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Deb Pope is the quintessential example of ‘a girl who ran away and joined the circus.’ Only, it was more by accident, and nothing to do with being a petulant and misunderstood runaway

The young Wellingtonian was well on the way to becoming a doctor. She’d completed a three-year Bachelor of Science Degree at the University of Victoria, and was working in open-heart surgery at Wellington Public Hospital when the urge to “travel and see as much of the world as possible,” out-weighed her career dreams.

“It was the 1980s. I was 21 and the world was my oyster, as they say. Like most young Kiwis, I was itching to travel, so off I went to London,” she says.

After six months, working as a private nurse, Deb decided she would join an exercise class. Considering her circus performance career now spans three decades, it’s incredible to hear her say she joined the class simply “to lose some weight.”

The fitness sessions turned out to be more of an acrobatics class, and the teacher was a 70-year-old Hungarian circus performer, Eugene Balla.

“I started out doing simple things like forward rolls, hand-stands and cartwheels, but eventually, we were really training hard for four days, every week. The rest of the people in the group were very much a part of the performance scene in London in those days – street theatre and miming – and they asked me to join them.

“Mr Balla became my mentor and I trained with him for more than 20 years. He died in 2004 at the age of 92, and was still teaching young acrobats, right up until six weeks before he died.”

Deb Pope’s curriculum vitae make no mention of medical specialist work, no list of hospitals or clinics. Instead, it’s a list of theatrical ‘seasons’ and performances, with Deb and her colleagues bringing acrobatics and other very ‘physical’ theatre performances to the productions of theatre and opera companies in the United Kingdom, such as The National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, the English National Opera and The Royal Opera.

Then, there are the visits to Rio de Janeiro, Sierra Leone and Senegal and Ghana, to work with children and young people; teaching acrobatics and other circus skills – visits that usually involved beating the language barrier by “communicating without verbal language, but body movements,” says Deb.

She eventually moved to Australia to direct the National Institute of Circus Australia (NICA).

Returning home to live in Wellington, 29 years after she set off to see the world, Deb established Circus Hub and ran classes there, three or four times each week. Nowadays, there are 50 weekly classes.

“I love it. The students love it,” she says. “It means working together, instead of just as a single person going through the motions. It’s creative and it’s non-competitive. Everybody gets something out of it, even if you’re just watching.

“Circus training is funky, it’s a fun way to fitness, and it has a dream quality to it.”

Deb is currently training a number of Wellington circus performers for this year’s World of WearableArt™ Awards season, collaborating on the choreography with WOW’s Director of Choreography Malia Johnston.

Just what the performers will be doing in the show is very much ‘under wraps and not for discussion,’ – even with their families. But, WOW’s creative team promises; the performance will be, as always, like no other WOW® show staged over the past 25 years.

– Victoria Clark