Balancing act: How the UAE's circus performers keep fit

We find out more about the eating and exercising regimes that four circus artists follow to stay in top form

Mihai Sarbu, a hand balancer.
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As an audience, we only see the sparkly-clothed, stunt-ridden shows that circus performers put on day and night, across the UAE's many malls and at shows such as La Perle and at the ­Formula One. Behind the scenes, though, the life of trapeze acts, balance artists and acrobats is all about unpredictable schedules, brutal training regimes, and being ready to travel and perform at the drop of a hat. We speak to some of Dubai's circus performers about how they stay fit and focused.

Valeria Baigacheva

Aerial artist Valeria Baigacheva joined her first circus group at age seven. Courtesy Valeria Baigacheva

The daughter of a professional gymnast, Baigacheva joined a Russian youth circus at the age of seven, which, meant training in contortion, juggling and on the unicycle for four hours a day, six days a week, with the ultimate goal of joining the likes of the Moscow State Circus. The aerial artist moved to Dubai with her family in 2000 when she was 21 to set up a supermarket. Today, she's regarded as one of the pioneers of circus arts in the Emirates, having performed for royal families and celebrities in the UAE and regionally, often jetting off to palaces and super-yachts with just a day's notice.

A brief but successful stint as a salsa dancer led to ­Baigacheva meeting Mario Mira, now her aerial partner of 17 years, and the other half of her famed acts on hoops, silks and other equipment. The duo train together for several hours daily, and their death-defying stunts belie their 40 and 47 years respectively.

"At first, it was very hard to sell these acts," ­Baigacheva tells The National. "People were very scared and didn't understand them fully. It was dangerous, of course. For our first show, I had to sign 25 pieces of paper. Now it's much more technologically possible than back then."

From the circus, Baigacheva says she learnt the art of innovation, coming up with new acts every year. Training is intense; stretching and warming up alone are an hour-long session in order to prevent injuries, followed by an hour of equipment-based strength skills and one hour of performance rehearsals. "Aerials is mainly upper body and core. I don't do much on my legs as I don't want to lose the flexibility," she explains.

Rest is important, but in short supply in peak season. "It's relentless. We work so many shows and just cannot let anything slip. We rest when we get the time," she says, although she and her partner love to paddleboard when time allows.

Despite her petite frame, Baigacheva loves food and does not diet. She usually eats at lunchtime straight after training, having no more than a few dates for energy before that. Her eating habits become irregular during high season, though, when she may not get to eat dinner until after midnight. “I have to eat or I can’t sleep,” she says, adding that her go-to foods are usually simple, healthy meals such as soups and salads.

Mario Mira

Mario Mira and Valeria Baigacheva have worked together for 17 years. Courtesy of Valeria Baigacheva and Mario Mira

Mira came to Dubai from Colombia as a dance coach 17 years ago, and soon after met his future performance partner Baigacheva. He has become the bedrock of her contortion-based aerial performances, bringing his dance choreography to her circus expertise.

The couple warm up together during training and pre-show preparations. Mira says this can never be skipped. "Even warm, you can pull muscles easily. This is our livelihood, so we can't take any risks."

Unlike Baigacheva, Mira says he "came to all this very late", although that's hard to imagine given his agility. Building and maintaining strength is key to his training. "I have to spend a lot of time working on my shoulders, on the very small muscles around the joints, in addition to core work," he says. This is as much to prevent injury as to enable him to perform daring stunts high in the air in venues that range from mansions and malls to boats and sandy islands.

It's relentless. We work so many shows and just cannot let anything slip

Each piece of equipment, too, requires the use of different muscles and movements, so the pair need to constantly be on top of their game. “We can get call-outs at any time, so we need to be ready and in shape all year round.”

Like Baigacheva, Mira does not follow a fad diet, but avoids red meat, dairy, sugar and processed foods, which he says make him feel heavy. He describes himself as a foodie who likes to keep it clean and healthy. Despite his performance schedules, he tries to eat three meals a day. “I never skip breakfast,” he says. “Every day before training I eat cereal with almond milk, or eggs and toast and, of course, coffee.”

Gruelling training schedules aside, Mira remains an active dancer, performing regularly in Dubai and the region, in addition to being an accomplished opera singer. During summer, the training continues, but Mira can focus a bit more on choreographing different routines and trying new equipment. “We can’t afford to stop, but we do change things up a little, and take this quiet time to recharge and explore new acts,” he says. “Dubai is very spoilt with people coming here from around the world, and the audience constantly demands new things.”

Vlada Zhizhchenko

Vlada Zhizhchenko calculates her meals using macro nutrients. Courtesy Vlada Zhizhchenko

The co-founder of Pole Fit Dubai is also no stranger to the brutal training regimes of a performance artist, holding up to 10 shows per month. The Russian aerial artist, 32, spends three to four days a week training on various acts, from hoop and silks to pole, during which time she works on strength, tricks and conditioning, with a long warm-up focusing on flexibility.

"I like to mix it up, so I do body-weight training twice a week, including squats and lunges, to keep that strength and feminine shape, and cardio three times a week with about 30 minutes of elliptical training," she says. Zhizhchenko has performed everywhere from concerts and parties to deep within the Abu Dhabi desert, and counts a long list of politicians, foreign dignitaries and royals among her audience over the past six years.

She says the arrival of permanent show La Perle by Dragone, has helped make the performance arts more mainstream and brought many more artists in its wake, many of whom have trained at her academy.

For Zhizhchenko, fuelling her busy life and training with food is vital. She follows a calorie-controlled diet of 1,500 calories per day, made up of small meals calculated according to macro nutrients – although she confesses to regularly treating herself to coffee and chocolate.

On her days off, she enjoys preparing dishes such as healthy pancakes as well as granola. "I like to source good-quality food. I'm on this diet not to lose weight, but to support my health and my training."

Mihai Sarbu

Mihai Sarbu, a hand balancer

A gymnast since the age of four, Sarbu has a vice-like handshake – the result of a lifetime of standing on his hands. The 25-year-old Romanian hand-balancing performer spent several years training with the Romanian junior gymnastics national team. He is now known to balance on canes as high as three metres, and performs one and two-hand acts of contortion and control. The art takes strength, agility, flexibility and, not least, daring. Although his routine is three minutes long, it takes years to reach this level of expertise.

"Gymnastics prepared me for hand-balancing as everything we do starts from a handstand, on the floor and the apparatus," Sarbu says. "It was something that felt natural for me, so I started to spend more time on it." He began performing professionally six years ago.

Daily training usually comprises two sessions, both starting with one hour of flexibility training. One session is usually spent working on hand-balancing, gymnastics skills and apparatus, while the other works on strength and cardiovascular conditioning, using free weights, cables and other equipment, plus plyometric exercises to ensure Sarbu’s endurance remains intact.

I can't train until I've had my coffee and something sweet

The adrenalin and nerves felt when performing a show can be draining, he says. "It can exhaust you for the whole day. You have to build that specific conditioning, regardless of how much you train."

Diet is crucial for maintaining strength and muscle mass. Grilled red meat is a core part of his fuel, as is coffee. “I can’t train until I’ve had my coffee and something sweet,” he says. Lunch is his main meal, with meat, rice and vegetables; and dinner is often post 10pm, after he finishes gymnastics coaching. “I really need meat. I tried eating less but, for me, I feel I lose strength,” he says, adding that he misses home-grown and home-cooked Romanian food, especially his grandma’s home-made bread.