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Joining the Circus, Leaving the Circus


Marty and Jake LaSalle

Jake and Marty LaSalle in Walden, NY. Photo by Gillian Laub.

by Jake LaSalle

I could write a book about why I chose to join the circus, but here's the long, short story:

I had always been enthralled by the circus. It seemed to be a place of adventure, passion and potential, and I remember being riveted by the acrobats -- and especially the jugglers — when my parents would take us to the circus as a kid. (Ringling Brothers is the first circus I remember seeing.) My brother (Marty) and I always had a lot of energy as kids, so naturally our parents signed us up for gymnastics lessons, which quickly accelerated alongside my growing interest in the circus. I taught myself to juggle with apples in an apple orchard when I was 10, taught my brother how to do it, and within months we had a whole set of tricks and skills and had begun to put together routines.

A couple of years later we were spotted by the guy who would become, for the next decade, our coach. He was extremely instrumental in developing our talent, and if it weren't for him we certainly never would have turned professional. He gave us the structure and the resources we needed to turn potential and drive into a polished act that was ready to be shown to the world. We started in venues outside of the circus (although we were, of course, performing a circus act), like halftime shows, cruise ship productions, corporate events and private parties. In 2002, Marty and I participated in a world-renowned circus arts festival in Paris, and that was our first formal introduction to the world of circus. (Big Apple Circus Founder) Paul Binder offered us a contract, but Marty and I were on our way to begin our undergraduate education at Columbia University, so we had to turn him down (as well as the other producers/directors that saw us perform at that festival).

I definitely have no regrets about joining the circus. I think that if I ever do, it will be that I didn't stay in the circus long enough. There were, of course, times when it was difficult. We sacrificed a great deal when we were developing our act as teenagers, and we had conflicts with each other, our parents and our coach. We also suffered our fair share of injuries. And then there's the stress that comes with traveling and living on the road. I miss performing with the circus every day. My year with the Big Apple Circus was such a vivid one that I imagine it'll take a lifetime to digest everything that happened and all the experiences I had. In terms of what I miss the most, it's difficult to pinpoint an exact thing, but I think I've always enjoyed the practice and rehearsal that goes on behind-the-scenes more than anything else. My brother and I both had a lot going on during our year with the Big Apple Circus. For me, it was the rather extensive process of applying to and selecting a medical school. So we were not as focused on practice and on developing new material as we had always been before. Nonetheless, it was those moments when we were practicing or warming up backstage that stick with me the most. Paradoxically, I'd also say that some of my worst experiences have been during practice and rehearsal when Marty and I were stuck on a particular element, the act was not working smoothly, and we got angry with ourselves and with one another.

I also have no regrets about leaving the circus to become a surgeon, though it was not an easy decision to go to medical school. I imagine I would have found happiness in either path, but I'm very satisfied with the new challenge that the practice of medicine has presented to me. The program I'm in now is one of the best and my peers are all very enthusiastic and talented, so I'm learning a lot just by virtue of being here at the University of California-San Francisco. I've always lived a non-traditional life, and, occasionally, I worry that the path I've chosen is a bit too traditional for me, but I'm sure I'll find a way to stake out my own individual and unique corner in the field of medicine.

Read more about the LaSalle brothers