Suspended upside down, a dozen feet above thin black gym mats, 18-year-old Maia Thomlinson twists and turns and intertwines herself among a deep red aerial fabric. It's no longer her favourite circus skill to perform, but because she's been doing it since she was five, Thomlinson says for her it feels like home.
In a few months, though, she will have a new home. Thomlinson and performing partner Michael Carter, 17, have both been accepted into the fall semester at the internationally renowned École nationale de cirque (ENC) in Montreal.
ENC, the national circus school, is a school for budding performing artists dedicated to circus arts. Many of the school's alumni have gone on to perform for circus companies like Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Éloize and The 7 fingers.
Thomlinson said she feels fortunate to have this incredible opportunity and that getting into the school is the next step in her young career.
"This will be a great stepping stone for my career as a circus artist. You go there and then people see that on your resume and it's like, you know they're good," said Thomlinson.
Getting into the school wasn't easy. The pair were selected for an in-person audition in Montreal in February, where they spent four days being interviewed, showcasing their skills and passing physical tests and assessments. Carter said the four-day audition was long and tough. The first day started at 7:30 a.m. and they didn't leave the school until 10:30 p.m.
"It was nothing like I've ever done before. One hundred and twelve people I think were there and they split us into groups. You'd go pretty much one by one, do this for them, the judges would see you and after you were done your section, you'd wait around for about two hours."
Carter said waiting was the hardest part.
"Your body would just relax and then you'd have to warm up and perform your absolute best again, and then cool down for two hours, warm up, do your absolute best. It was like that the entire day. That was really hard on your body," he said.
Carter only started training in circus arts last January. He had danced for seven years but he didn't find his passion for circus until a friend brought him to Monica's Danz Gym. There he met Thomlison, whose mom is the owner, Monica Goermann.
They have spent the last year training and performing together.
Goermann said their shared determination and commitment sets a great example for younger kids in the city who might want to follow their circus dream.
"It's created a buzz. There may have been students that were thinking 'oh I'd really like to do that someday' but now that we actually have two students going to the national circus school, I feel it's become a little more accessible," said Goermann.
Goermann said the pair's hand-to-hand work is what really set them apart; they complement each other perfectly.
"You see that it just works and it seems so natural," Goermann said. "It's incredible to watch how fast they were developing in things that may have taken somebody else a little longer, they were just picking it up. There's definitely something there that is quite magical almost, the way that they work together."
Thomlinson said it's hard to explain but the first time they gripped each others hands it just felt right.
"I remember the first day we did hand-to-hand together and it just clicked, it just felt right. It's a really weird way to explain it but I've done hand-to-hand with other people and it just never feels quite the same. Our hands when we grip, it just feels right," said Thomlinson.
While circus performing has been part of Thomlinson's repertoire for much longer, Carter said getting into the Quebec school gets him one step closer to his dream too.
"The overall dream is Cirque du Soleil, or any other circus company but Cirque du Soleil is the big one and I'm excited for that. This school is the feeder, getting into this school would mean there is a pretty good chance I'm going to get there one day, and if that happens, here I come," said Carter.
The pair still have a few performances in Winnipeg before they head east. They will be performing in Indiana Joanna and the Quest for the Lost Pearl at Monica's Danz Gym twice on Saturday and again on Sunday. Tickets are available on the website Eventbrite or at the door.