Being a performer is an act of faith. Performers must have faith in their directors, their stagehands, their fellow performers, their audiences, their training, the laws of physics, and themselves. Public performances have many moving parts – lights, sound, lines, rigging, blocking – and if one part fails, the entire show risks grinding to a halt. Training and performing with a touring circus has the added daily risk of injury or death before a live audience. I can’t help but think of Robin’s origin story in the Batman universe; the young Dick Grayson witnessed his parents’ death during their well-loved family flying trapeze act because a mafia man with a grudge sabotaged the rig just before the show.
Spenser Inwood is like Robin and Daredevil rolled into one, only young, female, and Australian. She is a strongwoman, an acrobat, and a flying trapeze catcher for Circus Oz – in her words, ‘one of the few women employed as catchers in Australia’. She has been performing aerial pieces since she was ten. ‘I’ve always been pretty comfortable being up in the air doing things,’ she told me. ‘What I find most challenging is dealing with the fact that I’m in charge of a whole bunch of people’s lives. I’m catching people and holding them above the ground.’ To convince others you can catch them mid-flight and safely guide them onto the landing cradle, every single time, is a huge ask.
Seven years ago, Spenser’s future in acrobatics and flying trapeze catching was threatened when she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Energetic, complex movement was her life, and it seemed like CFS would tear that away from her. ‘I struggled initially,’ she says. ‘If I’m not able to do things physically with my body I begin to suffer emotionally and mentally. One of my symptoms was skin soreness, so I didn’t want to rest my hands on my lap, and I didn’t like being touched, so even the idea of getting a massage was out of the question. It was a real struggle to tell if I was just tired or if I was chronic-fatigued. There’s a real difference. There’s fatigue from working hard and there’s fatigue that’s all consuming, like my eyes will fall out of my head. And it lasts and it lasts and it lasts.’
“I’m in charge of a whole bunch of people’s lives. I’m catching people and holding them above the ground.”
For a while, Inwood thought she might have to shift career gears. ‘For a long time, not being able to get out of bed or having trouble going halfway up the stairs, or needing a break while doing the dishes – all that was incredibly confronting. I thought I might need to start working on other things.’ Instead, she enrolled in a physical theatre workshop directed by Circus Oz’s Twentysixteen Guest Show director Anni Davey, and composed a piece relying more on theatrical expressiveness. ‘I learned that just because a piece doesn’t have a great deal of physicality doesn’t mean it’s not well-constructed,’ she says. ‘It changed my perspective of the kind of work I want to be making. Then I started gaining better control of my symptoms. And I find myself here, in Circus Oz, which I never thought I’d be able to get back to.’
Going public about her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome reduced not only her isolation, but the isolation of other circus performers and students. ‘It’s funny because once you start talking about it, other people with chronic fatigue come out of the woodwork. You never knew they had it because you yourself never talked about it. At the time I got really sick, I was teaching a lot. I had a lot of students who told me they, too, suffered from chronic fatigue.’
While only around five percent of CFS patients achieve full recovery, the reasons for which are still largely unknown, Spenser credits her improved health to educating herself on treatment options for specific symptoms, such as gentle cranial osteopathy for skin soreness, as well as listening to her bodily needs for food, sleep, and cross-training, and making prudent choices around work. She initially juggled three jobs to earn enough money for her health care, before full-time work enabled her to occasionally take cabs home so she could get more rest. Now a full-time performer for Circus Oz, a guaranteed income and work schedule has enabled her to focus on continued recovery.
Spenser describes the thrill of performing feats of daring with bright-eyed enthusiasm, as well as a boost of body-positive activist fervour: ‘When I’m performing, I’m always excited to know what the audience’s reactions are. I’m also excited by the energy exchange between the performer and the audience. What I love about performing as a circus acrobat is knowing that there’s someone in the audience seeing me work thinking, “She kinda looks like me, I can do that, too.” There are differently-shaped bodies onstage. We’re definitely not size zero!’
“When I’m performing, I’m always excited to know what the audience’s reactions are… I’m excited by the energy exchange.”
This was an advantage of growing up in the circus, with a mother who celebrated women’s bodies for what they can do, and not what they look like to an imagined male gaze. ‘When I went through puberty, wrapping my head around growing breasts, something that stuck with me was my mum telling me, “Aren’t you pleased your body can do these wonderful things for you? If you looked a different way, you wouldn’t be able to do all these great things.”’
Part of Spenser’s philosophy is combating the idea that femininity is inextricably linked with beauty. She recalls with wry fondness a memory of an audience member who was shocked to learn that she was Circus Oz’s strongwoman and trapeze catcher. ‘But you’re so beautiful!’ the woman had said, putting her hand on Spenser’s wrist with a look of confused horror. One had to choose between beauty or strength, apparently – and it was unthinkable for the already-beautiful to celebrate the potential of women’s meat, muscle, and bone.
But there is beauty in seeing the highly trained, hardworking feminine form taut on the ground or mid-air, bearing the weight of others with smiling, self-assured ease. And there is beauty in the moment when acrobats lock grip mid-flight, interrupting gravity, a show of faith defeating memories of fear and trembling and faint-heartedness. Enduring and embracing vulnerability, whether in the mind or several metres above the ground, is no minor feat.
Circus Oz is an animal-free, family-friendly circus currently touring Australia, with upcoming shows in Western Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. Tickets are available here.