Ottawa·Point of View

At 11, I joined the circus. 25 years later, I'm still in on the act

At age 11, Elena Lev joined the circus with her parents. She tells CBC Ottawa about what it's like to be a circus kid, and why she's now bringing her 14-year-old daughter on tour with her.

Elena Lev is a contortionist with Cirque du Soleil whose teenage daughter now travels with the troupe

Left, Elena Lev at age 12, shortly after she joined Cirque du Soleil's Alegria, and right, performing in the same show as a contortionist 25 years later. (Submitted by Cirque du Soleil)

Elena Lev joined the circus as a child, performing in Cirque du Soleil's Alegria 25 years ago. Now, she's back under the big top performing the same act in Gatineau, with her teenage daughter in tow. 

CBC Ottawa sat down with Lev to ask about what it's like to grow up in the circus. This interview has been edited for style and clarity.


Twenty-five years ago, if you would have told me that I would still be here and back in this show I'd be like, "You're crazy."

When I got to the Cirque du Soleil, they said, "We will never have hula hoops in our show." And here I am still today. I was the first one to bring hula hoops to Cirque du Soleil. And I'm really grateful that fans are behind me and recognize what I bring to it.

The circus has been my passion and my life. Some join the circus and don't like it. Some just keep going and can't live without it, like I am today. 

Elena Lev has travelled the world with Cirque du Soleil. (Elena Lev)

I started back in Russia when I was five, doing rhythmic gymnastics. At age 11, I joined the circus with my parents, and was in my first production when I was 12.

My parents were great gymnasts back in Russia. My father was also a circus performer, a high-flyer. He created the high bar act you can see today.

When I first joined, there were lots of kids in the circus who all had to do school while we were performing. Some of them didn't have their parents on tour, they had guardians and babysitters and coaches, so of course they missed their parents. I was really fortunate to have my parents and to be able to perform and travel the world with them as my support. 

Elena Lev performs with dozens of hula hoops as part of the Cirque du Soleil's Alegria show. (Marie-Andrée Lemire / Costumes Dominique Lemieux / Cirque du Soleil 2019)

Today, I have my 14-year-old daughter joining me on tour. Now, she gets to be a part of the life that I experience. 

The hardest part of being in the circus was that I was very busy at age 12, 14 and 16 because I had to do school every day. I was at the big top at 11 o'clock in the morning and I left at 11 o'clock at night, still doing rehearsals, promotions, interviews and eight to 10 shows a week. I cannot say that I had it easy, but I do not regret the life I had.

I don't know if I miss out on the normal things of childhood. I'm not sure exactly what they are. Today, my daughter is a synchronized swimmer who's good at school and has many friends. And I don't think she's missing out because she gets to travel the world. Not every kid has that opportunity at the age of 14. 

Elena Lev's 14-year-old daughter, left, travels with the troupe but does not perform in the show. (Submitted by Cirque du Soleil)

The only thing I did miss out on was to keep in contact with my family back in Russia. Back then, I couldn't call them every day. Today, everybody can see what's happening on social media, and you feel connected to the world.

Being a mom in the circus is pretty much the same as for all moms. You still have to wake up in the morning and I like to make pancakes for my daughter. If she stays home when I go to work I give her some chores to do. The only difference is your job. My daughter likes to come to work with me because it's more entertaining than a regular nine-to-five office job. 

Elena Lev's makeup table, before the Cirque du Soleil Alegria show. (Elena Lev)

Will I ever leave the circus? I used to tell myself that's 25 years down the road. And I'm still here. Sometimes I say, "five more years." Because I realize that I'm not ready to be done. 

I do know for sure that this is probably my final production. I started with Alegria and I will close the chapter with Alegria. But I'm not giving myself a timeline. Once I've had enough I will be done.

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