Michael Church met performers from the Canadian Cirque du Soleil and found that his imagination wasn't the only thing to be stretched beyond belief
Tonight, 10-year-old Anton Chelnikov will make his London debut cradled in his father Nikolai's arms. Then he will coil himself round his mother Galina's neck like a feather boa. Then he will do a handstand on one hand only supported by one of Nikolai's hands. On that slender basis, upside down and seemingly weightless, he will contort himself into shapes of which Dame Nature can have had no idea when she fashioned his skinny but normal-looking frame. As the baby of the French-Canadian Cirque du Soleil, he must perform such routines nightly.
Should we worry about his education and mental health, or call in the child-cruelty brigade? With such wet-liberal thoughts in mind, I go backstage at the company's Vienna stopover to find out. The Cirque may have abjured the use of animals, but it seems to put humans through some pretty cruel hoops.
It's mid-afternoon in the warm-up tent, which is a hive of quietly intense activity. On one of the practice mats, four young girls are coiled up in identical, anatomically-impossible positions: each is perched on one foot. I spot Nickolai and Galina on a sofa, deep in a game of backgammon, while Anton is half-way up a wall, hanging on to tiny protuberances. They call him down and he settles on the sofa between them, cosily chaperoned.
It becomes immediately apparent that the chaperoning is the other way round: Anton's English is excellent (with an American twang) while Nikolai's is more halting and Galina's frankly exiguous. And he holds court.
How did his career begin? "When I was four, doing acrobatics, like now. Only handstands, splits, little stuff. I was just trying to follow the way my father did it." Nikolai adds that of all the children he has taught and that's a lot Anton was the most adept. "From the beginning he could do things without pain. He was a natural acrobat."
"When I am older I want to be a clown," says Anton. "I like making people laugh." Does he ever suffer from nerves? "Only when we start again after a break." In other words, only from a reasonable anxiety as to whether he's sufficiently tuned up. "People don't make me nervous: I love playing for the crowd."
But about this ambulant life of his, doesn't he miss things boys of his age normally have? "Like what? I have a bike in Amsterdam, where we have a trailer. And I have a dog in Moscow, where I have a flat." A what? Nikolai explains that the Chelnikovs bought a flat close to the family's, for Anton to move into when he grows up.
Does he have friends of his own age? He shrugs, and Nikolai quickly puts in that "only last week" he had the son of one the circus's Austrian technicians to stay.
In other words, he doesn't. He's been a child among grown-ups since the cradle, and he's happily adjusted to the situation.
He went to school, he tells me, in Atlanta and Miami, during the four years his parents busked their way round the States, after the Russian company they had been touring with went bust.
So he's really a little American? "No. I am a Russian." It seems he goes to Russian classes every evening, as well as to the French classes he attends in the circus "school" each morning. Every year, wherever he happens to be, he takes the standard Russian grade exam at the local embassy last year in Berlin, the previous year in Tokyo. "I want him to grow up Russian," says Nikolai simply.
Is there anything Anton wants, then, but doesn't yet have? "I would like a farm, with lots of animals, in Russia." With a lake and a forest, adds Nikolai. This is evidently their communal dream. Isn't life in Russia a bit difficult at the moment? "Ask him," says Anton. "He's been around longer than me, and he's the boss." Yes, Nikolai agrees that life in Russia is not easy and circus business is slack.
As Anton goes off to climb the wall again, Nikolai says very earnestly: "Anton is not missing anything. We do what he wants. I ask sometimes if he would rather have a normal life in Moscow, but he says no, this life is hard, but he wants to keep it. But I do have one other dream, which is that Anton will play the piano. We have no piano here, but I bought him a harmonica in Munich. "
Anton is not the only babe in the wood: Laurence, Nadine, Isabelle and Jinni, knotted for hours at a stretch like mythical beasts, have been eating, sleeping and studying together since they met at primary school, and are still only in their teens. They may not come from the same egg, but their communion is now so close that they sometimes finish each other's sentences.
It seems that their act came together by itself, and they are known simply as the Four Contortionists. Isabelle says she had wanted to do this weird thing for a living since she was five. "I have a picture of myself when I was really little, combing my hair with my foot." "When I was very small," says Jinni, a voluble Peruvian, "my elder brother used to frighten my parents by bending me like a rubber doll. I'm now so flexible that it could be dangerous, and I have to strengthen my muscles to combat it."
The company physiotherapist tells me the four have been the subject of much research by puzzled doctors. "They have had magnetic-resonance imaging done on their backs photographed from all angles to see if their joints were overlapping, but it turned out that they were healthier than normal. Their organs are also extra-ordinarily flexible when they contort themselves, everything gets pushed up towards their lungs."
They are starting to do well in international competitions, with their biggest competitors being, predictably, the Chinese. In Mongolia, says Jinni, their rivals are rigorously schooled from their earliest years. "But it is not their own decision their parents and teachers put them in for it. With us, it's a passion."
Huang Zhen, the Cirque's principal Chinese pole expert, has been on the road since he was hoicked out of the classroom at nine years old. With just three years of formal education, he is somewhat unfinished: he never learned long division, he admits ruefully. And he is visibly a product of selective training, with a hugely developed torso and ultra-slender legs. "Short, stocky boys were bred as tumblers. I was never allowed to do that because it would have built up my leg muscles. I had to have the lightest legs possible. " So that he can shin up poles backwards, and execute seemingly weightless manoeuvres in the air.
But he's lucky. He has escaped the clutches of the state, and is now married to the Cirque's San Franciscan trapezist. The Cirque's Chinese tightrope walker, an elfin 19-year-old called Chen Wei, is chaperoned everywhere by her minder, her assistant, and her interpreter. She's the latest in a string of performers to do the double-wire act. None is ever allowed to stay for more than six months, for fear though this is strenuously denied that they may jump ship.
British local authorities have nice, caring guidelines for the education of circus children, whom they bracket with the children of travellers and gypsies. But it's hard to see how these could be applied to the junior members of this polyglot band. I think we can relax though. They seem quite happy.
Cirque du Soleil is at the Royal Albert Hall from tonight. Box office: 0171 589 8212