The Art of The Jump

Taken somewhere around midnight.

One of the most impressive things to watch in a traveling circus is the movement from one site to the next – “The Jump,” as it is called. A jump begins the evening immediately following the conclusion of the final show at each site. Audience members have barely left the tent when the crew begins removing the sidewalls. The bleacher pads – where the audience was sitting just moments before – are stripped and tossed into a pile outside; they are still warm with body heat as they lie in the grass. Quickly and suddenly, the energy and efforts of all who are part of the Smirkus tour converge into a synchronized dance – the kind that demands everything from all and lasts as long as necessary.

The work continues late into the night and when the sunset has finally announced the end of the day, the work continues by the light of four massive floodlights on the top of the Big Top’s cupola, and balloon-like “Air Stars” on stands that, when fully lit, resemble miniature suns. Moths and mosquitoes smash themselves into them all night long and the day’s heat and humidity lingers thickly in the nighttime summer air.

Everyone is put to work and the mosquitoes feast on the flesh of anyone that is standing still – a perfect motivator when combined with the fact that the sooner everything is packed; the sooner everyone can sleep. The tent crew puts on a heavy-metal soundtrack and the pace intensifies. The work separates into two work groups: the troupers work on the props truck, storing props and equipment and pieces of the set; the tent crew disassembles everything else. Anything that can be manually lifted and carried is unstrapped, unbuckled, or unbolted and carried to a given place to wait until a space can be found for it. Everything has a place and everything must go. The troupers’ work is relatively short-lived; they soon retire with their “homestay” families (families in each community that open their homes to our performers) for an evening snack and a good night’s sleep. The tent crew’s job lasts into the wee hours.

During the teardown, I work with the troupers on dismantling the set and backstage tent, packing the contents into a 26-foot long Ryder truck. The space is just enough and every square inch is packed with anything that doesn’t go on the tent crew’s massive rig. At times the work is chaotic and confusing. There is a great deal of technical jargon, slang and inside jokes to describe the order in which various parts are packed. I do my best to keep up and keep lifting, carrying and heaving until my staff t-shirt is damp with sweat, grass-stained, and grimy. Late at night, after my work is finished, the work lights flood my room and I fall asleep listening to Metallica. My sleep on these nights is understandably lacking.

By the next morning, both the Big Top and the rig it was packed upon are gone – trucked away sometime while I was asleep. Breakfast is abbreviated as our site rapidly shrinks. As the sun rises and any final preparations are made, the power is shut off and we lose our running water. Aside from the repaired divots in the field and a circle of dead grass where the ring was, you would never guess that a circus was there just a few hours before. By 8:30 a.m., our caravan pulls out of the fairground’s main entrance and the journey is now officially underway. Detours and other events of the interstate are not out of the ordinary and somewhere en route we hit a detour and pull over to re-group. Those of us responsible for navigation leap out and spread a map out on the back of a truck while we weigh our options. A quick-acting network of cell phones remedies the situation and after the three-minute conference on the side of Route Something, new directions are agreed upon while cruising at 55 mph with seatbelts buckled and eyes towards exit markers on our way towards our new location.

With the same intensity that took apart the structures piece-by-piece the night before, everything is put back into its right place to create an environment identical to that which we left behind. Tent Boss Nat Brown keeps the beat with a cowbell and a percussion block while the cupola is hoisted. The song of the tent crew is a chorus of pounding sledgehammers and cranking ratchets while the generator roars above din. While the rest of the crew ratchets away on the guy wires in perfect synchronization, Nat keeps the pace with an alternating:

Bonk! Tink! Bonk! Tink!    

The tent crew labors long into the afternoon, taking breaks to drink water. The risk of heat stroke can be high. When the cupola is raised, the bleachers are set up inside. The space feels unsettlingly empty, like it is missing something. Troupers arrive later in the afternoon, driven in three vans by counselors Dani, Colin, and Willow. They will all be responsible for unloading and installing the set they packed into the truck the night before. The “pie car” (cook wagon) sets up shop and in a remarkably short time, our cooks turn out something hot and delicious for everyone and we can finally sit down and relax.

We have running water and the electricity is back. Finally, at the end of it all, Smirkus has fully established itself in its new site; at least until the next jump.

Evan Johnson, Communications Intern

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4 Responses to The Art of The Jump

  1. Dounia says:

    Thanks for this terrific description of a jump! I wondered what it meant to pack up an entire show and take it on the road. Keep up the great blogging.

  2. andy bell says:

    Great writeup. Here’s a time-lapse video of teardown in Waltham last summer. You can even her “boink! tink!” at the end….

  3. Andrew Letterly says:

    As once part of the Big Apple Circus’s Tent Crew I have worked with Nat Brown at Lincoln Center (Manhattan) as he helped tear down the Big Top. He is a great Tent Master. I know how difficult the work and hours are to Strike and tear down any Big top tent. I commend all the behind the scene people at any Circus for the hard wok.

  4. Steve Mease says:

    Evan, I am enjoying your writing and almost feel like I am part of the troupe thanks to you. Keep up the great effort. You will have a fine collection of pieces at the end of the summer.

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