To unfamiliar eyes, everything around them was chaos. Men and women scurried around. Some were in costumes, others in athletic training gear. A half dozen songs played as dancers practiced their choreography.
But, to a circus performer, this was the real magic of the show. Everything it took to produce a modern-day circus was happening at once. Acrobats, clowns, gymnasts, and daredevils came together from nearly as many nations as existed on the planet. And they did it for that one kid in the front row at his first circus who was just blown away by the magic of it all.
Nearly every performer had a story about “that” kid. No matter what was going on around them, the kid would stare, and smile and yell and cheer and cry. That was what made it all worth the effort. That was why they loved it.
Before they could take the show on the road, before they could affect that child in the front row, it took hundreds of hours of sweat, blood, tears and screams of their own.
Photojournalist Mike Scott was there to capture that part of the story – the spectacle behind the spectacle at the circus’ winter home in Florida. It was circus school.
On his third day there, one of the administrators of the training program, Karl Klapproth, lead Mike around. Karl was a former performer in his own right, so he was able to give Mike special insight into some of the acts that were still in development.
“What’s this thing for,” Mike asked as they passed by a 30-foot-tall acrylic tube filled with water. The tank was like one you would find in a large public aquarium where the fish swim in the water column.
“Oh, that’s a new underwater act. The tube is six feet wide. A group of swimmers does an underwater ballet inside. They swim down in twos and threes to the bottom and perform. It’s very impressive to watch. They stay under an incredible amount of time and you wouldn’t think there was enough room for all of it, but they make it look amazing,” Karl said.
“I’ve done some freediving myself. Thirty feet is about my limit on a good day and I’m sure I wouldn’t have time on the bottom to do stunts,” Mike said. “Are they going to be practicing any time soon. I’d like to watch.”
At 6’2” and 220 pounds, with dark wavy hair, Mike was a big man. He stayed in shape mostly by traveling and being active. He loved scuba diving when he wasn’t working, and he combined his two loves into underwater photography when he wasn’t on assignment. He spent a lot of time diving the Caribbean but also loved to dive the shipwrecks near his home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
“I’m not sure when they’re going to practice again, but I’ll be sure and find out for you,” Karl told him.
“So, is that performance going to make it in the show this year? How do you decide what acts are featured each year and which ones never leave Florida,” Mike asked as they walked away from the tank.
“It’s interesting you ask that. There is a very involved process where choreographers and designers at our headquarters review possible acts, including the staple performances that everyone expects at the circus – the clowns, the high-flying acts, that sort of thing – and decides what else can fit with the theme of the show. Each show has a look and feel, and each act has to work with that look. Then they design costumes and figure out how to make it all work together,” Karl explained.
After a particularly grueling assignment in a war zone, Mike’s boss had suggested the circus school as a story and Mike jumped at it. After just a few days, he was surprised how much the experience had affected him. Lately, telling the big stories felt like it was wearing him down. Maybe he was getting older, but it was harder and harder to move on to the next assignment. But being here was inspiring Mike all over again. People doing this for the pure joy and satisfaction of it. They couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
Like most closed groups, the performers and stagehands met Mike with some skepticism. They had all seen their fair share of reporters and photographers come to the training ground with an angle or an axe to grind. But they soon discovered Mike was different.
“Help!” came a terrified scream from behind Mike and Karl. “Ridian fell into the tank. Someone please help!”
Mike had walked about 20 feet from the acrylic tube with Karl. He could clearly see a lifeless body sinking in the tank.
Mike tossed his camera bag to Karl as he bolted for the spiral staircase that led to the top of the tank. “What happened?” Mike shouted as he ran, taking the steps two at a time.
“Ridian said his father was going to let him in the act and we snuck up here as soon as you left. He was showing off and then slipped and hit his head. He just sank,” the young girl said as she began to sob.
When Mike reached the top of the stairs, he immediately stripped down to his shorts.
The sprint to the tank and charging up the stairs had Mike nearly out of breath.
He took a moment to focus on what he was going to have to do. Looking around, he saw what he would need to get down. Two weight belts were lying on the floor. The performers had been using them to train with. Each held five pounds of weight.
Mike picked up the belts and draped them over his shoulders, took three quick breaths and did his best to relax. Then he simply stepped in the water and let himself sink.
Cool water rushed all around Mike and shocked his system. It almost caused him to gasp, but he quelled the urge. He forced himself to stay relaxed and still – twisting, turning or struggling would only slow his descent. Mike wanted to save his energy. He was going to have to grab the boy and then swim up with him. That was going to be the hard part.
Mike would also be fighting a quickly dropping supply of oxygen in his system. The exertion of the swim would demand more oxygen from his body than normal. He would be cutting it close by the time he got to the surface.
Touching the hard acrylic bottom of the tank with his feet, Mike’s lungs were already beginning to burn and his mind was telling him to breathe.
Without a mask, Mike could only see blurry shapes. The performers had some equipment in the bottom of the tank that broke up his line of sight making it even harder to see.
Mike knew he had to find the boy quickly. There would be no way he could swim to the surface and make it back down again. And there was no telling when other help would arrive. He was the boy’s only hope.
Then he saw Ridian lying on the floor against a block that formed the base of one of the performer’s supports. Mike dropped to his knees and lifted the boy over his shoulder. Dropping the two weight belts, and with all the energy he had left, Mike sprang from the bottom, propelling the two of them toward the surface.
Mike kicked with his legs as hard as he could and swam upward with his free arm. His mind was screaming for fresh air. His lungs were burning. Mike swallowed, trying to put off the urge to breathe. He had no idea how far he was from the surface. Doubt started to creep into his mind. Can I make it? What if I’m too late? Should I have done this differently? What if I had…?
Mike’s vision began to grow dark and he knew he was close to blacking out.
And then his head broke the surface. As he felt the water fall away and air on his face, Mike took a deep breath. And a second one. And then he was able to focus his eyes. There were people on the stand. Hands reached out and grabbed Ridian from Mike. Others helped Mike climb out of the water.
The performers immediately began caring for the boy. One rescuer opened his airway and delivered two rescue breaths. Another performer called 911 while a third began CPR and started giving him oxygen.
After just a minute, Ridian began breathing on his own.
By the time emergency medical services had arrived the boy was beginning to regain consciousness.
There was no question in anyone’s mind that Mike had saved the boy’s life.
Mike would have won the performers’ confidence anyway, but his selfless effort to save the boy opened every door and broke down every barrier that anyone could have even thrown up. They accepted him as family and allowed him inside their homes and allowed him access to their lives without hesitation.
Finally, the circus was putting on a dress rehearsal before taking it on the road. While each of the performers had done their acts hundreds, if not thousands, of times before, this was a chance for everyone to see exactly what the show would look like. And Mike was there for that, too.
Mike didn’t look forward to editing through the images for this article. Ultimately, he might end up publishing 10 photographs from the thousands he took, but he knew he had amazing images that would reveal the circus life to his magazine’s readers. And that was what was important to him.
For him, the stress and the intensity of the assignment were over. Now, he got to enjoy this last night with his new group of friends, not as a photographer. He got to sit in the front row, in the owner’s box, and enjoy the show. He got to be the wide-eyed kid again. And he loved every minute of it.