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Girls posing at the Modern Circus Troupe contortion studio, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

Work / Photography

Felicity McCabe’s graceful photographs of Mongolian circus troupe trainees

Last year marked the 250th anniversary since the creation of the modern circus. This milestone was the catalyst photographer Felicity McCabe needed to begin on her series 42 Feet, which documents a circus troupe in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. “In 1768 inventor and entrepreneur Philip Astley started putting on shows in Waterloo, London where people could come and watch ‘feats of horsemanship’. He later included clowns, jugglers and dancing dogs. The rest is history,” Felicity tells It’s Nice That. “He settled on a diameter of 42 feet for his circle or ‘circus’ and since then people have been using the same size ring.” Felicity proceeded to visit various circus troupes across London, before she came across the team of circus performers in Ulaanbaatar.

“I think I was looking for characters who embodied the passion and endurance that is needed to train for these kind of lifestyles. But there also needed to be a bit of a story in their eyes,” the photographer says. Most of Felicity’s sitters are young trainees who meet after their schooldays are finished to practice their challenging contortions and intricate choreographies. Her series is made up of graceful photographs, featuring boys and girls doing handstands, stretching, jumping and learning how to juggle. “After shooting in a few different places, I realised that I really needed the graphic aesthetic that I eventually found in Ulaanbaatar,” Felicity says. “I loved the sculptural shapes that the young contortionists made and the backgrounds became starker, more like the majority of my work which is made in a studio. Although the series doesn’t tell a narrative story, it does hopefully communicate the determination and grit of those young people training to get into that 42 foot wide ring.” 

Felicity first came across the Mongolian circus troupe through a google search. Without knowing much about them, Felicity booked her flights based on a hunch that their training schedules would make for an intriguing photographic subject. “I had already been shooting some circuses nearer to home and hadn’t felt that I had found the magic yet,” she admits. “It all felt a little too familiar and I knew that I needed to break outside of what I knew.” She arrived at Ulaanbaatar at 5.30am and met with the circus troupe-leader at 9am the same morning. “From there on, someone knew someone else who was training that I could visit, watch and photograph. It all happened without much planning or sometimes even knowing where I was being taken to due to the language barriers.” 

42 Feet is, above all else, a celebration of the hard work and dedication that the young athletes put into their work. The photographs exude both warmth and affection, a reflection of Felicity’s admiration for the training circus performers. “I shoot so much of my work in studio environments that sometimes it’s therapeutic to get outside and make work that’s in the real world,” Felicity says. “But I always find my happiest results when the outside world mirrors my studio, with flat skies or textured walls for backgrounds, and sculptural bodies that become my living, breathing still lives. I can’t get away from trying to find a graphic view.” 

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Azzaya and Lodonsharav training in the 100 year old circus building, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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Young trainee in Zola’s Troupe being held in the air at the New Circus Building, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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Trainee from Zola’s Troupe stood on steps in the New Circus Building, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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Selenge and Uyanga train on the roof with their tutor B. Oyun, for Circus Mongolia Khadgaa, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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Khulan and Uyanga training twelve stories high over Ulaanbaatar for Circus Mongolia Khadgaa. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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Girl standing on her hands at the Modern Circus Troupe contortion studio, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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Girl poses at the Modern Circus Troupe contortion studio, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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Girls training in the contortion studio for the Modern Circus Troupe, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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Four girls and their teacher train on the roof, high over Ulaanbaatar, for Circus Mongolia Khadgaa. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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Battushig in the 100 year old circus building, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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E. Buynnemekh and Amartuvshin.A on the roof, Circus Mongolia Khadgaa, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.

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B. Zolbayasgalan at the New Circus Building, Ulaanbaatar. Courtesy of Felicity McCabe.