COURTESY CIRCUS SMIRKUS
Thula Martin, a Pahoa teen who performs with the touring company Circus Smirkus, says her contortions can sometimes cut off her air supply, but "you just smile and pretend it's OK."
A world gone topsy turvy
A big Isle teen impresses a famous circus with her flexibility
Fourteen-year-old Thula Martin has run away to join the circus. And it's not the first time. Thula has been touring with a youth circus for three consecutive summers, performing in a European-style big-top show throughout the Northeast from late June until mid-August.
"Thula has a 100-megawatt smile," says Ed LeClair, executive director of Circus Smirkus, the Vermont-based touring troupe. "She can light up the whole tent. She is a natural, unpretentious kid who radiates happiness and joy."
Not only that, she can twist her body into a pretzel, which is her job as a contortionist. She also flies through the air during the trapeze act.
"It's always been a dream for me to be in a touring circus, said Thula. "I became serious at the age of 11 when I first saw Circus Smirkus."
Each year, Circus Smirkus goes through 150 to 400 audition tapes, then selects 50 kids to attend live auditions for a shot at a spot in the troupe. Thula is one of the chosen ones.
"We look for the ability to connect with the audience," LeClair said. "We have an intimate space -- a big top that seats a maximum of 800 people -- and it is imperative that a performer can express emotion, joy, humor and love for the circus arts."
Thula, who lives in Pahoa on the Big Island during the circus' off-season, says her favorite acts are the aerials, although they've given her hands that could be compared to a ballerina's toes.
"I have big calluses on my hands," she said. "They rip and become big, open blisters. I just tape my hands so I can keep on training. An aerialist's hands are definitely not the prettiest."
COURTESY CIRCUS SMIRKUS
The ability to keep 20 hula hoops in motion is another of Thula Martin's talents.
Thula speaks of pain as a part of everyday life. Normally it's just big bruises or a strained muscle, she explained, but she once experienced a dislocated and fractured elbow.
Of her contortion work she says simply, "You need to get into awkward positions that look good but are extremely painful. And you need to learn how to get oxygen, since the positions cut of the air supply. You just smile and pretend it's OK."
On the road, the performers study skills they might not use in the actual show, including tumbling, juggling, unicycle-riding and clowning. They also help pack and unpack props, clean up after shows and sell popcorn and water.
"Life on the road is both fun and exhausting," Thula said. The payoff is meeting teens from all parts of the world who share a love for the circus.
When Thula is not showing off what her mother, Shakti, calls "her extra-bendy back," she is attending classes at Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences. She hopes to attend L'Ecole Nationale de Circus (National Circus School) in Montreal and work one day with Cirque du Soleil.
Thula began studying acrobatics at age 5. At 6 she joined the Pahoa-based Hiccup Circus on the Big Island. "She is a born performer, and the focus and passion she has is inspirational," Shakti Martin said.
Thula has started training with Annetta Lucero of Pacific Cirque on the Big Island.
"As a coach, I have had the good fortune of finding a few gems who have made it all the way to the highest level of performance," Lucero said. "I believe Thula is going to be next. Finding her out here in the middle of the jungle was a miracle."