Jo teaches her circus skills to the children at Jarjum Preschool in Lismore.
Jo teaches her circus skills to the children at Jarjum Preschool in Lismore.

Roll up! Roll up! Circus for all

Making it look effortless, Jo and Mira pull themselves up the long swathes of material known as ‘silks’ or ‘tissues’ that are hanging from the roof.

There’s nothing holding these daring aerial acrobats up there but the complex way they wind the material around their bodies as they climb. I hold my breath as Mira drops into a well-practiced back bend, dangling by her feet with arms outstretched.

I’m in the aerial circus boot camp of Jo McKinnon, known to North Coast locals as ‘Circus Jo’.

“When you are performing in circus, you have to smile and look glamorous and beautiful while contorting your body in strenuous ways,” Jo said.

As part of her circus boot camp, Jo trains with 11-year-old Miranda Jordan also known as Mira. Mira is a talented young aerial acrobat who already has gymnastics and circus experience and aspires to go to the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) to pursue her swinging circus career.

“Swinging trapeze can be scary, but the rewards are worth it,” Jo said. “In circus we don’t take a kamikaze risk. It’s a calculated risk based on technique and form.”

Aerial circus may not be for the faint hearted, but Jo believes that there’s a place in circus for everyone, regardless of age, ability or gender.

“In the circus you can do hat juggling, chair balancing, hula hooping, clowning or even be a funny MC,” Jo said. “I’ve even taught people of different abilities how to use low trapezes, close to the ground. Circus used to be a hard industry to get into, but today you can pick up a circus class anywhere.

“My circus boot camp is a safe place to get fit and challenge yourself through physical movement as well as experience personal growth.”

With an unquenchable appetite for circus, Jo has spent her life pursuing a circus career while travelling around Australia performing magic and daring feats of aerial acrobatics.

“I loved circus when I was young. Whenever I’d see a big top erected in town I’d get excited and want to go,” Jo said. “I loved monkeys and clowns and aerial artists. Later on I loved seeing the magic – I was a believer of the illusions being created.”

When she was a teenager, Jo found her way into the circus lifestyle after experiencing a difficult childhood. Adopted out when she was young, Jo moved through a series of foster homes and hostels in Brisbane until one day she heard about a magician called Mandrake and went to visit him at the local showground.

“He amazed me by making flowers disappear... so I became his assistant and travelled around doing shows with him,” Jo said. “He would perform tricks like pulling the loudest big mouth from the audience and say, ‘Put your hand through this piece of glass’ and of course he couldn’t. Then he’d pull the curtains over, hypnotise a dove and put it through the glass.”

While it’s true that a magician never shares her tricks, Jo shows me her magic ‘transformation box’ – something she picked up while working with Mandrake the Magician. Jo designed and built it herself with a little help from another magician friend. It’s small and there are holes in the sides for someone to thrust swords through while she’s in there. To show me how little space there is for her body to move inside this magic sword-eating box, she thrusts all the swords through the holes, unclips the sides and climbs in. There’s hardly room for her to squat down without being sliced by the very real swords.

“I even do costume changes in here,” Jo said. “We put a doll under the box when we perform so people can see that I‘m not hiding at the bottom.”

Making the transition from magician’s assistant to circus performer, Jo became involved with the Lismore Community Circus in 1992 and went on to become a teacher in the Lismore-based Sistaweb Circus. Since then she has performed with many different contemporary circuses such as Vulcana Women’s Circus and the Rock’n’Roll Circus. While traditional animal-based circuses are becoming less common, contemporary circuses where traditional circus skills are combined with theatrical techniques to convey a story or theme are becoming more popular.

“Contemporary circus has no limits,” Jo said. “Common objects can be used and made into a circus act. At the last Lismore Show I saw a funny wheelbarrow routine where a strong guy fell in love with his wheelbarrow. I’ve also seen great performances by people with vacuum cleaners with lights on them.

“I like the quirky shows with tough grunt and classy looks, like burlesque artists walking up ladders of swords or angle-grinding while rolling around on the ground – crazy stuff.”

While doing professional development training with the Vulcana Women’s Circus seven years ago, Jo had an accident that changed her life. She was practising an aerial manoeuvre on the trapeze when the stunt didn’t go as planned.

“I was doing a trick on the bar – a backward somersault rotation move,” Jo said. “I didn’t rotate enough and instead of the bar sliding past my face and catching on my hips, it caught on my voice box.”

With her body contorted into a back bend, Jo began to asphyxiate until the trapeze swung back to the platform, allowing other performers to help her down to the ground.

“I thought I was okay and tried to get back up on the trapeze to practise,” Jo said. “But I started to lose my voice and then my face started swelling. I had internal bleeding of my larynx. My whole voice box was a blood blister.”

After being told by a specialist doctor that she probably wouldn’t be able to speak for a long time, Jo regained most of her voice but started experiencing migraines and vision impairment as well as problems with her back.

“I found it hard to even get through my everyday physical chores at home,” Jo said. “I really needed counselling and I isolated myself for a long time knowing something was wrong with me but I didn’t know what.”

With help from WorkCover and Spinal Cord Injuries Australia, Jo visited numerous specialists to try to diagnose what was wrong with her. She then spent years undergoing different kinds of physical rehabilitation and counselling for her unspecified spinal injuries.

“I’ve lost about 40% of my flexibility,” Jo said “I used to be able to pull my foot up behind me to meet my face… after the accident I wasn’t even able to bend backward.”

Jo found the hardest part of her rehabilitation was the lack of understanding from other people about how it had affected her.

“Some people told me to get over it, that they had seen people with worse circus injuries than mine,” Jo said. “I really wished there was an Acrobats Anonymous to help me through those hard times.”

While undergoing rehabilitation, Jo said that she would never perform again. It wasn’t until she received a phone call from a psychic who had had a vision about an aerial performer that Jo turned back to the circus.

“I was putting out to the universe for an opportunity,” Jo said. “The psychic had faith in me and wanted me to perform again. It made me realise when people extend a little bit of kindness, it can go a long way.”

Her experiences of rebuilding her strength and self-esteem inspired Jo to create a space that could act as a physical and emotional support network through fitness and circus, and so she created her own business, Muscle Beach Australia.

“I wanted to teach people to become strong and empowered through physical movement,” she said. “I’ve had people come to my workshops and say they’ll have to go away and get fit enough to come back. But I teach people to accept where they are at – it doesn’t matter how old or fit you are or how late you start to learn.”

Jo is currently working with four schools on the North Coast, where she uses her circus skills to teach children gross motor skills. At Jarjum Preschool in Lismore, Jo brings her own exercise mats, hula hoops and circus toys for the children to play with.

“The children at Jarjum don’t have much in the way of play facilities,” Jo said. “All they have is a sandpit, so it feels good to be doing something fun with them that offers increased motor skills. I’m also doing a Bundjalung language course and I incorporate some of the Bundjalung words into my activities.

“It’s very rewarding working with kids and watching them grow. They say and do amazing things and I’m learning from them all the time. After I did a recent workshop with some kids in Brisbane, the parents all said their kids’ behaviour had changed and they now participated more in activities.”

Moving through and beyond the hardships and injuries in her life has given Jo the motivation and courage to give something back to the community and inspire others to the world of circus.

“My dream is to build a professional circus boot camp,” Jo said. “I don’t want to put any limitations on myself and when I’m 120, I’d like to still be able to do the splits up a pole.”

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