Next to a sprawling encampment of ramshackle caravans in Llanelli in south-west Wales, what looks awfully like an unidentified flying object rises out of the tepid afternoon mist. Inside, next to a rubber duck on a lead and a penny-farthing, a 30-year-old Italian acrobat named Simone Riccio stands on a small circular platform 10ft from the ground, his arms wrapped round a battered aluminium pole, about to remove his trousers. Nearby, an enormous muslin petticoat hangs over a pram from the stripped spokes of an ancient umbrella, and a woman in a baroque white truss embraces her lover, who wears something akin to an oversized pair of footballer's shinpads.
Riccio's silhouette, cast on to a giant white curtain, tosses the trousers to the floor, and strikes the pose with which the NoFit State Circus will begin: arms outstretched, every acrobatic muscle taut, the jut of his chin like the prow of a ship. Also visible is the unfortunate bulge of his crotch.
"Simone! You can't take your trousers off as Jesus Christ!" shouts Firenza Guidi, the show's director, in friendly exasperation. "Simone! You are obscene!" She rolls her eyes; the acrobat bashfully puts his trousers back on, and the dress rehearsal resets once again. In the corner – if a big top can have corners – a grizzled strongman called Howie Morley reflectively massages his knee. It's been a slow afternoon.
Still, considering the show's first performance is due in only a few hours, Guidi and her charges don't seem unduly concerned. The NoFit State Circus has been going for nearly a quarter of a century, and its working methods were never founded on seamlessness. Billed as the antidote to the anodyne perfection of some of its rivals, it's slick, but not too slick; it's jaw-dropping, but it also has a feeling of real life about it, a fact only too apparent to an audience encouraged to wander among the gnarled performers throughout the show. And while technically the acrobats are impeccable, they come in all shapes and sizes. This is circus with a soul.
"You're not going to get any of those smooth leotards you get in Cirque du Soleil," says Guidi. "This is about humanity. If a performer is just technical, it's aerobics. But if they have an inner life? That's when it becomes exhilarating to watch."
Not that he'd ever be caught dead wearing one, but if he did, Morley, 41, (pictured top right, with Riccio on top of the wheel) would have a few lumpy bits in his leotard. When rehearsals break, he sips a cup of tea from the troupe's canteen and ruefully contemplates his battered knee. "It has no cartilage left in it," he explains. "We're never in one place long enough to use the National Health. Still, you learn to work around it." He might see the physiotherapist, only the physiotherapist is also the cook, and is busy making 50 people dinner. "And later he'll be painting scenery or angle-grinding a bit of metal." Morley winces, finishes his tea, and heads back to the big top.
He's not the only one bearing scars. Marco Fiera (45, on penny-farthing and hula hoops) has a snapped bicep tendon that's left his muscle looking like Popeye's after a can of spinach; Adie Delaney (23, swinging and flying trapeze, pictured middle right) broke her foot during last year's run.
The accommodations are only marginally less scruffy: every penny the circus can spare from its running costs goes on the big top and what happens inside it, so the performers take care of their own caravan maintenance in the commune in which they all live while on tour. (When something goes wrong, they mostly look to crew member Kate Bevan, who has to deal with engine trouble probably not familiar to most mechanics – as was the case when she noted a peculiar smell emanating from one caravan's carburettor, only to find the cause was a leaking bottle of soy sauce in the vehicle's kitchen.)
Still, what it lacks in mod cons – the only toilets are a recent purchase from eBay – the encampment makes up for in charm. Amid ranks of less glamorous vehicles, there's a gleaming silver Airstream motor-home, straight from The Jetsons; elsewhere, Fiera has set up house in a converted fire engine, which he's regretfully moving out of in favour of a larger vehicle with a bit more space for the kids. Morley, too, has a fire engine, a cheery D-reg Bedfordshire truck, but it's not for living in: he woke up one night to find his caravan ablaze – an incident that prompted him to buy his own means of solving the problem should it arise again. Now its hose is mainly used to suck mud from the ground on which sits the troupe's unique £250,000 tent (its spaceship design sketched on the back of a beer mat in 1992, the dream realised a decade later).
