ABU DHABI // Jarda Ross escorts his wife into a box, impales her with swords and then sets the box alight. Beatrice Valla emerges unscathed and smiling. This is the family business.
For years, the broad-shouldered magician has made his wife disappear and reappear in the ring of the Monte Carlo Circus. These are the final days of their two-month run in Mussaffah.
Abu Dhabi is the latest home for the Ross family in a world that has only one constant – the circus.
Traditional travelling circuses such as the Monte Carlo draw their artists from families who have performed for generations. Artists are expected to work together, in the ring and outside it.
As new laws and economic hardships drive circuses farther from Europe, the performers cling to a life based around family and
"I talk to you, as woman to woman," says Beatrice, in her caravan before the show.
"I see Jarda all day. He sees me all day ... I cannot imagine that I am eight hours in some office without my family and I can see them only on the weekend."
The Ross family has travelled farther and farther from their home in the Czech Republic to perform – to war zones such as Basra in Iraq – and now also to the outskirts of Mussaffah between a mall and a construction site.
Jarda's complaint is that there are too many circuses in Europe now. He talks about Italian subsidies, the influx of competitors from the former Soviet Union, the strength of the euro, inflation, YouTube and the mentality of performers not born to the ring.
Petrol prices are up. Attention spans are down. Small circuses face ruin.
Monte Carlo, a mid-sized circus that fills 10 containers when it is packed up, should survive, Jarda says. Its acts include Ukrainian and Colombian acrobats, Moldovan dog trainers, Ethiopian tumblers, and an Egyptian lion tamer whose lions and tigress snarl each time she approaches.
Some of the routines have changed little in the seven generations since the Ross family first stepped into the ring. Some of the classic circus feats that the Monte Carlo performs – scrawny lions jumping through flaming hoops, for instance – were probably first popularised in the 19th century.
Now, though, such performances are accepted by few western audiences. Out of the ring, the lions live in small cages and get little apparent exercise.
The family travels to places with less restrictive attitudes. They will spend the summer in Oman. For the Monte Carlo Circus, the show always goes on.
Onstage and off, Beatrice is all warm smiles and laughter. She prepares for the performance with her teenage daughter, Sylvia Cramerova, in a caravan beside the main tent, slipping on sequined trousers over red fishnet stockings.
In Abu Dhabi, the family lives in a city flat. In Europe, they live in a caravan directly outside the tent and there is no divide between professional and family life.
Circus outsiders "could imagine the life but ... will never understand you", Beatrice says. "The sympathy takes the heart to more similar people, from the artistic world."
Sylvia, a hula-hoop dancer, knows this to be true. For her, the hardest thing in the life of a circus teen is having a boyfriend.
"It's hard, it's very hard. Because at my age girls are falling in love without even thinking about it. But as I was going to school there were crushes and things like that – but it was nothing serious because I always had to leave," says Sylvia, who turned 18 last month.
Public schools are not always the easiest place to make friends.
"People would say, 'oh my God, you're not going to school, you cannot catch up so many things'. I tell them, 'you see countries only on a map but I live there, I speak their languages, I share their traditions'."
Sylvia speaks Czech, Spanish, English, Italian and Russian. She has lived in 10 countries that she
"It's like our life is not much different from any other life.
"We have to study, we have to practise, we have to make our obligations like any other kids. We have to wash the dishes like any other kids."
Sylvia and her brother, Anthony, 8, were never pressured to perform. "We are willing to do this because we see it," Sylvia says. "We are willing to feel the applause, the standing ovation."
At this moment, Jarda puts a finger over his lips and the trailer falls silent.
He turns on the microphone and his voice can be heard echoing in the ring beside the caravan: "And now, they're coming back, our clowns."
Even when he is outside the tent, relaxing with his family, Jarda
always has one ear on the show.
"We love our life you know," he says. "I couldn't change it for anything else."
As night falls, Sylvia and Beatrice wait in the trailer for the second show of the evening.
It is a rainy weekday night. They spend their time together, laughing.
"The circus is the most perfect thing that I could ever wish for," Sylvia says.
"I want my children to have the same future as me, my children and my grandchildren to share this awesome and amazing life that I had.
"My dream is coming true."