From the big slopes to the big top 

Trampolinist MacConnachie attends National Circus School

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF NANCY MACCONNACHIE - HIGH FLYER Former Oros Whistler gymnast Caitlin MacConnachie has taken her act to Montreal, where she just completed her first term at the National Circus School.
  • HIGH FLYER Former Oros Whistler gymnast Caitlin MacConnachie has taken her act to Montreal, where she just completed her first term at the National Circus School.

You can't just run off and join the circus anymore.

So when the Grade 9 student decided she wanted to perform in front of awed audiences, she approached it as more than just a runaway whim.

MacConnachie has just completed her first semester at the National Circus School in Montreal, where the nation's top instructors help pupils achieve their dreams in nearly 40 disciplines ranging from trapeze and trampoline to clowning art and contortion.

She heard about the school through the Oros Whistler Gymnastics Club and chose to throw her name in for an audition. The first round took place in Victoria while the next was an all-day tryout in Vancouver where hopefuls could be cut at any time.

"They would evaluate you on dance and a little bit on acrobatics. Then they would do flexibility and strength (tests)," MacConnachie said over coffee and lattes last week. "There was a panel of about seven judges.

"If you were trying out for the high school program, they told you to do something, so it could have been 'do a series of acrobatics' or 'show us a little bit of acting.'"

MacConnachie, noting she had little experience in dance and acting, recalled that only a handful advanced to the final test, a written examination on subjects like math and French to be completed at home.

After her acceptance, MacConnachie flew out to La Belle Province to begin her studies in August. A day starts with four hours of circus training — acrobatics, ballet and gym training. After lunch, students take their traditional high school courses with a typical day winding down around 6:30 p.m. She recalled the first few days being challenging, given that classes are in French and she didn't know any of her classmates. However, with students living in residence, she was able to quickly make new friends.

The year begins with what's essentially a summer camp to give students a crash course in their circus education.

"The first two weeks, there's no school whatsoever. It's just circus," MacConnachie said. "That's when they try you out in a lot of different disciplines, but you probably won't get a discipline for the first month or two because they need to see your strengths and weaknesses."

She explained that a student can ask to try out in a discipline and instructors will recommend one to a student. Being so early in her education, MacConnachie hasn't delved into a specialty quite yet, but having been a trampolinist during her time at Oros, feels that's a likely pursuit down the line.

"I was a competitive trampolinist for two years," she said. "It's not very different (in Montreal). There are very good coaches there and you have more than one. In Whistler, we have one coach, Louise Stack, and she's very good."

Even as a first-year student, MacConnachie has already had the chance to write and perform in a show. The term's major project was to collaborate with about a dozen other students to plan a 15-minute show that was presented on Dec. 12. The group created a story about resistance to a war and incorporated a number of disciplines into the show, including contortion, straps (which a suspended acrobat rolls and unrolls to perform acrobatics) and a Cyr wheel (a large hoop that a performer stands inside and rolls, doing tricks all the while).

The school offers a three-year collegiate program after the high school program, and MacConnachie is ultimately hoping to enroll in it as she strives to make it to the Big Apple Circus or Cirque du Soleil, which is located just across the street from her school. With a small number of students in both programs, there ends up being a tight-knit group even with the age gap.

"Most of the high school people are pretty good friends with the collegiate people," she said. "It's a pretty close kind of community because there aren't many of us."

For more information about the National Circus School, visit


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