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Winnipegger had no idea what was around the bend when began life as a contortionist

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2015 (1492 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Samantha Halas never expected she would be in a position to call herself Winnipeg's only professional contortionist.

After stunning her family and friends by declaring her intent to become a body bender, the then-21-year West Ender believed, at the very least, she was in for a fantastic adventure that would stretch her view of the world.

"I thought I was going to have this crazy experience of going to a Chinese circus school and it would be a great story," says Halas, now 30 and performing Friday and Saturday as part of The Prism Cabaret she is producing at the Gas Station Theatre. "If I was creating the story of my life I wanted to make a better story then the usual story."

It was a difficult stretch for the Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute graduate, who quit university to run away to circus school and become what many around her considered a sideshow act. At her advanced age, no school would accept her in 2007, other than the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe, which was more interested in her Western currency than her potential.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2015 (1492 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Samantha Halas never expected she would be in a position to call herself Winnipeg's only professional contortionist.

After stunning her family and friends by declaring her intent to become a body bender, the then-21-year West Ender believed, at the very least, she was in for a fantastic adventure that would stretch her view of the world.

Contortionist Samantha Halas

BRUCE BUMSTEAD / BRANDON SUN FILES

Contortionist Samantha Halas

"I thought I was going to have this crazy experience of going to a Chinese circus school and it would be a great story," says Halas, now 30 and performing Friday and Saturday as part of The Prism Cabaret she is producing at the Gas Station Theatre. "If I was creating the story of my life I wanted to make a better story then the usual story."

It was a difficult stretch for the Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute graduate, who quit university to run away to circus school and become what many around her considered a sideshow act. At her advanced age, no school would accept her in 2007, other than the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe, which was more interested in her Western currency than her potential.

Contortionists typically begin training as preschoolers, when their bodies are more receptive to extreme stretching. It takes more time and pain for adults, no matter how naturally flexible, to lengthen muscles and ligaments to allow joints to become more bendable.

It was blow to her ego to find herself in a class with girls between the ages of five and 14.

"It was pretty embarrassing," she says. "I didn't feel great. All the other kids and teachers laughed at me because I was so bad at everything."

Even through those early humiliations, she never lost her passion for twisting her body into amazing and unnatural positions. Halas returned to Canada and worked with The Underground Circus in Vancouver and trained and performed with the San Francisco Circus Centre for a year before hooking up with Serchmaa Byamba, a world-renowned contortionist and coach from Mongolia.

Halas trained in Mongolia, which turns out contortionists like Canada does hockey players. Body sculpture was apparently a favourite art form of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. She is going back there to study with Byamba next month.

Last summer she joined a Quebec equestrian circus company called Luna Caballera. Her act included performing contortions on a horse and on a piano drawn by a horse. In November she was in Newfoundland at the Labrador Creative Arts Festival, bending over backwards to wow audiences.

"People had never seen it before and were gasping at what I do," says Halas, who speaks English, French, Spanish and basic Mandarin.

"Some people can't watch, it's so extreme. Some people can't touch their toes so watching what I do makes them sick. One girl passed out in the audience."

Contortionists are still generally misunderstood and its practitioners lumped in with fire-eaters, sword-swallowers and bearded ladies. Some dislocate their joints and put themselves in boxes for public amusement.

"Classic contortion is very dance-like, executed in beautiful costumes and makeup," says Halas, who quit waitressing two years to focus exclusively on her career and students. "It's elegant and belongs on a mainstage. I have put myself in a suitcase, but for me it's a gimmick trick and I am more interested in the tricks that take skill."

One of the them is called the pretzel, in which her chin is on the ground and her back is bent over backwards so her feet are right in front of her face. It is a manoeuvre that took her so long to master that she cried the first time she completed it.

It's not unusual to become stuck in a trick.

"Some very deep back bends are hard to breathe in," says Halas who sometimes goes by the show moniker Samphibian. "The danger is that you can pass out if you do not focus enough. I have passed out in this position that is called a triple-fold."

Her performances are so dense and challenging that they typically last only about five minutes. There are 19 other artists, including acrobats, aerial dancers and hip-hop performers that are part of The Prism Cabaret. The two-hour evening is constructed around the story of a sorcerer who has imprisoned all the acts in bottles. This is the second annual cabaret she has organized.

"I'm proud I made my own path," she says. "There was no teacher here or degree program. It was a search I made myself. The more time I put into it the more it gave back to me."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Thursday, February 19, 2015 at 10:04 AM CST: Changes photo

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