Performer finds circus life to be quite charming
Nina Carden will have large boa constrictor snakes for the audience to touch at Circus Spectacular with shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org
April 5, 2012
Updated: April 6, 2012 2:31AM
You might picture kids in the well-off North Shore suburb of Highland Park taking ballet or music lessons, perhaps dreaming of one day performing in town at the Ravinia Festival, where the Chicago Symphony summers.
While that may be, one kid took lessons of a different sort that led to her hitting the road and traveling with the circus — performing, among other things, by handling snakes.
“I was 8 years old, looking for something to do, and the park district had a circus camp. Theater, dance, physicality appealed to me, and they all came together here,” Nina Carden said.
Those sessions had her hooked and led to taking classes at a circus school that had opened up in Evanston; attending and then teaching at Circus Smirkus, a renowned camp in Vermont; and eventually to her current job with the George Carden Circus Spectacular, which is putting on six shows this weekend at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, beginning tonight.
“This has to be in your blood. It’s not easy, but I love the nomadic lifestyle,” Carden said.
The troupe numbers 50 performers and 50 crew members. It puts on about 700 shows a year and spends at least 10 months on tour. In cold weather, those performances are in arenas, while summer means setting up the show outdoors. The acts all help with that set up and take down, and “supply their own way of living,” she said.
In Carden’s case, that means driving from town to town with her husband, Larry, in an RV and cooking for some of the other performers or heading out to local restaurants. And Carden also gets a kick out of being recognized in small towns when doing mundane things such as laundry.
Carden’s husband is the elephant trainer, and her father-in-law is the owner of the circus. The couple met a little more than four years ago when Carden was with another circus, and within six months they were married.
Carden said the Circus Spectacular is “traditional, with a modern twist.”
To that end, there are, indeed, three rings and acts from more than 15 countries.
During the show, Carden dances, performs three different types of aerial acts, and rides an elephant. The circus also features 14 tigers; a duo that hangs high above the arena by their hair while spinning and juggling flaming batons; motorcycle daredevils; and a human cannonball.
A pre-show allows the audience to interact with circus people and ride elephants, camels and ponies — and to pet one of three boa constrictors Carden might be holding.
She used to have pythons, too, which Carden said she prefers because of them being more visually interesting. But the law now disallows her having them, she said, in large part because of how an unknown number of the serpents in Florida have escaped or been let loose from their owners into the Everglades.
Carden said snakes are misunderstood and pose no problem, unless “they feel threatened or they’re hungry and you smell like food.”
As for being misunderstood, back in Highland Park, Carden said some people have turned up their noses and are surprised she is living in a trailer. But her mother works at the Art Institute of Chicago, her father is a jazz musician, and they are both supportive of her career path.
“My best friend lives in Chicago, has a nice place and a great job. It’s always good to see her. But when I leave, I am so happy that’s not me.”
Circus Spectacular show times are today at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. An interactive pre-show starts one hour prior to curtain.
Tickets cost $14 to $45, and special offers may be found online at www.2012circus.com. Tickets are on sale now at www.SearsCentre.com.