"My big break," says Galen Kingross, "came when they put me in charge of cotton candy." Kingross works concessions at Cirque du Soleil, but his "big break" brought him a step closer to what he wants to do: work the crowd.
The sticky cotton candy would build up in the spinner, and Kingross would have to take the machine to the showers to wash it clean. His route took him past a cast hangout, and there, as the sun turned the frayed pink sugar into syrup, Kingross would milk the acrobats for tips.
In a way the 23-year-old was making up for time lost in California's tract houses where children who march--let alone cartwheel--to a different drummer have few options. Says Kingross, "You can't just go to your local school or something and say, 'I'd like to try trapeze, do you have that in your curriculum?'" So after high school he started working for United Parcel Service. Four years went by. "I was getting, like, 15 dollars an hour and stuff, but I just felt like I was in a rut."
Then last year a girlfriend took him to see Cirque du Soleil when it played in San Francisco: "I was totally blown away." When it traveled south to San Jose, he joined up. Now, four cities later and half a continent away from home, he's still following the circus, working as one of the 150 temporary laborers Cirque du Soleil hires in each new city it visits but hoping someday to cut capers under the big top.
"I could always do things that other kids couldn't," says Kingross. "I always did little tricks. That's how I made friends a lot of the time--I did little tricks."
"And I could throw knives and axes."
Oh? At what?
"Anything I could get ahold of. Our fence was like, well, we had to replace a section of it because it was so riddled from my knives."
Any other little tricks?
"At one point I started out just throwing bamboo sticks up into the air and being able to catch them, however they spun. Then I started, like, slowly shooting arrows up in the air, until finally I could take a 45-pound bow, do a full drawback, release, and stand underneath and either deflect or catch the arrow."
Eventually, this trick outgrew the backyard. "Sometimes if I didn't shoot them straight up the arrows would go into the neighbors' backyards. They weren't too terribly happy about that, so I had to relocate."
Just how does one catch an arrow?
"Uh, basically you have to be right underneath it. You can't be in front of it, you can't be to the side of it. You have to be so it's going dead straight for your chest."
He shows what he means, tilting his head back, exposing his chest to the sky.
"You grab right before the arrow comes before you. You're already grabbing, your hand is almost closed while the arrow is maybe here"--he gestures to a level in front of his face--"so when you're completely closed you catch it."
If you miss?
"It'd stick into you, I guess. I don't know, I never had it stick me."
"I never let the thought cross my mind that it could hurt me, because I knew in my mind that I could stop it or move out of the way or do something to deflect it. So in my mind I never had a fear of being hurt by it, even though I had injured a couple fingers here and there because I grasped too soon. So the tip of the arrow would hit a finger and it would, like, leave a dent."
These days Kingross is working more on acrobatics. When the circus was in Santa Monica, a nearby beach had a jungle gym in the sand, complete with rings and horizontal bars--"so I got to do my regular gymnastic workout."
When Cirque moved on to Costa Mesa, "for the first while there was nothing around that I could find like that." But it wasn't long before Kingross happened upon a children's park with a large play structure built out of wooden posts. He worked on jumping from the top of one pole to another. As with the arrows, he started small, jumping only between posts that were close together. But by the time the circus left Costa Mesa for New York, he had mastered distances of up to eight feet: "I could stand on one, concentrate on it, jump to the next, and hit it dead on."
In New York, Kingross found "a new thing to play on," a railing on a boardwalk along the Hudson River.
"The great thing about the railing is that it's just like a tightrope. Once you get on top of it there's only one point you can balance on, 'cause it's round. It's not a flat surface. So at first I started jumping up and walking, trying to balance a little bit on those."
Heavy weather helps.
"When it rains or when it's really windy, it gives me something else to play against. The surface of the rails is slippery, so you can't grip it with your feet. You have to have your balance completely. And the wind pushes you, so you have to compensate against it, and once it releases, you have to compensate back to your center of balance."
Here in the Windy City, Kingross has found a real tightrope, sort of. Out along the water by North Pier, where the circus is performing, he came along a mooring rope, "the really thick kind, you know, almost as thick around as your fist." He tied one end to a boat tie and the other to a telephone pole.
That first night he stayed until four in the morning--"when I was just too tired to keep my balance at all. It was so much fun. And it's cool down there with the breeze, and you can see the lights of the city."
He found that a real tightrope is more difficult than a railing, even a wet one in high winds. "It's not steady at all. Any fatigue or tremor in your legs gets the rope going, really going. By using hitch knots I can tighten the rope, but not as tight as it should be. It's still got more slack than a real tightrope. So if I can master this, the real thing will be a breeze."
Has he taken a lot of falls?
"Not really. The rope is really scratchy, so it scrapes you kind of bad. It's like a built-in incentive not to fall."
It's been almost a year since Kingross first landed his concessions job back in San Jose, but he's not anxious. "Someday I'll be in the circus," he says, without a trace of bluster or bravado. "It's just a matter of time."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.