When one thinks about the world of “circus arts,” the perspective is often limited. One could imagine clowns, unicyclists, tightrope walkers, jugglers and magicians. Circus is often synonymous with companies like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the infamous UniverSoul Circus. However, there is an entire world of circus arts that is relatively unknown to the masses. To start with, there are several circus arts schools that diligent circus performers attend to receive professional training. Upon completing their rigorous higher level training, circus performers’ talents can place them on stages across the country and all over the world.
Forward Times had the distinct pleasure to speak with Cirque du Soleil “LUZIA” hoop diving artist Sidney Bateman exclusively to discuss his introduction into circus arts, diversity and representation within the profession, and getting hired by Canadian entertainment company Cirque du Soleil.
Originally from St. Louis, MO, Sidney was introduced to circus arts at 11 years old when he joined Circus Harmony, a non-profit organization and pre-professional program in St. Louis that uses circus arts to build character and expand community for youth of all ages, cultures, abilities and backgrounds.
“I was a normal African American kid growing up in St. Louis and I was looking for something to keep me out of trouble and keep me busy,” Sidney recalls about Circus Harmony.
He continued, “We have this amazing circus youth program called Circus Harmony and when I first saw their show one summer, I really didn’t like it. I walked out. I didn’t have an open mind about anything. But later that year, I went to the home of the St. Louis Arches and I saw them training. I wanted to join circus arts because I loved acrobatics, so I joined Circus Harmony when I was 11 years old. I really enjoyed it. I stuck with it. It was off and on throughout my childhood and I became very serious when I turned 18, graduated high school and then I went to Montreal to study circus arts at The National Circus School (Ecole Nationale de Cirque).”
Sidney admits that at one point, he didn’t know just how extensive the world of circus arts was. At the end of High School, Sidney decided to make a career out of circus. Believing in his talent, the manager of Circus Harmony helped him to get to Montreal, Canada to audition for the National Circus School. To his own surprise, Sidney was accepted into the College Program with a specialization in Hoop Diving.
“I didn’t know exactly what circus was at one point,” Sidney admits. “There was a school called ENC (Ecole Nationale de Cirque/The National Circus School) and I didn’t know anything about it. I was introduced to the school when a friend of mine left St. Louis and Circus Harmony before I did. He set the blueprint for us. When he did it, we saw that we could also do it. Then there was a constant flow of young people, including myself, going to Montreal to attend the National Circus School, which is pretty incredible.”
Sidney loved studying at the National Circus School for three years and being introduced to the world of contemporary circus. He successfully graduated in 2014 alongside his St. Louis friend Melvin Diggs (fellow Circus Harmony alumnus) as a Hoop Diving duo. For two and a half years, the duo took part in the creation and international tour of “Cuisines & Confessions,” a production of the Montreal-based circus company 7 Fingers. The duo also performed one summer with the Chicago Midnight Circus, a fashion show for Hermés in Hong Kong and a collection launch for Bench in Manila.
In 2017, Cirque du Soleil contacted Sidney and Melvin to invite them to join the cast of “LUZIA” on tour.
“This is my first Cirque du Soleil show,” Sidney reveals. “I saw Cirque du Soleil when I was a kid and that’s what really inspired me to become a circus artist. The first Cirque du Soleil show that I saw was “Quidam” which, in my personal opinion, is Cirque du Soleil’s most famous show. I was super inspired and I didn’t know that anything like that existed. It really started opening my eyes to other paths that I could go into.”
Although Sidney is excited about joining the cast of a Cirque du Soleil production, which is the largest theatrical producer in the world, he was not too surprised.
“The National Circus School in Montreal is the best circus school that you can attend in my opinion, although there are many other circus schools. Also, Cirque du Soleil headquarters are right across the street from the National Circus School in Montreal, so Cirque du Soleil has an eye on the students who attend the National Circus School. If you really put the work in at the National Circus School and you have talent, it’s kind of destined that you will get picked up for a Cirque du Soleil show. I pride myself on working hard so I knew that working for Cirque du Soleil wasn’t far-fetched.”
When asked about his specialty, Hoop Diving, Sidney expresses excitement in sharing his passion and one of his favorite disciplines with thousands of people every night.
“Hoop Diving is the discipline that I’ve been performing since I finished school. It is basically the hula hoops or rings, stacked on top of one another, and we do acrobatic tricks through these hoops. We contort our bodies and find ways to go through and under the hoops. We stack the hoops as high as four hoops, which is a total of around 10 ½ feet.”
Sidney also shares the importance and symbolism of Hoop Diving as it relates to his childhood as a troubled teen in St. Louis, MO.
“The importance of Hoop Diving really reflects on my childhood. I feel that I was put into the right discipline, given my circumstances growing up. I grew up in gangs and I was very limited to where I could go in my town. I couldn’t go two streets over to a different neighborhood. I had to watch the colors that I wore because if you go two streets over in the wrong color, you could be in dangerous territory. So, for me, when I was in school doing Hoop Diving, every time I jumped through the hoops, it felt like I was leaving the old world that I was in and jumping into a new place; jumping into a new atmosphere; jumping into a new situation or area that I couldn’t go to before. It’s a release. It holds a big place in my heart because I’m performing Hoop Diving, not just in my home town or in a small show, but one of the biggest stages out there, which is Cirque du Soleil. I get to perform for people, not just in my country, but in other countries as well. I get to show the world that you can do more than become a basketball or football player, or a rapper. I’m doing something that is different and unique that most people like ourselves wouldn’t even know existed. Now I’m jumping through hoops in places like Europe, France, Germany and even in Mexico. It feels amazing coming from St. Louis.”
When asked about diversity and representation within circus arts, Sidney advises, “We can’t take advantage of the unknown. A lot of people in my situation just didn’t know about circus arts. We don’t need more people like me; we need to create more opportunities for people like me to understand that there are so many paths and avenues that we can take to be successful.”
Sidney feels that his ultimate childhood dream has come true and now wants to share his story with youth around the world to inspire them in working hard towards achieving their goals. His advice: “I encourage people to always give back. That’s a big part of my success. When you come to see the show, you’ll see that there are so many artists on the stage who love to perform. Our goal is to perform, not only because it makes us happy, but also to hopefully touch and inspire someone in the audience who really needs it. I was that kid who was touched and inspired by Cirque du Soleil and now I’m in the position to do that for someone else.”
“LUZIA” will premiere in Houston, TX on January 10, 2019 at Sam Houston Race Park. Shows will be available until February 3, 2019. Tickets are available at www.cirquedusoleil.com.