Alumni Spotlight- Tristan Nielsen
Updated: Apr 20
Tristan Nielsen, FGC trouper [2001-2006]
As some local folks may recall, Tristan started his circus career as Mr. Nerdy in the Hilltop Circus (2001, 2002) right here in Wilton NH! He made quite a leap from his Mr. Nerdy days (see Hilltop, 2001), to creating his own circus collective, Cirque Barcode (2019). There were, however, some steps in between, from his years with Flying Gravity (2001-2006), two years touring with Circus Smirkus (2004, 2005), his training at the San Francisco Circus Center (2006), and his four years studying Hand to Hand and Russian Bar at Ecole Nationale de Cirque (Montréal QC) (2007-2011). Additionally, Tristan has performed with Les Sept Doigts de La Main, Cirque Éloize, Compagnie XY, and Cirque Du Soleil. With his company Barcode, in collaboration with Acting for Climate, Tristan also helped found Branché, (website) an outdoor eco-responsible show about climate change (2019). Branché was created after members of Cirque Barcode and Acting for Climate met at the climate strike in Montréal in 2019, and decided to use their art to address the climate crisis.
Tristan as “Mr. Nerdy” in the Hilltop Circus 2001
August 22 2021. 4:28pm
What kind of skills would you say you learned while you were part of Flying Gravity – circus or non-circus – that have helped you in your career as a circus artist?
Flying Gravity played a huge role in my circus development, and my life on this planet, as a person as well. I think one of the main things that came out of it was this joy to be on stage, sharing with fellow performers to create a community to do this thing that we love doing that's more than just the skills, but also that we want to hang out together and develop life long friendships. That's something Flying Gravity really planted the seeds for that ended up being a huge part of my career, and the values behind Branché as well which didn't only come from Flying Gravity, but were definitely implemented by Flying Gravity.
What about your career now would Tristan in Flying Gravity be most surprised about?
That's a good question. I don't know, I don't think Tristan in Flying Gravity was ever able to imagine that this fun thing that he was doing on Fridays, from 6pm-9pm was going to become a career. He was too short sighted to see that, he was just having a good time, and really happy to be hanging out with people that he cared about and trusted, and I think he'd be pretty surprised by pretty much every aspect of Tristan's present career.
Was there a specific moment that made you want to become a professional circus artist that you can recall?
Like I was saying, I didn't even think of circus as a career path necessarily. I thought it was this fun thing to do. I loved doing it with Flying Gravity and all my friends in Flying Gravity, and then went on to [Circus] Smirkus. And then all of a sudden, after my second year on tour with [Circus] Smirkus, it became apparent that there maybe was more of a future ahead than I ever anticipated. So I explored more how to make it happen, and was still applying to [academic] colleges. After high school, when I'd applied to colleges and got in, I had to make this choice about whether I wanted to try to get into circus schools as well. I think that's when it became apparent to me that it was possible that it could be a career, that it was actually a path that I could follow, rather than just an experience that I've had.
Tristan in Circus Smirkus. Photos by Mimi Levesque
Was it just a matter of realizing that circus as a profession was a possibility? Yeah, I think, once I realized that it was a possibility, and that I had a chance of getting into a circus school that could help me make it a reality, is when I really started to believe that this was a viable option as a career choice.
Are there any circus shows that you either saw when you were younger or have seen recently that have especially inspired you?
There are. The show I saw when I was younger that really inspired me to think about circus differently and imagine it in a way that I hadn't imagined before was probably “Traces,” the first Seven Fingers [Les Sept Doigts de la Main] show I saw, and the first show I saw that showed me that people on stage is more interesting than things on stage.
Credit: Meridith Mullins
Can you elaborate on that? Do you mean that relating to people on stage is more interesting than seeing people do circus tricks on stage?
