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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

She Dances In My Shadow

Martin tells me to be ready at 6 a.m. He has coffee in a thermos and hands me a cup. It’s medicine. I require coffee. We’d been on the beach all night. Our house is right on the beach. The ocean draws you out at night. Dreams as waves crash along the shore.

We make our way across Adelaide. Streets empty. I don’t know the city. Martin is from here. He drives fast, coffee in one hand, wheel in the other.

Martin is a tall, skinny guy with an unkempt beard. I met him in Sydney. He said there's work in Adelaide. He can hook me up.

Work means work as a stage crew vagabond. I learned you can travel and job into shows and concerts, pick up cash. Gets me around the world. Gets me into some pretty peculiar situations, too.

Today’s job is with the Moscow State Circus. I’ve never worked at a circus before. Martin looks across.

“Be ready to work hard. It’ll bust your balls.”

We pull into an empty field, a bunch of guys standing around, some trucks pulled up. Nobody is doing much, cigarettes and chatting. Martin knows these guys. He introduces me around. But men, you know, they hold back and grunt.

This little guy arrives, spitting fire and yelling. He can’t be much over five feet, but his voice carries across the field.

“Get these trucks unloaded. Empty them. Put everything over here.”

All said in a voice that snaps like a whip.

Martin tells me that’s Jethro. He’s in charge. Jethro is serious. There are tickets sold. There are people showing up. There’s a circus to be raised.

The tools of this vagabond trade, work gloves, back right pocket, c-wrench tied to my belt. That and my body. I’m here to toil. Chasing sweat. Just go at it. That’s what Jethro wants to see.

The c-wrench, shifting spanner, adjustable wrench, all its names, but mine has history, grandfather to father to son history. I work with it for twenty years. We build shows all over the world. Tying it to my belt is the ritual. The signal.

The poet says:

God did anoint thee with his odorous oil,

To wrestle, not to reign.

Her words in my head as we pop the back of the truck and spin boxes down a steel ramp, push across the dusted field, twist the aluminum latches open, haul heavy coils of 3-ought cable, unwind neoprene snakes, lay them in a high-voltage circle that defines the circus within its bound.

You work rock-and-roll shows; you walk among gods. Or people who think themselves gods. People who sometimes recoil at your sweaty sheen that marks you as crew. No crew near gods.

The circus is different. We open boxes and haul out heavy canvas. The crew expands. New people. They have a distinct air to them, different haircuts and clothes. They swarm around us, directing us—move, haul and grip thick hemp. Circus people. It’s impossible to outwork circus people. You just try to keep up.

The circus people do their own rigging. Their lives depend on it. Acrobats and aerialists.

Two thick poles, assembled and raised into place like masts in search of a ship. Then the canvas stretched into place around their base, hemp rope fed through brass grommets, until it all lies on the ground in careful folds. Jethro calls every hand to task. It takes all-hands to raise a circus tent.

We are all in place, our grips secure, our legs taut, waiting. What’s required is a long and fast haul by dozens of hands, a heavy swarth of canvas pulled by a complex array of pulleys hung from the two masts.

The circus people have spread among us, leaders of the various teams. A woman leads our team, her arms like marble chiseled with a fine blade. She’s raised tents all over the world. You just know it. It defines her.

She watches us and picks up the rope, shakes it at us, wraps it around her hands, nods her head to say we should do the same. She takes a stance we imitate.

Jethro has a bullhorn, which he squeals and barks into in righteous distortion. Jethro doesn't need a bullhorn, he is a bullhorn, but the equipment adds to his power, and the pivotal part of this tent raising is we do it together and with force.

“Are you ready? When I say go, you go, you do not stop until I say you stop, then you freeze. You don’t move until we tell you what to do next.”

When the order cracks, we’re driven back through the dust, our hands and arms wrapped in rope, a serious pull against gravity, the canvas undulates like a circus flower, locks over the top of the poles, drawn out, rapidly lashed to a ring of stakes driven into the dirt, clinched in place.

It’s an occasion, and we all step back and view the tent, blue stripes, an elegant arc of canvas.

Jethro has no time for our admiration. He circles among us, roaring orders. I’m given two fluorescent fixtures and told to rig them in a tent to the side. I take a roll of cable and the lights and open the tent flap. A musky scent from the dark interior pushes me back. I hesitate.

A woman stands beside me, our team leader from the tent raising.

“These are my pets. Vladimir and Catherine,” she says.

