Article and images by Michelle-Andrea Girouard
Suspended 30 feet in the air, Miho Inaba looks down at the ground below her. Back arched, feet pointed, she is held by nothing but the black ribbons that envelope her.
“When I perform, I get this crazy feeling of happiness. You’re just up there and your mind goes blank. It’s such a thrill, such a rush,” she explains later. “This crazy energy comes out of you and you have no idea where it comes from—but it’s something.”
With strength, she twists her body into the next position. She lightly strokes the air with her fingers. Pressing her lips together, she lets go of the ribbons and spirals downwards like a spool unwinding from its thread. At the moment her audience would gasp, she is caught in midair by the ribbons only a few feet above the floor. The soft music in the background fades away and she steps down from the silk ribbons.
“After you perform, you’re just so at peace with yourself, it’s insane.”
Inaba, 19, trains daily – 30 hours a week – often using the studios available at the National Circus School in Montreal through a program offered by Tohu Inc. that allows circus artists to train on their own.
In the fourth-floor studio, she practices a self-choreographed aerial silks routine. Here, a massive window looks onto the Northwest side of Montreal, as well as the Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters.
Four days earlier, in this exact studio, she auditioned for the National Circus School in Montreal. In the circus world, getting accepted here means the same as it would for a law student getting into Harvard. For the young Inaba, it would be the first real step towards becoming a professional circus performer and leaving her old life behind.
A year ago, she would have been sitting in the drafting studio of Canada’s most prestigious architecture school, the University of Waterloo. While this may have been ideal for some students, for her, the seemingly infinite hours she spent sitting at a desk left her feeling empty.
“I was really depressed,” she recalls. “I had that awful feeling in my stomach that it was not where I was supposed to be and that I needed to do circus.”
She struggled to find time for her love amidst her hectic school schedule. She’d make the hour and a half commute to Toronto on weekends for her aerial silks and trapeze classes. But doing so meant sacrificing the one thing her body gravely needed: sleep.
“On the highway, I would be falling asleep. I can think of so many times when I almost got into accidents,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s when I realized that one day, I’m not going to be good. So I have to stop.”
Her decision to leave architecture school did not come easy. She struggled with both her family’s traditional views on education, as well as her own insecurities. When she told her mom and sister about her decision to quit school, their initial reactions were harsh and hurtful.
“It was never an option to become an artist. It was always academics first and then what you do on the side, you do it on the side,” she says. “Logically, it was the priority, but in my heart it wasn’t.”
While her sister still disapproves, her mother’s opinion has shifted towards excitement and support. Inaba believes her struggles remind her mother of what it’s like to be at a crossroads in life. After getting divorced at a young age, she moved from Japan to Canada to raise her two daughters and never got the chance to pursue her passion in medicine.
“Somewhere there, she kind of understands,” Inaba says.
Her final decision came with the help of courage, overcoming insecurities, and the words of encouragement from her peers and mentors. Shortly after declining a job opportunity to work for an architecture firm in France, she set off to Montreal, the international capital for circus arts.
That was one decision she’ll never regret. M