The way I work:
Chris Bullzini

While atop a tightrope the circus man describes why his work is art, not sport, and how he incorporates narrative into his performance. Interview: Antonia Charlesworth

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You’ll have to bear with me while I talk to you – I’m just getting on to the rope now. I’m going to walk a kilometre and I try to keep count of how many times I cross. It’s a low one, about a metre off the ground in our training space in a disused warehouse, in Hannon, just north of Bristol.

My wife and I train together here and live here in an old 1930s showman’s wagon. It’s pretty good fun. Circus is our life and it really is a life choice. Some jobs you can give up when you get home at the end of a day’s work but with the circus it’s really a life commitment – down to how much we train and the food we eat.

I left England when I was 19 after my mum died. I’m now 39. I spent a lot of time on the streets but I never really classed myself as homeless, although my stage name in Greece was Anastitos, which means “the one without a home”. I travelled around in 28 countries over 12 years and I would sleep out in olive groves under the stars in Greece, in hammocks on the coast of Columbia, on sofas or floors as far away as India. I managed to make my passion – I had always loved juggling since I was a teenager – my job.

There were often times when it was hard but mostly it was positive. Really, I did it because I wanted to live the romance and have the excitement of living in different places, learning different languages. Most of my memories are of amazing people, sitting around campfires, performing on the streets to crowds of people who really enjoy who you are and what you’re doing. At the same time we got ran out of town more than once.

I used to travel with the Cyclown Circus – they do music too and travel around on bicycles. Sometimes we’d arrive in town, a bit smelly perhaps because we hadn’t had a shower for a while, and people would rush out and send their kids out and everyone would love us. We’d get free food, free local olive oil and free wine, and the next town we’d arrive at we’d get the complete opposite. We’d get guys running after us with machetes.

I started off juggling and did some schooling while I travelled around. I started to become aware of the aerial arts and acrobatics but it wasn’t until I was in Greece in my mid-twenties and I teamed up with a girl who was a slackrope walker that I began ropewalking. I was the clown on the ground and I’d breathe fire, do balloon models and comedy to get the crowd in, and then she would do a couple of minutes on the rope. People would love the show and cross our palms with silver, as it were.

The feeling when you’re up there, walking through the sky, is phenomenal

She made me one condition when we worked together – she said I had to promise not to fall in love with her. I remember thinking “OK, I just want to do the show mainly” but in fact I did fall in love. Not with her – but completely with her performance and her persona on the ropes. It was hypnotic, it was mesmerising, to see somebody walking on this thin piece of rope through the air – I felt she was floating and that made me float. So I fell in love with the ropewalking and I persuaded her to teach me how to do it. The first lesson consisted of giving me a rope, telling me how to tie a knot and then sending me off, and I didn’t see her again for years. Then I went to Barcelona for the summer and pretty much taught myself.

I came back to the UK about five years ago. Sadly another death in the family encouraged my return – my elder sister died. I found out about a crew of circus people making big shows, which were also big parties, in Bristol. I came down to have a look and within 24 hours I’d been led up on to the rope that was stretched 20 metres across the venue and offered the chance to walk over the heads of about 600 people and live my dreams. So Bristol got me by the short and curlies – as did my wife. She was doing costuming for the circus and she offered to make me a rip-off suit with a special 1920s bathing suit underneath. I was really excited because I’d only done shows on the streets really. She measured my inside leg and the rest is history. We got married in May, on a rope at 100 feet high.

When I’m walking on the rope – as I am now as I speak – what I’m doing is something we’re all really familiar with. Most of us can walk and do walk every day so when people see a performance played out on a rope they’re watching somebody do something that they really know but in a place that should make it impossible.

The beautiful thing about being a ropewalker is we have a stage – a tiny, thin but potentially long stage. You can create a story. My wife and I have a show we made with some funding we gratefully received from the Arts Council last year called Equilibrius. In the show she’s a washerwoman and I’m a pompous arrogant ropewalker – so we play ourselves down a bit. A love story develops and we meet on the wire. I think there’s quite a lot of symbolism, because tightrope walking is a metaphor people use for life and love, so it fits this simple story played out in the sky.

The Bullzini Family, Equilibrius, Stoke On Trent, Joe Clarke Photography

The business at hand – why I’m standing on the rope I’m standing on – is to train to do a 150-metre crossing of Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire as Carlos Trower did in the 1800s. We understand from newspaper reports that Carlos Trower was taught by the great French Blondin. Trower adopted some of the classic tricks of the day like walking blindfolded. It seems that Trower made the first crossing in 1864, when he was 14 years old, and came back in 1878. One of the interesting things about Trower is his ethnicity. He was known as the African Blondin – as far as we know he had black skin and slavery had only been abolished 30 years earlier. The fact that he had such a following and was so huge was significant.

One hundred and fifty years ago Trower would have walked on manila rope up to six inches thick, which you might think makes things easier – “like walking on a pavement”, someone once said. But it can make it more difficult because with a thinner rope – as I can feel now under my feet – I can make sure that I am exactly over the centre. Another challenge Trower would have had is that they wouldn’t have had the ability to make the rope as tight as we can, to put as many hundreds or thousands of kilos of force through it, so there would have been a lot of slack in the middle. So although they say that Trower walked 100 feet above the water, it’s unlikely. It’s likely that he walked on a rope rigged at 100 feet but that would have dropped down to perhaps 30 feet by the middle, whereas we are hopefully going to maintain 30 feet all the way across.

For me ropewalking is certainly art rather than sport. It’s clearly a tradition that dates back several hundred years – there’s evidence of people in even the 1400s and 1500s going to fairs and performing. Now there’s a fad with slacklining – you might have seen them up in the parks. A lot of climbers get into it because it’s something else they can do between the rocks. It’s great – the act of balance is a very balancing, focusing experience – but the slackliners differ from us in that I think it is more sport. When we perform it’s done for the people and that’s one definition of art.

I prefer to work without safety. I’m not insane, so if I felt it was too windy or the rope was not rigged tight enough and there were some chance of me falling, then I would opt to put a safety on. I would rather do that and give some kind of show than not give a show at all. But having been on ropes without safety the feeling when you’re up there, walking through the sky, is absolutely phenomenal, a really free feeling. It’s the closest we can get to being like birds.

Recently I was in Australia with my wife and we were running a test for a 100 metre long walk where we would start from either end and walk to the middle. Then she would sit down, I would step over and she would stand up – then we would both carry on to our respective platforms. As I got to the moment where I stepped over her a gust of wind came, which caused me to dip my balancing pole. It collided with hers and I started to lose my balance. Luckily Phoebe was sitting down so she could hold on, but I decided to abandon my balancing pole and as I threw it away I dived forward and caught hold of the wire and was safe. It was a scary moment. I had no safety and I was about nine metres high. I’m either brave or stupid – a bit of both probably.

Photos: Joe Clarke Photography

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