Her accent is thick. She’s tall and slim, and her eyes glitter as she speaks. She is beyond me, ethereal. She stands in an unequivocal center. I marvel at people like this, who know who they are, who radiate a sense of themselves as fixed, focused, with purpose.

“Bears,” she says.


I peek into the dark.

“They don’t bite. Just keep to the center of the tent,” she says.

“Are you their trainer?” I ask.

“No, I told you. They are my pets. Their trainer is Ivan. He doesn't like me going near his bears. But what is he going to do? They always need time to settle when we arrive. I will give them some comfort while you put up the lights. I am Alina.”

Matter of fact. Like dealing with bears is all in a day’s work.

She knots the flap open and I carry in the lights, vigilant to keep to the center. I avert eye contact with the bears, but I see their massive claws reaching through the bars of the cage.

“So you are Australian?” she asks.


“American? I didn’t think to meet an American here. We cannot put our circus on in America, the governments fight. Who has the bigger missile? Who owns the Moon? But they’re other things to keep us from America. They are afraid we will run away.”

“Would you?”

“I wouldn’t tell you. But maybe. Starting again is a good thing.”

A man walks in, a thick black beard, his shirt tight across his chest.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“American, this is Ivan. He is putting up lights, Ivan. You want the bears should be in the dark?”

Ivan points a finger at me. “You should not be talking to her.”

Ivan looks like his bears, meaner maybe.

I walked back out of the tent into the sun, feeling the white heat on my face, drops of sweat, glad to be away from the bears. Sweat soaks my shirt. My bones ache from all the hauling. I take a rag out of my pocket, dip it in a bucket of water, and wring the cloth over my skull.

I’ve been on the road for five years, wandered through Africa, worked in Melbourne, Sydney. No aims, just on the wind, following conversations, taking this road or that.

Alina stands by me. We watch them haul a banner into place. ‘Moscow State Circus.’

“Are you from Moscow?” I ask.

“No one who works in a circus is from anyplace but the circus. It’s the only place any of us belong.”

“I think I’d like to work in a circus.”

“Everybody says that.”

I guess Ivan alerted Jethro to my conversation with Alina. Jethro calls me to the side and lays out his rules. Keep away from the Russians. It irks me, but I need to get paid.

You look back at things in life. Maybe I should have joined the circus, lived the cliche. There is always a good reason for a cliche. As it went, my life never settled. I was on the move. An open day and a long road called to me my entire life.

I never asked what’s the point of all this traveling. Bred to the bone, formed to it, I guess. The encounters were the point. Like Alina, a Russian woman in a circus. To meet people like that.

Collecting stamps in passports. Technicolor postcards. Stories to write. But it became more than those things. I didn’t just visit places. I moved in, got a house, got a job, lived the days, got up in the morning and found the best place to get breakfast, figured out the buses and trains, became stitched into a city’s fabric. It wasn’t until years later I worked out I was living beside the world, not in the world.

I was the constant tourist. I called myself a Grand Tourist. I visited all the tourist places, made a point of it. Eiffel Tower, Sistine Chapel, Rorke's Drift, Uhuru. I wasn’t too cool for it, but my goal was different. My goal was to fit in, change my accent, live a story I wrote every day. I became who I felt like being at that moment. It disturbed people, admonished and judged, but it didn’t catch up with me because I traveled on, reinvented myself. I created a story. That’s what I was doing. Writing it chapter by chapter.

We spent the rest of the day stringing lights, rolling racks of spots, running cable under stands, filthy work in a field, but when completed, the blue striped tent, red banners flying in the wind, food stands, the bears grunting in their cage as people arrived. Expectation cut the air.

Martin and I perch on empty cases, shifted back to the edge of the circus, smoking cigarettes, guzzling beer. Jethro comes up to us. He snatches a beer and points a finger at me.

“Martin says you can run a follow spot.”


“Alright. Some fuck head blew me off, so you're on Spot 2. Be in place at 7:45. I’ll give you fifty bucks extra. A guy named Michael runs the show. Just do whatever he says. Can you do that?”

I’m in place a lot earlier than 7:45. I walk into the tent. They set the lights, the ring swept, the band tuning up, people finding their seats, a buzzy crowd. My light is up a pole and I have to ascend a narrow wire ladder. I go up quick, not wanting to consider the fact I’m climbing fifty feet and I can barely grip the small rungs.

