Laya Healthcare City Spectacular: Do you have what it takes to join the team?

Once known as the World Street Performance Championship, it’s now the Laya Healthcare City Spectacular. Enchanted by the show for years, Ellie O’Byrne wanted to know what road leads you to earning your living as a professional contortionist, unicyclist or iron bender.

Laya Healthcare City Spectacular: Do you have what it takes to join the team?

Contortionists, dancers, and body-modification fanatics: The globetrotting street performers who will take part in the Laya Healthcare City Spectacular in Dublin and Cork for two weekends in July risk life and limb and push themselves to the limits of their physical endurance, all in the name of entertainment.

More than 250,000 people will gather to watch 200 shows from some of the best in the business, making the Laya Healthcare City Spectacular the second biggest festival in Ireland after the St Patrick’s festival.

More than 16 acts from Australia, USA, Canada, Argentina, Belgium, Sweden, and Ireland will be in attendance. The event is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, although it’s undergone changes over the course of its lifetime; up until two years ago, the event was called the World Street Performance Championships and the performers vied for audience votes. Both organisers and performers are happier with the new non-competitive format.

Although the festival organisers cover the cost of performers’ flights and accommodation, in true street theatre style, it’s the money that goes into the hat at the end of the show that pays the performers.

The Laya Healthcare City Spectacular takes place in Merrion Square in Dublin from next Friday, July 10-12 and in Fitzgerald’s Park, Cork, on July 18 and 19.

THE PERFORMERS

The Space Cowboy

Chayne Hultgren, from Byron Bay in New South Wales, was eight when he started performing unicycle tricks for people in his home town. With sisters who are trapeze artists and a gymnast father, it was in his blood. Now 37, Hultgren has been testing the boundaries of what a human body can do. “I’m a natural show-off, of course. I’ll do anything for a good crowd. I always really wanted to do the more bizarre and dangerous acts,” Hultgren says.

Never has the old cliché of “don’t try this at home, folks” been truer than it is for the Space Cowboy’s act, which includes 2.7m-tall unicycles, chainsaw juggling, and sword swallowing.

A former contestant on Australia’s Got Talent, he holds Guinness World Records that include swallowing 24 swords at once, sword swallowing submerged in a shark tank, longest lightning bolt to strike a swallowed sword, and the heaviest weight suspended from a swallowed sword.

Hultgren spent nearly two years training to suppress his gag reflex by swallowing hosepipes before progressing to swords. “Even after all that training it was still a scary moment when I swallowed my first blade. It’s really uncomfortable; it’s not a pleasant thing to do at all,” he says.

“I’m working on new ideas all the time. Let me put it this way: Everyone who comes to see my show will see something they’ll never forget.”

Mama Lou

“She’s a retro pin-up with the heart of a clown and the strength of an aerialist. She’s anamplified version of my own personality and she’s just very special and very unique,” Lindsey Lindgren says of her alter ego, strong woman Mama Lou.

Mama Lou is a force to be reckoned with. Bending iron bars, crushing apples in her biceps, and rolling up frying pans, all while smiling sweetly and fluttering her lashes, her motto is: “Anything a man can do, Mama Lou can do in high heels.”

Lindgren was working in New York for the HR department of a big financial services company when she ran away to join the circus. “I moved to Toronto to take a clown class and started exploring different things I could do. That’s when I realised that I was stronger than most girls and, indeed, most guys that I knew.”

She’s been performing as Mama Lou for the ten years. Now based in Austin, Texas, the 35-year-old says being a positive role model for girls is inspiring and rewarding. Parents at her performances are “happy there’s a good female role model”, she says.

“The women we have in our media don’t really espouse good values about body love and about being a woman to reckon with.”

Having suffered from tendonitis in her apple-crushing arm, Lindgren is aware that she’ll have to stop performing her feats of strength eventually. “There’s just no way you can do what I put my body through without it taking its toll,” she says. What next? Lindgren feels drawn to civic responsibility and has become an advocate of performer’s rights in Austin. Mama Lou for mayor? “Why not?”

Julio ‘Klown’ Santiago

Born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in the South Bronx, Julio ‘Klown’ Santiago started breakdancing in his teens. “My mum brought up five boys alone,” Santiago says. “I was the youngest, so I got the toughest times. My brothers knew what I could get into out there without guidance — there was a lot of drugs and a lot of crime so they were very strict with me.”

Santiago formed the USA Breakdancers in 1998, and their combination of clowning, audience participation, and classic breakdancing moves have proved a favourite with the crowds at the Laya Healthcare City Spectacular in previous years.

Santiago’s dancers, Andres ‘Reaction’ Pena and Alvaro ‘Arson’ Gordillo, provide the youthful athleticism that Santiago, at 47, can no longer bring to the show, but there’s more to it than dancing. “It’s a fun, high-energy show,” Santiago says. “I try to keep it really classic, all the moves the audience remember from the eighties. We get huge crowds.”

The USA Breakdancers pull people out of the crowd and put them through their paces on the dancefloor. “We play with stereotypes, like the idea that a white person can’t dance. But sometimes you get people who are actually really skilled and they rock the house. That’s great fun. If we pull someone like that out, people go crazy.”

Santiago is delighted to be coming to Ireland, where he says he encountered some of the most engaging audiences of his career. “They’re very generous. If they like you, they love you. We can’t wait to be back.”

Bendy Em

Emma Kerger’s stage name is Bendy Em: A comedy contortionist, she flips and bends her body into all sorts of unlikely positions while keeping up a steady stream of banter with the audience.

The highlight of her act is when she squeezes herself into a 16” square Perspex box — with a basketball. It seems like an impossible feat, and Kerger nearly got herself into a sticky situation when she first attempted the stunt in the safety of her own home.

“When I got the box home I took it into the kitchen and got into it and got stuck,” she says. “I just kind of waited for a minute and said to myself, ‘OK, don’t panic,’ and managed to get myself out.” Kerger was a gymnast when she was younger and safeguards herself against injuries while performing by keeping in good physical condition with the help of yoga and running.

UK-born Kerger has made Australia her home but travels for several months of each year to perform. She’s looking forward to meeting up with other performers while she’s in Ireland. “It’s like a big family. We all know each other from the circuit, so it’ll be nice to catch up,” Kerger says.

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