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She Ran Away and Joined the Cirque

Shana Carroll Went From Being Your Typical California Girl to Premier Solo Aerialist of the Cirque du Soleil's European Tour. No Way! Way.

December 01, 1996|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic. His last article for the magazine was a profile of film director Mike Leigh

"I just love the air."--Shana Carroll

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Settled comfortably one recent night under an enormous white tent topped with delicate spires, a capacity crowd of 2,500 in Antwerp, Belgium, is understandably astonished by the combination of circus tradition and postmodern inventiveness that characterizes Saltimbanco, the Cirque du Soleil show that has been touring Europe since 1995. As always, a special reverence and delight is reserved for the aerialist, the slender, blond trapeze artist in the silvery-bluish unitard whose dazzling moves and poetic presence on the bar 20 feet above the ground compel reverential silence followed by massive, relieved applause.

Yet dazzled as this crowd is, I feel considerably more astonished by the performance than anyone else under the Big Top. For I first met Shana Carroll, the young woman on the trapeze, 17 years earlier, when she was a 9-year-old scrambling around the Santa Monica Canyon home of her journalist father. Whatever your range of expectations may be for your friends' children, having one of them end up as the premier solo aerialist of the Cirque du Soleil's European tour is off the charts.

The younger daughter of Jon Carroll, once the editor of New West magazine and now a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and his former wife, Sandra Rosenzweig, a Northern California writer and editor, Shana is the only American of the more than 40 performers in Saltimbanco. She is married to a fellow circus professional, a remarkable acrobat named Huang Zhen, and is well aware that to the people who knew her in California, she has settled into "such a peculiar, out-of-the-blue life, the strangest thing anyone could imagine."

The norm in Shana's new world is typified by a scene glimpsed earlier in the day in the backstage practice hall, dressing area, game room and all-around home away from home, known collectively as the artists' tent. Casually perched high up on two parallel floor-to-tent-top ropes is a small boy of perhaps 8 or 9, being rigorously instructed by his Russian acrobat mother. Though in the front of the house, Cirque employees are selling tickets via computer, back here skills are being passed on in the old-fashioned way, which Shana, to her colleagues' surprise, did completely without. Equally out of the ordinary is that Shana did what she did by choice. After her performance, Shana introduces me to pair of charismatic Portuguese brothers, Marco and Paulo Lorador, masters of acrobatic hand balancing and considered close to circus royalty because their family has been in European shows for generations.

"They're working hard, trying to earn a lot of money so their children can be educated and have the kind of choices I had but didn't want," Shana explains, bemused at the contrast. "It's a hard lifestyle, and the people who had no choice think I'm a little crazy to be here."

This is the mystery I've come to solve: How did it happen that a California girl, dividing her time between her divorced parents, neither of whom are celebrated for their athleticism, came to embrace this arduous and foreign life?

Shana sees a possible parallel with her mother, Sandra, noting that Jon has written about her as " 'a woman of sudden and intense enthusiasms.' I'm an extremist myself, and this was the most extreme path I could take. I've always bitten off more than I can chew, and this seems the epitome of it."

Sitting in the small cafe on the Cirque back lot and wearing sneakers, green cotton pants and a plaid flannel shirt over a white sweatshirt, Shana Carroll could be a UCLA graduate student killing time between classes--except for the almost tangible air of physicality that she radiates, the self-assurance of the truly fit and the reveling in movement that has her run where others might walk. She throws herself into conversation, loving to talk when she gets the chance, she says, because it's so much the opposite of the physical work that takes up most of her life.

To spend any time with Shana is to realize that, far from being some idiosyncratic fling, the trapeze is a passion for her, an almost monastic calling. She expresses frustration at family friends who see this as the equivalent of a junior year abroad or "like I ran away and joined the circus. It's such a frivolous cliche and a misconception. What people are trying to find in meditation, that's what I find here."

All of which is ironic, for as a child Shana remembers not liking circuses at all ("I didn't get it, I didn't really believe it was real") and preferring the world of musicals and the stage. She did all the plays at Berkeley High School and, after graduation, thought she might become an actress. When that didn't work out, her father, a member of the board of the San Francisco-based Pickle Family Circus, suggested a box-office job with the troupe as a stopgap measure.

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