Circuses are scary-and I’m not talking about the clowns. Last week, on a windy afternoon in Santa Maria, I found myself 40 heart-pounding feet off the ground, my sweating palms gripping a trapeze bar. I feigned a smile to my hosts from Circus Vargas, thought about my last ride in an ambulance, and jumped. The world slowed down in a rush of adrenaline as I swung out over the floor, the big top tent a kaleidoscopic mess of colors around me. Channeling my inner stuntman, I relaxed into the ride, enjoying the warm, thick air against my face and trying to pump up my trajectory la an elementary school swing-set adventure. No doubt I was flailing, but man, it felt good. Seconds later I was flat on my back bouncing on the safety net below, laughing my ass off as I hurriedly made my way toward the ladder. “You want to go again?” asked Oscar, one of the three acrobats comprising the famous Flying Tabares trapeze act. I was halfway back up the ladder before I even thought to answer him, “Hell, yeah! I mean-is it okay?”
Like school vacations, flat spells, and European tourists, summertime in Santa Barbara just wouldn’t be the same without a circus. Earlier this week, under the cover of darkness, Circus Vargas, perfectly in step with the advent of the summer season, rolled into town and set up shop at the Earl Warren Showgrounds for six straight days of flying trapeze antics, mind-blowing cat tricks, gut-rotting cotton candy, trampoline acrobatics, general clown craziness, giant albino pythons, and silk dancing, which involves women tumbling from the heavens in massive silk curtains that threaten to kill them at any given moment.
In this day and age of reality TV that is anything but real, Circus Vargas is on a one-tent mission to bring back the glory days of circus magic, delivering mystery and awe on a nightly basis for a Big Top full of people. Swimming against the current cultural stream of online antics and high-tech kicks, Circus Vargas offers a classical escape for kids of all ages, while simultaneously allowing passage back to the days when a circus visit was an exercise in the exotic while also opening the mind to what is possible when you combine hard-earned skill with a touch of lunacy. Luckily for all of us, the Big Top still comes to town.
It was in anticipation of this annual return that I was invited to Circus Vargas’s Santa Maria stop to soak up the fun and try my hand at the aforementioned trapeze swing. Walking into the darkened Big Top was like passing into a womb of wonder, the seats all beautifully empty, the air a perfect balance of stale and fresh, the lights and riggings and ropes pregnant with risk and reward. The cool factor was running very high as my host, Holland-born acrobat Katya Quiroga, turned to me and asked, “Are you ready?” Eyeing the trapeze platform high above her head, I laughed and offered a simple-though completely unconvincing-“Sure. Should I be scared?” Her response surprised me: “A little bit, yes,” she said. “Even I still get scared sometimes.” She was wearing a brilliant purple, blue, and white outfit complete with flames and stars and swirls. She moved with confidence and strength. I was wearing flip-flops, had a healthy fear of heights, and the distinct feeling that I was in over my head. Turning to fellow Indy writer Shannon Kelley Gould, I halfway lied, saying, “This is f*#king rad!” Her eyes opened wide, dead set on the same trapeze platform I had just noticed. She blinked back to reality: “Remind me again why I wanted to do this,” she said. (Note: Indy photographer Paul Wellman was, as usual, completely devoid of fear. In fact, when he tires of the lens, his future could very well be in the circus.)
As the house lights came up, we were introduced to Circus Vargas’s number-one “flyer,” Josue Tabares, and number-one “catcher,” Oscar. Nineteen and 20 years old, respectively, the young men, with their wives and two small children looking on, stoically warmed up-the idea being they would “show us how it’s done” and then, after 10 meticulous minutes of study, it would be our turn to fly. Before assuming his upside-down position high above the circus floor, Oscar cheerily informed me, “I’ve only been hurt twice. But that was in Mexico-it is much safer here.” Safe is a relative word coming from a man who makes his living at the circus and-as I watched Josue, Oscar, and Katya perform a series of high swings, blind twists, inverted launches, and flipping dismounts-I began to understand why Circus Vargas’s Flying Tabares trapeze act is considered one of the best in the world. In fact, just a few years ago, the crew took home a coveted Golden Clown Award at the International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo in Monaco for its performance.
Though I am in no danger of taking up the circus life (upon further review, despite being told by Katya that I was a “natural born flyer,” my technique on the trapeze was more in line with a concrete block trying to float in the ocean than anything approaching coordination), I couldn’t help but feel the power of performance during my swinging lessons. It was during my dismount from swing number three, the fear now long gone, that I tasted, albeit ever so briefly, that surge of courage you get when you know people are watching. Bouncing off the net, allowing myself to spring a bit higher than normal, I twisted into a wanna-be back flip, my mind’s eye seeing things a lot more favorably than they really were. Lost in the moment, my risk was the circus embodied, a calculated choice made in the name of fun. Sure, bigger budget thrills can be had at the touch of a button, but there is something human and wonderfully gritty about a circus that speaks to the child in all of us. Like life itself, the circus is here one minute and gone the next, offering nothing but smiles, laughs, and the chance of mid-grade catastrophe during its all-too-brief annual bloom.
Oh, yeah, and about that back flip. I almost pulled it off but wound up on my head instead. I reckon I would have nailed it if I had been wearing tights-especially if they’d had flames on them.
For Circus Vargas’s schedule and show times, visit circusvargas.org.