Mangerton teen on a tightrope trip to Glasgow

Shona Conacher is one of only two performers outside Britain, and the only one from the southern hemisphere, to be selected for the Commonwealth Youth Circus.
Shona Conacher is one of only two performers outside Britain, and the only one from the southern hemisphere, to be selected for the Commonwealth Youth Circus.

Shona Conacher’s skills with a hula hoop have taken her from her home in sleepy Mangerton all around New Zealand and now across the globe to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. JOSH BUTLER takes a look at life in the circus for the young performer.

Running away to join the circus is something many children might think about, or even threaten their parents with, after a particularly testy dispute about bathtimes or curfews.

Travelling through the countryside as a gypsy, with clowns and elephants as your companions, fairy floss and popcorn for every meal and a bigtop tent as your bed - it is a dream for many a youngster disillusioned with broccoli for dinner and an early bedtime, but it is hardly an idea that is followed through.

Shona Conacher knows she is living a dream.

At 19, most would be midway through a uni degree or taking their first steps into a full-time career. Instead, former Mangerton resident Ms Conacher is a veteran performer, having forgone the rigmarole of higher education for a balancing act of a different sort - setting up camp in the United Kingdom with the Commonwealth Youth Circus as a hula hooper, aerialist, juggler and acrobat as part of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

"I was travelling New Zealand for seven months as part of Circus Aotearoa, and my boss got an email saying the Commonwealth Games wanted performers for a project," Shona says from an apartment in Glasgow, her new home base in Scotland's biggest city.

A video application, requiring footage of various flexibility, strength and skill exercises, was fired off to organisers of the Commonwealth Youth Circus between shows on the Aotearoa tour of New Zealand.

Shona showed early on that she had an aptitude for hula hooping.

Shona showed early on that she had an aptitude for hula hooping.

The circus tent had become her home between December 2012 and July 2013, and she had planned to return for another season in the Land of the Long White Cloud, but Scotland beckoned.

October saw her trade Australian warmth for European cold as she joined 18 other young circus performers to prepare for a run of shows as part of the Commonwealth Games, but it was not until she arrived that she realised she was the only Australian - indeed, the only one from the southern hemisphere, and one of only two outside the UK - who had been selected.

"Most of the others are from the UK because the directors wanted to ensure a lasting legacy of the group after the project finished," Ms Conacher explains.

"I've come the furthest."

And come a long way she certainly has. Shona began her circus life in 2004 with Half High Circus, the youth group of Circus Monoxide. After years of trying out other sports, she had finally found an activity that she clicked with.

"My parents made me and my brother do sports. He found soccer, but I never found anything I really liked," Shona says.

"Mum worked at the Wollongong Art Gallery with [renowned Illawarra circus performer] Heidi Hillier, who convinced mum to put me into the youth circus classes."

A natural aptitude for hula-hooping soon emerged, while she also showed talent for aerial silks. When Shona graduated from The Illawarra Grammar School eight years later, like many of her classmates she faced a fork in the road, the all-important choice of a post-school path - but unlike most, whose choices were work, uni or travel, Shona's choice was whether to take up an offer for further study or an offer to tour New Zealand with a travelling circus.

"I was accepted to uni, but when I was at high school I didn't think I wanted to go right back to study after so long at school," she says.

"I said it would be a trial year for me, to see if I could stick out seven months on tour - if I could handle the lifestyle I would stick with it, but if not I could always come back home to do uni."

She took the second option, and the trial was passed with flying colours.

"I moved to New Zealand the week after I turned 18. It was my first time moving away from home, and there were moments where I thought it would have been easier if I just stayed and went to uni, but I don't think I'd be nearly as happy as I am now," Shona says.

Seven months in New Zealand flowed into what is now five months in Glasgow, training more than 20 hours a week with the rest of her Commonwealth Youth Circus troupe towards performances around the 20th Commonwealth Games in July and August.

She works full-time around training - "it's an office job, pushing papers" - which makes for long and hectic days rather than the holiday dream life seemingly offered by the circus, but it is a lifestyle she is all too happy to keep living.

"I live with some of the other performers, and I get to see my friends every day. The circus is amazing, it's such a family community," she says.

"In the circus, it feels like you have a family wherever you go in the world. As soon as I got here, these guys became my Glasgow family.

"Other sports can be very demanding and competitive, but circus is different. It's a great way to be active and do something you care about, with people who are caring. I don't know anyone who does circus that doesn't enjoy it."

Long days and late nights are the routine, but the end goal is in sight. Shona and the CYC will perform a series of dates in rural Scotland alongside the Queen's Baton Relay as it makes its way to the famed Celtic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony on June 23.

The exact locations and venues are not known yet - "it's top secret, we don't even know where we're going to perform," Shona says - but the tour will be the highlight of the circus performer's life.

At only 19, she seems destined for a career dreamt of by children around the world. "Circus makes me happy now," she says simply. "I'll stop when it stops making me happy."


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