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High on bikes
JEAN ASCHER of the Copenhagen-based Circus ChangHigh describes how it all started, and how he's now part of a profitable unicycle circus with a worldwide reputation.
Summer 1979. The circus started when my (then) five year old daughter Catjaya's bicycle broke down and I went to a blacksmith to get it melted back together, but he said it was impossible ... the saddle had to be moved, the pedal was not in the right position etc ... so out of the blue I said - can you then make it into a ... a you know ... from Donald Duck ... the bear rides it ...a bongo-cycle! He looked at me, shook his head and told me very plainly that if I wanted a Bongocycle I had to go to a special bicycle shop in the city. No sooner said than done.
The next day I and my daughter went on vacation, and since it was also her birthday I gave her the new unicycle as a gift. Five minutes later she was back, stating very clearly that the unicycle was too big and too heavy ... why didn't I try it myself? I went ahead and by the end of the day I could barely walk ... my skin was slowly falling off, it was hurting and felt like I had been castrated. I had to use baby powder for the next two weeks and relax ... no walking at all.
Spring 1980. When I got back home and the sore had healed I kept on trying to master this very strange, demanding, one wheel vehicle. At that time I was teaching rhythmic and music therapy for the Danish Government, working in various mental hospitals, and one of the patients kept grabbing my unicycle and wanting to try. I talked the man into buying one, and this fellow is still at it today 18 years later. He now rides standard and two-meter uni-cycles.
At first I was completely alone, but the next spring my girlfriend-to-be came walking by, pushing her bicycle. She stopped, asked if she could try the one wheeler, gave it a try, sat down to talk to me, told me she was an artist, a painter, a writer. I asked her to paint something for me, and before the day was over, we were in love. She stayed with me for almost ten years, and designed our logo, stickers, postcards, 5 posters and stagecurtain. She became our first violin player, playing Scandinavian folk music up on unicycle two metres high. In Spring 1981 we were joined by our first young companion, a boy aged nine, and three or four more boys showed tip that summer out of the blue. Together we started performing on the streets of Copenhagen. In Spring 1982 my daughter Catjaya joined us: more children and more unicycles. The act was my invention - unicycling with a little trailer pulled behind, two unicyclists two metres up holding a swing between us with a child from the audience taking a ride on it. We did tricks with burning torches - spinning them around in the air, around our bodies and between our legs and holding them in the mouth. I had a special seesaw designed by the same blacksmith as before, and we unicycled over it through a bed of fire. We juggle with clubs and torches. We unicycle through a ring of fire which we hold in our own hands. All the time I banter with the audience explaining the acts. The youngest children (and all of us at different times) walk amongst the audience collecting money.
Spring 1983: more paid performances, higher prices, more unicycles, more children, more equipment, more newspaper articles ... just more of everything. More life more love more freedom and liberty. Then the years between '84 and '87 simply fly by, like leaves in the wind ... I, we, the circus were on a HIGHway to the world of ultimate experience and existential existence.
In Autumn '87 we decided to try Israel. We flew out there with 200kg of equipment, got a cheap flat and started to book the shows. All of December and halfway into January we performed in Jerusalem, Haifa, Bethlehem, Arko, Elath on various matnacim, kibbutzim and for the municipalities. We repeated the tour in subsequent winters, staying around 5 months each time.
The circus has performed continually from 1990 to the present, doing more and more shows each year. We now have 85 to 95 different unicycles in many sizes, shapes, and wheel arrangements. We have a square-wheeled unicycle, a geared unicycle, a motorized unicycle, a real gold unicycle, a zig zag unicycle, a tandem unicycle, and we have a seven-wheeler unicycle as well as 20 or so tall ones. We have 25 unicycles just for teaching and hiring out.
There are 17 children in the circus this year: 6 boys (aged between 8 and 17) and 11 girls (between 6 and 16). The children get paid a certain percentage of the takings. The circus is a self-supporting independent business: we receive no government money.
When the children start in the circus I ask them three questions. First: do you like to unicycle? Second: do you like to work? Third: do you like to get dirty? If all three are positive I take them in. The children like to perform, and to travel around. We get to see all kinds of festivals, fairs, parties, carnivals, celebrations - you name it. We have a unique relationship based on trust, honesty and love. We are like a family, in the way we live, feel, talk, think, act, and work, surviving together in this world of confusion, hatred and trouble. We treat the people of the world with love and truth and get something similar in return.
Why Circus ChangHigh? My name is Jean as in the French, but the Danish pronunciation is like 'Chang' - and in the early eighties I smoked hash and was therefore HIGH. I stopped smoking in '86, and the word became related to the expression 'to get Shanghaied' ... way back when Britain had the Opium War in Indochina, the British ships' officers went ashore, socialised with people at various bars, gave them plenty to drink and carried them, in the middle of the night, onboard their ships. The next morning the sailors (when they woke up) found themselves on the way to Shanghai. A little like running away to join the circus.
Most bookings are direct. People ring me, we discuss the arrangement, and agree working time, fee and so on. I then write a contract which I send to them together with some circus posters. They return one copy of my contract and we have a deal. We bring about 1500kg of gear and the stage needs to be at least seven metres square, indoors or out. We perform if possible in total darkness, with various pieces of electronic juggling equipment. We don't need electricity but if there is a rather large audience we can bring a sound-rack with wireless microphones. We perform about 150 days a year and do perhaps 250 shows ... all live with high mind-energy and soul-power.
I have also organised the annual Roundtower Uniracer Rally since 1983. Around 30-45 unicyclists participate. It is open to everybody in the world.
Circus ChangHigh can be contacted at: Jean Ascher, Rentemestervej 24. st.tv., 2400 Copenhagen NV, Denmark. Email: email@example.com Website: http://users.cybercity.dk/~dko4700
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Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use
Charles M. Schulz