This is a modern-day tale about a ‘country kid who seeks bright lights’, as Lily Akers really did ‘run away and join the circus’.
Originally hailing from Leongatha, Lily is in her second year of a Bachelor of Circus Arts at the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA). The 22-year-old confesses to having “unusually bendy joints” with the assumed prerequisite of having conquered her fear of heights, which she says is thanks to her grandfather for sending her tree climbing as a young child.
With a tuck, pike and split, Lily gained her start by launching into dancing and gymnastics, and at the tender age of twelve, Lily extended her skills by enrolling in a circus short course.
Being a member of big-eyed crowds for circus performances during primary school further inspired Lily: “Seeing these shows at such a young age inspired me to continue my training right through school and, eventually, to apply to study at NICA myself.”
“I’d love to see circus become more readily available to the people of Gippsland... [as they] have the ability to bring joy to absolutely everyone!”
Lily’s association with Leongatha Gymnastics has been a silver lining during pandemic lockdowns, as it has provided her with access to a safe training space and opportunities to mentor and support the dreams of other young flyers hoping to follow in her footsteps.
Similar to many performance-based artists, the pandemic has meant that Lily has been unable to work closely with others or stand before an audience, and she admits to feeling a sense of loss in being distanced from her close-knit circus family, where group training is a substantial part of the program. For Lily, this has meant refocusing on individual specialities.
This solo time is not without benefit though, as Lily explains, “Solo training is where I can truly express myself creatively. I love the freedom that comes with putting on some headphones and only being responsible for my own body in space.”
With a group speciality in acrobatics, the students learn that, above all else, for the individual members to succeed, the entire team must succeed first.
“It is essential that you trust and support your peers. I think it’s incredible to train in this setting where it is vital that everyone does well.” It certainly takes ‘hanging out’ with your friends to a whole new level.
Temporarily returning to the family home in South Gippsland has afforded Lily an opportunity to connect with a different audience and she’s utilised social media as a vehicle for setting physical challenges for her fans and followers.
One such challenge required you to be inverted, in a handstand, while gracefully guiding your feet together into a diamond shape (diamond may well be a girl’s best friend). To achieve the move, especially over a long duration, the performer must find a trance-like state, as all their weight is supported by their two hands. In some of Lily’s videos, you can see her favourite training buddy, Norm the Pug, looking on bewildered, fully knowing that it’s easier to stand on four legs than two hands!
Social media has also provided a platform for Lily to start conversations about the challenges facing sportspeople and the ramifications of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following a serious injury or accident. She’s no stranger to pushing the limits of her body and has had to work through injury, finding ways to modify her practice and also acknowledge that progress does not always march a linear path to mastery. The physiology of movement has naturally become of growing interest, no doubt supported by a family that includes both a nurse and paramedic.
Whilst the city beckons for the time being, South Gippsland remains permanently etched on Lily’s psyche: “I will always be a country girl! Whilst I am eternally grateful for what the city has provided me, there is nothing I love more than coming back home.”
With a growing circus community making the tiny town of Fish Creek somewhat of a local incubator, Lily says, “I’d love to see circus become more readily available to the people of Gippsland, whether it be circus training or shows. Both of these outlets have the ability to bring joy to absolutely everyone!”
From the traditional circus of the past, now faithfully depicted by many Hollywood blockbusters, or a modern circus with newly found narratives, stage and costume designs, the circus has something to enthral every audience member.
The sad-faced clown may have to take an oversized step aside as circus performers now are super strong, constantly training and unbelievably flexible, while also talented in gaining a cheeky laugh, proving that today’s circus is a very tangible career path for those ready to run away and perform.
As Lily encouragingly shares, “Any and all bodies can do circus. There is a speciality for everyone.”
You can follow Lily’s training, performances and challenges on Instagram at @lilyakers_circusartist. Photographer and writer Karli Duckett’s work can be found at @discovering_gippsland too.