The ladder sways a little as I rise. I hoist myself under a steel cable and stand up, the follow-spot taking up most of the space on the platform. I flip the on-switch and an arc sparks in the steel case. There’s a lever for opening the shutter and a rack filled with colored gel, numbered one through six.

Down in the ring a man stands looking up. He gestures, places his palms over his ears. I see a pair of headsets on the rail. I put them on.

“I’m Michael,” he says to me through the phones. “Jethro says you know how to work that spot.”

“I’ve done shows — theater and concerts.”

“This is the circus. Nothing subtle here. We keep the spot on full. When I tell you to pick up a performer, you stay with them. If it’s a clown, no matter what they do or where they go, you stay with them. Simple. You never know what the clowns will do.”

The crowd assembles, seats fill. The band plays tunes. I sit on my perch and look down at the spectacle. I have it in my mind to be a musician, to be a writer, but sometimes I sit back and watch others perform, create. I see working on shows as its own expression of creativity.

But maybe there’s a lie there as well. This vagabond worker jobbing in is a way to experience artists at work, to work beside them, but not cross the line into risk. An artist risks everything. Art strips pretense. It’s impossible to be an artist and hide behind the walls we all build. The bare truth has teeth, can chew you up. There’s madness that can overwhelm you. For most of us, it’s simply not worth it.

I’ve worked hundreds of shows running a spot. There’s an art to it. A focus. I light the shadow, not the person. If the shadow is in the light, the person is in the light. Life can be like that too. Sometimes the shadows tell you more.

I grab my work gloves and I’m careful not to touch the heated steel case of the spotlight. By sighting down the side of the barrel, I can aim the spot. The heat rises from the metal and bakes my cheek.

Alina performs in the second act. She appears in a leotard, her hair pulled tight against her skull, her eyes thick with paint. High above the circus ring, she steps onto a steel cable. She carries two hoops in her hand as she walks along the cable until she reaches the center.

It's fifty years ago. This circus dream in my head. It was real. We went to a field. We unloaded trucks. We built a circus. But it's this part I remember most. Alina on her cable, dancing with hoops, fifty feet above the ground. Her lithe body bending over, her legs arcing into the air as she sticks a pose.

I frame her in light. This woman who passes through my life one night, a cartwheel on a cable just over one inch thick. Below, the piano plays a waltz, Alina’s face a mask. A slight smile. But from my perch I see the shake in her muscles, the tension of balance laced in effortless grace.

We are both in the air. The circus disappears for us.

I sense how she does this impossible thing. She creates her own space. There's only Alina. Everything else goes as she dances through her world. No up or down. No eyes cast. No circus.

And that moment lives forever for me. The cable disappears. Alina floats through space. Her hoops circle her like planets around a star.

After the performance, I look for her. There’s a chain-link fence. The Russians live there in trailers. A guard stands at the gate. He’s not interested in my story.

I walk back across the field. My name called. I turn. Alina stands on the other side of the fence.

She asks for a cigarette. Her face scrubbed clean. Behind her, I see other performers sitting on folding chairs by a trailer. They drink beer and listen to rock-and-roll.

“They never let you out?” I ask.

“I told you. They are afraid we’d run away. But all I really want to do is buy some blue jeans. The Russian clothes they give us make us look like baggy people. I look through the fence sometimes and wonder about the real world out there. But then I remember, if you live in the real world all the time, it can get kind of boring, yes?”

Ivan arrives and grabs Alina’s arm. She doesn’t resist, but her eyes flash. Ivan is a bear. The chain link gives him fire. Sometimes our cages unleash us.

“I told you, American, to keep away from Alina.” His voice is as much grunt as words.

He releases Alina’s arm and growls at me. Alina stands behind him and kicks him hard in his groin. The big man sinks to the ground, clutching his crotch.

“Thank you for the spotlight,” she says to me. “I felt you there with me.”

Martin is waiting in the parking lot with Jethro. They’re sharing a joint. As Jethro hands me the weed, he says, “I told you to keep away from the Russians. Now I can’t bring you back.”

“Sorry, man. I was just talking to her.”

“If you’re around on Saturday, I’ve got an 8 o’clock call at the Adelaide Festival Theater. The Scottish Ballet. You think you can not talk to the ballerinas?”

I get home at dawn. Our house is a cottage on the beach in a small town called Glenelg. Down by the water, I sit and watch the sun trace the horizon to the east, streaking across Gulf St. Vincent. Long shadows across the sands turn us into giants.



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