Fragile, Delicate, Free: Glimpses of Circus Life, at Sea

Fragile, Delicate, Free: Glimpses of Circus Life, at Sea

They arrive from the port with their colorful clothes and their well-worn musical instruments, parading through the village and performing at the various squares. Islanders view them with a mix of awe and wonder.

At times they look like superheroes, moving together to the rhythm of the music, conjuring tricks like magicians.

I first heard of the Sea Clown Sailing Circus when I was following the stories of refugees crossing Greece. Members of the circus were performing at a camp in Athens, trying to win smiles from children who had experienced too much pain.

Later, I joined the performers in the summer of 2020 on the storied island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea. Hoping to sail with the nomad crew, I happened to arrive the very day their engine broke down. Apparently it was a regular occurrence. A technician from the island mocked them: The engines were rusting from lack of use, he said.

It was true that Fred Normal and Alvaro Ramirez, the captains, never wanted to use the engines, aiming instead to sail with the wind as much as possible — even while docking at and departing from the port.

Twenty years earlier, in the United States, Fred, an Alaska-born circus performer, decided it was pointless to try to change the world while traveling with gas-guzzling trucks and caravans. Instead, he resolved to offer his form of utopia to people across the United States and Europe by bicycle. He rode around with his crew from one town to the next, staging pop-up shows and sleeping beside campfires.

Eventually, on the Southern coast of Italy, he met Nikoleta Giakumeli, a Greek acrobat, and Alvaro, a Uruguayan clown who had been traveling around Europe. Together, the trio dreamed up the idea of a seaborne circus, even though none of them had ever formally sailed.

So they learned. For 13 years, Fred and Nikoleta lived on their boat, Surloulou, through summers and winters. After the birth of their daughter, Sirena, who at the age of 4 is already climbing ropes and trying her first tricks as an acrobat, their lives changed dramatically. They now spend less time with the circus, which, despite their absence, continues reinventing itself with new performers and new ideas.

Dozens of artists from all over the world are connected with the Sea Clown Sailing Circus. Some join the crew for only a few days; others join for the whole summer. But a core group of around seven or eight people are trying to bring the circus to a greater acclaim — not only by roaming freely from one Greek island to another, but also by producing more meaningful, and more philosophically engaging, shows.

In the summer of 2021, when I joined the Sea Clowns again for a month, they were producing a new show based on Plato’s allegory of the cave . I saw firsthand how dedicated the performers are to their craft. Though their performances often feel impromptu, the Sea Clowns are in fact immensely disciplined in their preparations. Every act — from acrobatic shows and fire juggling to aerial rope tricks and slacklining — requires a tremendous degree of skill and training. And they simply love to learn.

Being a part of the crew requires being good at sailing, music or circus acts, and ideally all three. But what’s most important is the ability to express enough humor, kindness and respect to live in proximity with a crew of curious artists every day without creating tensions.

It’s also a challenge, of course, to adapt to life on a shoestring budget. “We live or we die by the hat,” Fred would say at the end of every show, inviting the public to offer a donation for the Sea Clowns’ survival.

The life of a street (or water) artist is fragile, delicate — like a tightrope act, or juggling with knives, or sailing through a storm. Yet for most of the crew, nothing seems to offer them a greater sense of freedom. The Sea Clowns ride with their sails open to the wind, confronting both their dreams and an unpredictable future.

“Our work aims to show that nothing is impossible,” Alvaro said, “unless your mind convinces you to believe the opposite.”