Cuba's National Circus

Two young women in leotards stand elbow-to-elbow and hoist a third woman into the air, enabling her to place a foot on each of their shoulders. Together they form a smiling, ponytail-wearing human pyramid. The gymnast on top suddenly performs a double-flip and lands – smiling, arms outstretched in triumph – with her feet firmly on the ground. And then the lights go out.

Blackouts happen now and then in Havana. For most of the city's residents this is a familiar inconvenience. For an acrobat in Cuba's National Circus (Circuba), a blackout is a potentially serious occupational hazard. Fortunately this particular blackout occurs only during a rehearsal for the evening's circus performance, and any accidents have been avoided. Using candles and lights supplied by a visiting film crew, the women repair to their dressing room until the lights go back on.

You might hear the argument that the circus arts – that is, juggling, contortion, magic, clowns and the like – are the unsophisticated country cousins of the classical arts (ballet, opera...), but you're unlikely to hear such an argument in Cuba. "The circus is the theatre of the street," explains Roberto Pérez Morell, Circuba's director. "Young people, old people, everyone likes this kind of show."

Not that those audiences are easy to please. A circus performance is held to high standards in Cuba, and the performers must train accordingly. Anyone hoping to become a member of the Circuba company has to first complete the normal academic course work required of all Cuban students before he or she can hope to be accepted at the National Circus School. Then four years of rigorous circus training follow.

The Circuba company consists of about twenty artists, including a sound engineer, and the director. A typical performance lasts for one hour and forty minutes, and includes breath-taking high-wire acrobatics; a clown who rides an extremely small bicycle; the aforementioned pony-tailed gymnasts who, among other stunts, jump through fiery hoops; and the inevitable rumba-dancing dogs.

And you don't have to be 10 years old to enjoy it.