Kim Upton, known as “Kimtortion”, is well-known for her contortion ability which has led her to perform circus acts such as the Trapeze, the Lyra and the Rag-doll comedy contortion act (to name a few). However, her role as an aerialist was tragically cut short. While setting up rigging for other performers back in 2009, Kim fell and lost all mobility in her legs; making her a paraplegic. But Kim took a different approach to her accident, instead of giving up the life she loves as a circus performer, Kim chose to prevail and turn her “handicap” into an inspiring “triumph of the human spirit”. She has overcome adversity, against all odds, to create a unique and inspiring new act. Kim now performs her Rag-doll act but with a twist: as a paraplegic. Proving to the world that there is life after tragedy strikes. Here at CGM, we are very privileged to speak with Ms. Upton about her accident and how she overcame adversity through the art of circus.
CGM: Hi Kim! Thanks for sharing your story with us. Please tell our readers how old you were when you started performing.
KU: I started circus quite late, in my early twenties, and started performing only a year or two after that. But despite starting late I had been involved in performing arts my whole life. I started dancing when I was two and studied music throughout school and at university. After doing music at university and getting somewhat bored, I went back and completed another degree in performances studies (primarily theatre). I wasn’t a huge fan of going to university (quite the opposite) I just hadn’t found my calling yet and was looking for things to do. I think my performing arts background helped me in circus, before I actually started circus, if you know what I mean.
CGM: What was your first act?
KU: My first act was a contortion act. I performed this act as a freelance performer and for various small companies, festivals, corporate events and such things. I then started performing aerial [arts] as well. My first act in a circus ring was a Rag-doll act at Circus Joseph Ashton with Joseph Ashton.
CGM: What was your favorite act?
KU: Contortion was always my main thing and where I felt most at home. I liked freelance performing and performing burlesque as well (incorporating circus skills) as it allowed me to do different things all the time, which was satisfying creatively (And it also incorporated my other performing interests). However, the Rag-doll act at Circus Joseph Ashton was definitely the most rewarding in terms of experiencing circus in the traditional sense and so I would say that was my favorite act and definitely the most fun.
CGM: Do you have a background in circus?
KU: No. I started classes at the WA Circus School based in Fremantle Western Australia on a whim. I had always been fascinated by circus I guess, but didn’t really know there were schools as such. One day, by chance, I came across the circus school and joined an adult acrobatics class straight away. The class was taught by Melic Tichabaev. He was quite a stereotypical Russian acrobatics coach. He spoke in a humorous way and had all these funny sayings. I guess you would describe his way of talking as “Pidgin English”. He was a very inspiring man and I think he had a lot to do with why I loved it so much. From there I was hooked. What was initially a novel way to get fit became my passion. I almost immediately started training hard and discovered I had not lost much flexibility from dancing, and I really liked trying to stretch myself into positions that freaked people out! So I decided to harness that as well as learn other basic acrobatic and aerials skills. I never dreamt when I started out that I would be good enough or have the opportunity to perform, but one thing led to another, I was asked to do a show for the Artrage festival in Perth and then the gigs started coming in from there. After I had done quite a few shows and different acts (Contortion, Aerials, Rag-doll, Adagio and other stuff) I put together a show reel. Some time after that, Joseph Ashton had been wanting to do a Rag-doll act, like what used to be performed at Ashton’s, and he had got my details and gave me a call to ask if I was interested in performing that at Circus Joseph Ashton. Obviously, I jumped at the chance!
CGM: When did your accident occur and why?
KU: My accident was actually a rigging accident (I am also a rigger). I was setting up for a show so I wasn’t actually performing and as for what actually occurred, I don’t really know. I guess my memory blacked it out. I was harnessed and all of those things… but yes… I don’t remember!
CGM: How did it affect you?
KU: Well physically I broke much of my spine and severed the spinal chord (rendering me paraplegic) as well as breaking my hand, foot and lacerating my liver. Although the whole thing is fuzzy memory wise, for the first few weeks after (probably from pain medication) I think I knew instinctively right away that I wouldn’t walk again. I don’t remember at any point being surprised about that. All I remember thinking was being thankful that it wasn’t worse. I mean, I could have died or become a quadriplegic, which would obviously have been a lot worse. Everyone thinks I coped remarkably well. I remember thinking (and I continue to think) that I didn’t want people to feel sad for me. So, yes… I guess I just think there is no point wasting time dwelling on what I can’t do, I may as well focus on what I can do. I guess I am quite pragmatic in that regard. I knew right away I wanted to perform again. So as soon as I was allowed (after 2 months of complete bed rest lying flat, and then 6 weeks in a rigid brace) I started training for that… figuring out what I could do and stretching, etc. I am just lucky that my dream came true and I continue to have the opportunity to do perform!
CGM: What advice can you give to aspiring circus performers with handicaps?
KU: I think: look at what you can do as opposed to what you can’t. Like on a smaller scale, when I broke my foot, I learned hand balancing. Now I can’t walk but I can still train flexibility so I can still perform a Rag-doll style contortion act. Obviously there are things I can’t do but there are new circus skills I am learning now too. It is funny though, I think given the nature of the act I perform now, people don’t necessarily know I can’t walk when they see the act, unless they happen to know or have heard. But I think for the most part people don’t know, but I guess I can’t be sure. I kind of like that I can still perform and people don’t know that I can’t walk. I like that people can still be impressed on some level with my act. Because I think if everyone were to know, they would maybe clap anyway or think it is more impressive than they otherwise would! So, in that sense, I guess I don’t feel like I’m necessarily a great advocate for people with disabilities because I don’t “advertise” it. Perhaps I am a good advocate for the “shy” disabled person… who loves to perform but shies away from the spotlight at the same time!
One thing is certain: Kim is a true inspiration. We wish her the very best of luck in her career. ■