Tina flying high with new Tumble Circus 'Vegas' show swinging into Belfast

Ahead of Tumble Circus - once described as an Irish Cirque du Soleil hit by a bus - setting up in Belfast's Writers' Square, co-founder and aerialist Tina Segner tells Gail Bell why the appeal of circus will always endure - and what makes her palms sweaty in the Big Top

SHE can't promise a Bellagio dancing fountain or champagne on The Strip, but trapeze artist Tina Segner is bringing all the neon glitter of Las Vegas to Belfast this Christmas.

The co-founder of Belfast's award-winning Tumble Circus is gambling on a thrilling Vegas theme for the company's seventh outing to Writers' Square where, at the age of 47, she will push the aerial bar even higher in this year's Big Top.

"After we came back from the pandemic with our Nineties rave-themed show last year, I really wanted to do something else that would be full of music, mayhem and high energy, so what better than a Las Vegas style show," enthuses the Swedish-born performer who jokes she ended up in Ireland after taking "a wrong turn" en route to Australia.

That was more than 25 years ago and what was supposed to be a short stop-off in Dublin ended up being more long-stay - and also a career-changer.

She had been travelling with her best friend who had taught her to juggle and, while sauntering along Grafton Street with a pair of juggling clubs sticking out of her bag one afternoon, she caught the eye of then busker and street performer Ken Fanning – with whom she went on to co-found Tumble Circus.

"My family in Sweden could not believe it at first, when I told them that I was doing circus tricks in Ireland," recalls Segner, who had been studying maths and astronomy at university in Sweden when she, proverbially, ran off to join the circus.

"Then, after two years in Dublin doing juggling shows, Ken and I decided we needed to go off to Circus School in England (Circomedia in Bristol) to learn how to perform properly.

"My parents were great, though – they were like, 'Well, it's not engineering school or anything like that, but at least she is going back to school to study something...'"

After "the best time" of her life perfecting all the skills of the circus in Bristol, the pair returned to Dublin, but the Celtic Tiger had hit hard and prohibitive prices soon forced them north. They worked initially as trainers at a circus school in Belfast before re-inventing the traditional circus model with their own, all-human Tumble Circus in the late 1990s.

An alternative, fearless, contemporary type of how - once described as an Irish Cirque du Soleil hit by a bus - it has since headlined the Glastonbury Festival, played Edinburgh Fringe and travelled across the globe, from Canada and Europe to Australia (where the This is What We Do for a Living show won best act at the Adelaide Festival in 2012).

"Travelling is really great, but what I found after the pandemic was that I loved just touring around Ireland - and coming back to Belfast for Winter Circus is always exciting," says Segner who never did go back to Sweden to finish her degree.

"There are hours and hours just spent on motorways, sleeping in a van, going from one place to another... so it's really nice being home, especially at Christmas."

The pandemic necessitated a new approach and both she and Fanning – as well as their small team of aerialists, acrobats, jugglers and clowns (her partner, Grant, is a juggler and their eight year-old, clarinet-playing son, is also part of the show) – experimented with circus on film. A new 'Cycle Circus', meanwhile, brought small-scale, socially-distanced shows out to people in rural communities.

Coming back to the city Big Top after that was difficult, she says, not least because of the lack of height and space needed for proper flying-through-the-air practice.

"After the lockdowns, I didn't feel great and I thought, yes, maybe I really am too old now..." she reflects in her warm and engaging Irish-Swedish accent.

"But this year I have really taken time to look after myself and to train and condition, to stretch and to sleep, so I am feeling really good.

"We had a little training space at home, in our garden, but basically everything was locked away and it's not the same as when you're on an eight-metre high rig. Keeping aerial-fit is a lot different to keeping fit, generally."

Alongside gravity-defying spins through the air, she stays grounded with hoola hoop tricks and a complex juggling routine, but loves the "freedom and exhilaration" of trapeze best.

"Of course, I get scared, but it's never a case of, 'Oh, I think I'll just do this and see what happens'... I know at this stage how to assess the danger," explains Segner who, in the new year, is going back to 'school' again, this time to perfect her handstands with a specialist trainer in Finland.

"I can climb up somewhere and know if I wrap myself a certain way and then do this or that and then let go, it should be fine because I know I'll catch myself a certain way at the end...

"Having a good mental attitude is vital when you are doing precision aerial work and if I haven't slept well or I'm thinking about something else, I'll just not do any tricks that day because that would make me feel it could be risky."

For all the scientific approach, some tricks have "gone wrong", but she brushes off a few bruises as nothing more than an occupational hazard; a necessary part of training in the ongoing push to keep circus relevant in a modern age.

"I do believe that the appeal of watching people do ever more extraordinary things will always keep audiences enrapt and coming back for more," she says, "especially with our blend of circus skills, comedy, theatre and social commentary.

"Perceived danger has its own appeal - I know that from sitting in the audience myself, palms sweating sometimes as I look up and get really scared for the performers hanging upside down several feet above me. In that moment I forget about what it's like to be on the other side - a professional who has gone over and over the routine again and again and has accounted for every second."

It probably helps, she thinks, that a certain amount of controlled risk shaped her childhood, having been involved with horses from a young age, whether taking part in show jumping, competitive dressage or three-day eventing.

"I was a board diver for a while too, so I was used to adrenalin-charged activities," she laughs. "My dad's attitude was: 'You have to let them do something, otherwise they never learn'. I fell off my horse a lot."

These days, sea swimming is an invigorating sort of free therapy - it was something she first tried during lockdown "because there was nothing else to do" and, to her surprise, found she really liked it.

"I have always loved the sea and try to swim in it once a week," she concludes, happily.

"I feel all the cobwebs just get washed away - away out to sea. I might swim more often at some stage, but I don't think I'll ever retire from trapeze. I think I am now too old to retire - when I stop, that is when I get sore, so I better just keep going."

:: Tumble Circus Winter Circus shows run from December 16 to January 2 at Writers' Square, Belfast. Tickets at wegottickets.com/JossersBigTop - more info at tumblecircus.com