With a running start, Anwar Hassouni, Captain of the Sky Pirates, leaps off the mat, flips into a somersault, bounces into a backward one, then repeats the somersaulting zigzag just for good measure. Rehearsing for Circus Juventas’ big summer show, “Steam,” which debuts Thursday, Anwar makes his tumbling pass look as effortless as walking.
That’s because the 18-year-old began learning acrobatics before he took his first step, coached by his father, Mostapha Hassouni, who performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus before coming to teach at the St. Paul circus school.
In a dozen years with Juventas, Anwar has trained in circus arts from trapeze to trampoline, coached by his father, his aunt (another Ringling alum) and his older cousin.
Two years ago, Anwar broke into the international circus scene with a solo handstand act that earned first place at a German competition. After co-starring in Juventas’ sci-fi-meets-steampunk “Steam,” which combines the acrobatic thrills of Cirque du Soleil with the storytelling of Children’s Theatre, he plans to pursue even bigger stages.
“He’s bound, no question, for a performing career,” said Dan Butler, co-founder of Juventas, which calls itself the nation’s largest performing arts circus school.
Unlike his son, Mostapha’s acrobatic career started relatively late, and rather unceremoniously. He grew up in Morocco, near the ocean, in a place where beachgoers frequently tumbled on the sand, the way others might toss a Frisbee. One day, when he was about 9 years old, he saw a younger boy do a back handspring. It looked so easy. But when Mostapha tried to do it, he hit his head.
Undeterred, Mostapha joined a small circus school in Morocco. By the time he was 17, he was performing in Europe.
When Mostapha later joined Ringling, he worked with a performer who specialized in aerial and contortion. Chimgee Haltarhuu had been recruited out of the Mongolian State Circus to travel with the American group, and she agreed to do so on the condition that she could bring her son, Tamir Bayarsaihan, who was 6, to live with her on the circus train as they toured. Within a couple of years, Tamir was performing in the Ringling show, too.
When Chimgee’s sister, Mega Khaltarkhuu, visited the circus troupe, she met Mostapha. Soon the two were married and, in 2000, Anwar was born.
Anwar’s first “performance,” as Mostapha recalls it, took place when his son was about a year old. The family was living in Las Vegas and young Anwar had seen his father’s acrobatic act at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino several times. In a friend’s backyard, Anwar somersaulted across the grass toward a group of adults, raised his arms and said, “Ta da!”
But Mostapha had been teaching his son balance as an infant, placing Anwar’s feet in one palm and stretching him to a standing position with the other. When he was a month old, Mostapha started throwing baby Anwar up a few inches and catching him. At 3 months, Mostapha held his son horizontally, one hand on his stomach and the other on his back, and rocked him up and down. Within a year, Mostapha was flipping Anwar into the air. “He likes it — he was smiling,” Mostapha said. “He feels like he’s flying.”
By age 4, Anwar started doing back handsprings and headstands. Father and son started practicing at least an hour a day and doing shows together. “Every time I’d watch him do something, I just wanted to do it as well,” Anwar said.
In 2002, Anwar’s aunt Chimgee joined Circus Juventas’ coaching team (her husband, who she’d met in the circus, was from Minnesota). By 2006, she’d recruited Mostapha to coach at Juventas, as well. Tamir, now 32, said he could see his young cousin pick up some of his own body language and mannerisms while he learned circus tricks.
“Every time I’d see him, it was exactly like Tamir,” Chimgee agreed.
All in the family
Circus professionals are a rare breed. Today’s Juventas programs involve more than 2,500 young people each year, and in the group’s 24-year history, only about 100 alumni have gone on to make a living in the ring.
But it has a long history of being a family tradition, since young and old can perform together. Back when companies used to tour for months at a time, children grew up on the road, trained alongside their parents and often joined them on stage.
That’s why some of the world’s most famous circus families are now on their seventh generation. Here in Minnesota, among the best-known circus families are Anwar’s and that of Circus Juventas directors Dan and Betty Butler, who met as teenagers at a Florida circus school and trained their five children in the circus arts.
With a father, aunt and cousin among his coaches, Anwar found that confidence came easier.
“My dad has been throwing me since I was young, so if he says I can do it, I know I can do it.”
“When I practice with him, sometimes he’s getting scared,” Mostapha explained. “And I say to him, ‘Do you trust me? Yes, OK, then just go for it.’ If you’re scared you’re going to make it worse.”
Anwar’s mother, Mega, who is a circus fan but not a participant, had a more difficult time putting her worries aside when she’d see Mostapha throwing young Anwar around in the backyard.
“She’d always freak out,” Anwar recalled.
With circus, injuries are part of the job. In the past few years, Anwar fractured his ankle and Mostapha hurt his shoulder. Mostapha said he’s only dropped Anwar once, when the boy was about 5. (Ironically, they weren’t practicing tricks, but play wrestling, when Anwar slipped out of Mostapha’s hands and busted his lip.)
“She’s always been supportive,” Anwar says of his mother. “Even still, I’ll get a text that says, ‘Be careful, don’t hurt yourself.’ ”
Mostapha, too, gets concerned texts (‘Why do you let him do that?’) if he sends Mega a video of Anwar’s latest trick. “But then she sees the show and she’s like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s awesome.’ ”
Mega said watching her sister perform circus acts for decades helped her feel more comfortable seeing her son fly through the air.
“When you grow up with circus, it’s much easier,” she said. “But if you have never had any experience with circus and all of a sudden your child is jumping around, then it’s probably hard to see.”
When Mostapha’s own mother, who had discouraged him from joining the circus, finally saw her son perform professionally, she watched with her hands over her face, peeking through her fingers.
Learning a new act can be scary for the performers, too.
In “Steam,” Anwar dives off a 15-foot wall, bounces off a trampoline, and lands back where he started in a handstand. The first time he stood on top of the wall and considered the trick was more than a little nerve-racking.
But fear is worth overcoming for the exhilarating thrill of performing, Anwar said. “When you stick the trick and the audience claps, it’s an indescribable feeling.”
After growing up in the circus with family members around him, Anwar has recently been going out on his own.
His last major performance with his dad was on “America’s Got Talent” six years ago. The four relatives haven’t performed together since a Chinese New Year series they did at the Mall of America around the same time.
This fall, Anwar’s headed to St. Paul College’s Sports and Exercise Science program, but will still take classes, coach and perform at Juventas while pursuing future professional work with Cirque du Soleil and other circus companies.
“I’m forever grateful for them for giving me this ability,” Anwar said of his father, aunt and cousin. “If I have kids, I’ll teach them someday.”