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Collingwood teen rises to high standards at top circus school

Collingwood's Clara Alex jumped through hoops to earn her dream spot at one of the world's best circus schools

A Collingwood teen ran away to join the circus — and so far, she’s loving it.

Clara Alex, 18, started full-time classes at the ultra-exclusive École nationale de cirque (National Circus School) in Montreal last September. After just one semester, she said the experience has been “life changing.”

“The school is really cool, I am really enjoying it here,” said Alex. 

However, not only has Alex had to adjust to life away from home like any teenager venturing into higher education, but on top of that, she has had to learn a whole new language as the majority of her classes are held in French.

“Every single day I have to relearn how to communicate,” she said. “It has been a challenge, but fun.”

Alex was one of only two silk specialists in the world to be offered a spot in this year’s class. The National Circus School, which works with Cirque du Soleil, only accepts 25 students per year — it’s an acceptance rate lower than Harvard. 

The three-year program includes circus training, academics, and classes in acting, dancing and singing. She will graduate with a degree in circus arts and, she hopes, a spot in a Cirque du Soleil show. 

“I always knew I wanted to do something on stage, but I was never a good enough singer,” she laughed. “So I thought, maybe this is it.”

But to get there, it will take hard work and dedication. 

Alex starts her day with conditioning at 8 a.m. before heading off to dance class. After lunch, she has time to work on an apparatus of her choice — Alex usually picks hula hooping or clowning — and then attends a flexibility class. After a full day of circus, she has her academic courses, which range from health and security and learning how to tape injuries, to history, philosophy, and rationality. 

Last semester, they also had something called Creation Week, where five world-class directors were brought into the school to work with a group of students and put together three 10-minute presentations in one week. 

“It’s a lot. It’s very full, the schedule is high-demand,” she said. “They expect a lot because you’re the best.” 

Alex said that last point has been the most humbling part of the whole experience. Students come from all over the world to audition for the program and only very few get accepted. 

“It’s such an honour in the circus world,” she said. “It’s so cool… you’re looking at some of the best people coming into circus right now.”

Another thing that was new to her was learning all the different apparatuses in circus. Alex is an aerial artist that performs on silks, but there are other aerialists, like swinging trapeze, cloud swing, aerial traps, and dance trapeze. Then there are the ground circus artists, like wire walkers, hand balancers, jugglers and hoop divers — not to be confused with hula hoopers, who are different from the unicyclists and acro-bikers. 

“I am still learning so much about the circus world, but it’s really impressive,” said Alex. 

But at the end of the day, she still loves her silks the most. “Anytime I am free training at the end of the day I am always on the silks,” said Alex. 

The Collingwood native had always been artistic. She started in theatre, but when she discovered aerial silks she was drawn to circus because of the high level of athleticism it required. After a single class at the Collingwood Circus School in 2016, she became wrapped up in the artistic sport. 

“I love the feeling of it, dropping through the air. It feels like flying,” she said. “The audience’s reaction as well.”

In 2019, Alex also published her debut novel, Partly Cloudy. Written when she was just 14-years-old, the novel explores sensitive topics that surround teenagers growing up in a digital era and the unique challenges they face. 

Despite spending her days throwing her body dozens of feet above the air, she said that experience was up there as one of the scarier things she’s ever done, emotionally. 

“Writing poetry is emotionally vulnerable and to put that my next goal was to get into this school on the back of the book was also scary,” she said. “Writing that book showed me that I could take some of my greatest pains and turn them into art.”

Alex has a strong social media presence which she has used to promote her work in circus. She can be found on Instagram @circusclara.