The Great Moscow Cicrus is coming to Canberra. Photo: Scott Burrage
It isn't often I can say I have risked my life in the line of duty. But this was one of those times. In a moment of madness, I had volunteered to take part in an act of the Great Moscow Circus to get a bit of a feeling for the institution.
At first it was going to be in the Globe of Death - standing inside a not-very-big metal globe while one, two, three, four and then five motorcycles whizzed around in gravity-defying and all-too-close patterns. But then the circus's general manager, Greg Hall, decided that would be too difficult. I was relieved - until he mentioned the alternative: having knives thrown at me by sixth-generation Brazilian circus performer Alfredo Silva.
''I call him Alfredo the Inaccurate,'' Hall says, a wicked twinkle in his eye.
Ron Cerabona braves some knives thrown by 'Alfredo the Inaccurate'.
''At least you've got him in the afternoon. He's not very good in the morning. We're trying to give you a fair chance.''
This did nothing to boost my confidence. Not being asked to sign a waiver did, sort of, until I wondered just why that might be. But there wasn't time to think about it too much: I was told to lean against the slightly tilted board with my back to it and my hands crossed over my chest. It was like being in a coffin, as Hall took pleasure in noting.
Silva stood only a few feet away and pulled out his knives, six of them, and I was reminded to stand still. Not that it was necessary: I was petrified. My brother-in-law turned on his video camera: if it came to the worst, at least there'd be a record of my last moments. It would be something to sell to a tabloid TV show, or at least put on YouTube.
And lives to tell the tale.
THWACK! THWACK! THWACK! THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!
I could feel the impact as each knife plunged into the wood. I couldn't see how near they came, but it may have been better that way, and I flinched a bit - but not too much, mindful of the potential consequences.
Then it was all over - or so I thought.
''Turn to the side,'' I was ordered, and then I was told to lean back a little. I don't have a svelte figure, unlike Silva's usual assistant, and thus the amount of board for him to aim at was considerably reduced. Once again came the series of thwacks, from my legs to up around my torso, higher and higher. Again, I flinched a little. But not too much.
And then it was over. I stepped back and studied the pattern the knives had made. The resulting curve wasn't very flattering, but at least I had survived. And I didn't even need to change my underwear.
Feeling braver than I thought I was, but not wishing to tempt fate any further, I put aside any dreams of running off to join the circus. Better to leave it to the professionals.
Mark Edgley, the circus' advance manager, is the son of entrepreneur Michael, who's been bringing the Great Moscow Circus to Australia since 1965. It's one of many enterprises in the Edgley entertainment empire, but possibly the most enduring.
The younger Edgley, 48, has been involved with 20 of them.
''My first job was selling ice-creams when I was six,'' he says.
He graduated to selling programs, then tickets in the box office, and eventually learned just about everything there is to know - including driving trucks, putting up tents and doing promotional work. And he married a performer - his wife, Tatsiana, is a gymnast.
Some things have changed over the nearly 50 years the circus has been coming to Australia. For example, apart from trained horses, there are no animals in the show now. It's been that way for about a decade.
And why is that?
''You!'' Hall says.
He meant that exotic animals often attracted negative media attention that detracted from the circus, and it was eventually decided it wasn't worth the hassle of feeding, caring for and transporting them.
And there has always been plenty to take into account on the logistical side. Hall rattles off some statistics.
''We have a grand total of just under 80 people: 34 artists and 36 tent crew, box office sellers, costume people, school teachers, management.''
The company covered thousands of kilometres on each leg of the three-year tour (this one is now in its second year) and Hall - who began his career in 1965 working for J.C. Williamsons and has worked on everything from roller derby to grand opera - says one thing that distinguished circuses was that ''everyone is equal''.
Unlike an opera or a musical, where the stars and supporting players and crew are all clearly defined in their roles and status, he says, ''This has 18 top-notch acts in a row. Each five to seven minutes there is a big world-class act right in front of you.''
They come not only from Russia but from around the world, assembled for each tour to provide a varied program - clowns, acrobats, aerial artists and more.
But they're all troupers: everyone pitches in to help where they can - that person selling ice-creams or fairy floss to you before the show or helping shift scenery will very likely be thrilling or amusing you a few minutes later.
Gymnast and acrobat Victor Martisevich has been with the circus for 16 years, presenting a variety of acts that in some cases are extremely dangerous, requiring split-second timing and plenty of preparation.
''For the trampoline act we rehearse three months,'' he says.
''The cube act we still rehearse.''
A relative newcomer is William Campbell, 20, who gained fame on Australia's Got Talent with his diabolo act, an elaborate combination of yo-yos and juggling.
The Tasmanian performer is a guest artist in this circus and says he began performing when he was 11.
He began as a gymnast and tumbler, performing with Slipstream Circus, where he taught himself the diabolo act. Then, on January 1, 2010, he joined the Great Moscow Circus.
''I've been here since,'' he says.
He rehearses ''anything from 10 minutes before the show to a couple of hours'' and enjoys the touring life.
And in his youth, he may provide hope for the circus's future.
Hall says, ''The circus will never go out of fashion.'' Despite high running costs, changing financial circumstances and the lure of various forms of electronic entertainment, there's an unbeatable thrill to seeing a live show, he says, that crosses generations and keeps building new audiences.
''Anyone over 20 knows what a circus is but for kids aged three to 12 it's new enough that you've got them.''
Hall loves hearing the excited gasps and exclamations of the children - knowing the circus has worked its magic yet again.
- The Great Moscow Circus is on at Majura Park from April 11 to 28. Tickets $16 to $60. Bookings on site or phone Ticket Direct on 1300 798 550 or phone 0429 667 269. For more information, see moscowcircus.com.au.