Understanding that even though these people can do incredible things on stage, they're also people, and they have weaknesses, they have wonderful qualities and qualities and they're working on, and that they're just no different from any of us. It's just that the thing they decided to get good at is this thing that most people think of as superhuman. In terms of shows I've seen recently, for me Cirque Le Roux, both “The Elephant in the Room,” and “Deer in the Headlights” I find extremely inspirational, because for me any show that makes a clear choice, has its clear identity and goes 100% in the direction that it thinks is right is always inspiring to see and Cirque Le Roux always creates shows that are unlike any other show I've ever seen or ever am likely to see by another company, because it's so clearly their own style. Any show that does that I can respect and am inspired by. Also Cirque Aital, "pour le meilleur et pour le pire" is one of my favorite shows of all time. I also love Le Chant du Dindon by Rasposo [France]. I saw it in Montréal at the circus festival, but I've heard their new show, it's really great too.
Can we talk about the different aspects of being a circus artist? Do you find you have a preference between training, creating [a show or an act], and performing parts of being a circus artist?
I think it's kind of shifted over the years. In the beginning, especially at circus school, the thing that really got me excited was training technical tricks that I found really challenging. And now I would say I still love training, but it's [become] much more how to find my own unique way of doing [the technique], finding funky little ways to do it and be creative with the vocabulary that already exists.
I think what excites me most in circus in general is that it can be so unique and it can be creative in a way where a lot of other art forms are maybe a bit more limited. In circus there’s space for anyone’s style of creativity, and for me I love being creative with the vocabulary of acrobatics and partner acrobatics so for me it's finding these funky little ways of doing what I love doing.
Do you have any fun memories that come to mind from your Flying Gravity days?
Oh boy. I have tons of fun memories of hanging out at Jon’s house with the whole Flying Gravity team when he had a hot tub in his bedroom, and we’d just talk about circus until super late at night. I’m sure things haven’t changed that much.
Just no more hot tub.
Yeah, the hot tub maybe is gone but the chats about circus and the possibilities into the wee hours of the morning I’m sure are going strong. And also for me [Flying Gravity] was the first little taste of touring and traveling all together from one site to the next and doing a show for strangers in this unknown place. [It was] such a great introduction to that lifestyle.
Do you mind telling me a little bit about where you are right now and what you're up to?
We just finished our very first tour with Branché. That was the first time that we had the chance to adapt [the show] to different sites, and it really went fantastically. I don't think it could have gone any better. I'm really happy with the results and the group experience in general.
Could you talk just more about the project, Branché, perhaps about its goals as a project?
So Branché started as an idea of a way that we can use what we're good at – circus – to talk about, something we are concerned about and want to do something about, which is climate change. It wasn't necessarily clear what the project would be from the beginning, but we knew that there were a lot of circus artists in Montréal, and the majority of them work almost exclusively, not in Montréal. And so one of the main ideas that got Branché going from the beginning was just a desire to create more work for the circus artists that live in Montréal and that don't often get to work there. The project developed into this thing where we can create, perform, and tour sustainably, without taking airplanes, without having cargo, without having a theater that we would have to heat and cool. It is an outdoor show, [so it is] easily accessible for everyone, whether they go to a lot of theater, or have never seen circus or theater. And so Branché was born, we opened our first shows this July (2021) at the TOHU as part of the [Montréal] Completement Cirque festival. But it's really been a collaboration of a large percentage of the circus community in Montréal. We came together to create this atmosphere and conversation about how we can talk about climate change through circus.
Do you have any advice for current Flying Gravity troupers who might be interested or excited about the possibility of a circus career?
Yes. That's a fantastic thing to be interested in and excited about! I think the most important thing is to listen to what you want and to do the kind of circus that gets you inspired and excited. Also, to figure out how to do things your own way and find your personal circus path that makes the most sense to you. That can be going to circus school, training on your own time, or lessons – it can be anything, but find your own unique take on circus that gets you excited.
Since completing this interview, Tristan and his wife Charlotte have welcomed baby June Ember into their lives. FGC celebrates Baby Nielsen’s arrival into the next generation of circusers, and offers congratulations to the proud parents!