great outdoorsy places in Vegas. Not many people know that,” she says, ticking off the names of half a dozen lakes and trails and nature preserves nearby. But what brought her to town was the affordability, the opportunity and the consistency of work. Originally based in Los Angeles, she had no shortage of work there. But Sarah moved to town when she and her fiancé, who is touring with Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk, decided it would be the best home base for them. “He likes to do these longer contracts where he is really committed to one show and the cost of living here is so cheap. We have an instant community here. I really feel like I am at home here. For example, there is a training space called L’Oracle . I train there almost every day, but it’s also social hour. I run in to people I worked with, and people I’ve trained with. It may be networking but it’s also social time.”
Sarah’s resume is impressive and diverse. In addition to performing weekly on silks at Fantasy in Luxor, she has worked for Cirque De La Mer in San Diego (where she dove in to the bay and swam to a platform to perform aerial stunts). She’s been in commercials both on silks and as a dancer, performed for Cirque du Soleil and at Radio City Music Hall (a childhood dream come true for her) and done more corporate gigs than she can recall. But her favorite work is the jobs that give her creative freedom in her act, what she calls “full artistic control” to choose her own music and create her own choreography. She agrees with Nick that Las Vegas is a place where it is possible to collaborate and explore the art form, if not exactly because of the vision of the employers then for the abundance of creative talent. “The opportunities for creativity are endless, though we don’t get as many independent shows. There are more popping up. What a lot of people do now is get involved in the charity shows in town. There are the shows like One Drop and I’m going to be in Golden Rainbow which happens every year. That’s where artists get to have their outlets for creativity.”
Although Sarah’s fiancé enjoys the stability of longer contract circus employment, Sarah says being a freelance performer gives her a lot of freedom to work locally and travel as much as she pleases. “I love short term travel. Being gone for a week or two is great. But I like having a home base. I like my bed and my car and I don’t know how well I would do touring. My fiancé has 2 weeks off after every 10 weeks and they’ll send him home, which is nice. Lately, I’ll look at his calendar and where he is that week and I’ll get a teaching gig there. It pays for the trip.” She credits her teaching gigs to word-of-mouth recommendations and also to social media platforms like Instagram where she has garnished quite a following. “It’s going to sound silly, but I feel like it’s part of my job to be dedicated to my Instagram account. The students and studios who reach out to me have all found me through Instagram or Youtube. It’s really cool. I think social media gets a bad rap sometimes but I’ve met so many people this way. I got to go to Europe last year, teaching in Vienna and Bordeaux. I even went to Ecuador.”
Sarah isn’t as certain that a newcomer could walk in to a job in Las Vegas as Nick is. “For an artist who just wants to move out here blind and start freelance work, I think it’s hard. Its competitive. There are only so many jobs and events and companies. Maybe it’s a bit easier in other cities, because you’ll get all levels of performance, but everyone working here is at a pretty high level.”
When I asked Sarah what her goals were as a circus artist she said simply, “ A lot of people have their egos riding on checking off a particular box in their career. I’ve never really had that. I just feel particularly grateful that I can do this for a living. I feel so lucky and so fortunate and my favorite jobs are just when I get to be hired with my friends.”
Evgeny Vasilenko is a 2nd generation Russian slack wire artist based out of Las Vegas where he most recently performed in Twisted Vegas up until its abrupt closing last month, in spite of his three-year contract with them. The show closing had nothing to do with the skill level of its talented cast, and more to do with uninspired artistic direction, if the critics are to be believed. Before this, he performed for two years at Circus Circus Hotel.
But Evgeny is used to bouncing around, on the wire and off. He originally moved to the US to perform in a small show in California. Since then he has taught children circus, tried starting a family circus (he even has his own tent) and medaled in circus competitions (he won the bronze award at the Latina Festival in Italy in 2015), but currently he says he prefers having a home base in Las Vegas for the performance opportunities, even though he admits he found it hard to break in at first. “I thought that Las Vegas was the capitol of entertainment in the US, and I could easily find a job in town. But it wasn't like that! I did a lot of auditions, knocked on a lot of doors of talent offices, and tried to email the right people to get hired. I still do this! If you're a performer, you should never stop marketing yourself. It was difficult in the beginning for me because of the language barrier and culture, and I didn't know showbiz in Vegas. Now I have a little bit of experience!”
Evgeny may be getting by on his considerable talents—he is also a Cyr wheel artist and does a quick change act with his wife— but he is still searching for his big break. “I will be honest, I make a better living in the USA than I did in Russia. I don't want to say that it's so easy here though. The most challenging part of my job is to find a good contract and the easiest part is to do this contract! I think I could make a good living in the United States if I could find a stable job in Las Vegas.” So Evgeny is out there, hustling, marketing, searching for the right job and the right agent and figuring out the American dream on his own, but also looking to the future. “I want to make sure that I have something to do that I like very much when I retire and I want to finish my career on a high point!” he says, and he concedes to dreaming of competing at Monte Carlo someday and winning a Golden Clown.
From my conversations with circus artists in town I learned that Las Vegas has the jobs for qualified performers, pays good wages and is an affordable place to live, but is often short on the solid long term contracts, making it a big part of the work of the professional circus performer just to find the jobs and market oneself, which can be done the old fashioned way, preferred by Vegas—by knocking on doors, or the modern way, by social media. Perhaps Absinthe is a good remedy to that short term contract problem. It’s a wildly popular (also highly advertised) mid-sized tent show right on the grounds of Caesars Palace that packs the Spiegeltent every night and delivers a variety of top level burlesque and circus acts with a raunchy host and hostess to shock the audience far more than the bare torsos of the three acrobatic strong men or the flirty burlesque girls. I spoke to Almas Meirmanov, one of the three Chicago tight rope walkers who perform their comic tight rope act, after the show. “I came here expecting to perform for a couple of months, and 6 years have gone by,” he said with a shrug and a smile.
At Circus Promoters, we are committed to increasing your access to happenings and trends in the worldwide circus community. We also aim to provide access to exclusive interviews with inspiring people in the industry. If you are not a member of Circus Promoters yet, registration is free and all levels of performer are welcome. Visit circuspromoters.com to create your profile and learn about employment opportunities. Kim Campbell is a circus and theatre critic and writer. She has written for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Talk and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. She is the editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where she writes about arts and culture. You can follow her frequent musings on circus via Twitter, Instagram or at Kimzyn Chronicles . Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Circus Promoters and Kim Campbell with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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