On a ropey Carmarthenshire industrial estate, this motley collection is a strange enough sight; how the neighbours will take to it when it's reassembled in the car park of the Roundhouse, in London's well-to-do Chalk Farm, is anyone's guess. Still, that's where it'll be for a month, at the beginning of the group's forthcoming tour. Seven months living on the road will test even the most enthusiastic caravanner's patience, but in the end, every member of the company insists that their travelling community is crucial to the show's success.
"Living, working, eating, sleeping together – it's all a really important part of it," says Ali Williams, creative director, founder, and long-standing expert in juggling, knife-throwing, acrobatics, table-sliding and unicycling. "You can't tell me that what happens outside doesn't have an impact on the audience inside. That's where the show's spirit comes from."
Williams stopped performing in 2002 to run the circus full-time, alongside four others; the performers and backstage crew, meanwhile, are all on an equitable pay scheme that lets them earn £300 to £400 a week, from lowliest rigger to most illustrious acrobat. But even on such a tight ship, the money is running out. NoFit is a charity, putting on workshops across Wales, and ticket sales go only so far. While they are augmented by some funding from the Arts Council of Wales for specific events, that doesn't cover the organisation's running costs. Unless things change, Williams fears having to move this inimitably Welsh group to England, where more funding may be available. "It's a constant struggle," she says. "If it doesn't come through soon I don't see how we can continue."
Back in the big top, the troupe's minds are far from such weighty matters. To the untrained eye, it doesn't look as if much is happening. "When I said we were starting from the three-minute warning," booms production manager Helen Fagelman, "where did you think we would be starting?" Restless and sick of the wait, the performers fidget in the wings.
"I go crazy if I'm not doing something," mutters Delaney, who ended up performing on crutches when she broke her foot; Marcella Manzilli, clown and trapeze artist, amuses herself by veering around the space on a low-slung tricycle and parping at bystanders. I check the time, and wonder whether I'll see anything before I have to get a train home.
When it finally happens, there's not much warning. Riccio, now fully trousered, spins on his platform; five acrobats writhe in formation 30ft up; a delightful burbling blur of people fills up the centre of the tent and pulls you inexorably in. And then, finally, Delaney soars to the centre of the room on her trapeze (at the low point of her arc it feels as if she's barely inches over our heads) and it's impossible for your heart not to fill your chest. She's playing Amaranta, the girl that knows no fear. Riccio catches my eye and smiles. "Sometimes," he says later, "you see somebody in the audience and think you've given them something that will stay with them when they get home. That's what I'll remember when I'm old."
The support act
Even the most devoted couples need an occasional break from each other. Petri Ekqvist and Kadya Karjalainen don't get many, but they've learnt to deal with it. "We had to understand that we are not an ordinary couple," says Karjalainen. "We often think that as we don't have children, our act is the thing we created together." The acrobats met in their native Finland five years ago, went to Paris to train in the dual trapeze, moved to Australia, where they added the cradle – Ekqvist hangs from a metal frame while Karjalainen performs stunts in his arms – and came to Britain to join NoFit State last year. Difficult it might be for ordinary domestic bliss, but neither would have it any other way. "It's such intimate work," says Ekqvist, "that being in love with the person you work with is almost mandatory."
It's been eight years since trick cyclist and hula-hoop master Marco Fiera joined NoFit; the company has since taken over his life. He met his partner, Zoe, when she worked at a juggling convention with the circus; they now have two young children: Elvis, born on the first night of their previous show, and Sylvester, born on the first night of last year's rendition of this show. At 45, Marco sometimes wonders whether he's getting a bit old for all this – "The showers are a bit shit, to be honest" – but he rarely looks more at home than on his penny-farthing. "And the free babysitting on demand doesn't hurt, either."
The top man
Howie Morley, who left school in Sheffield with thoughts of being a translator, first saw the NoFit State troupe perform when he was 21. "I thought, 'God, that looks like fun,'" he says. "I decided I'd like to run away with them." For the next 10 years, at the same time as establishing himself as a horticulturalist, he honed his circus skills; then, after joining the company as a volunteer, someone spotted him putting up the scaffolding on stilts, and asked him to join the show. At 41, he can't do the stilt-walking any more, on account of a dodgy knee – but still rolls around in a fiendish contraption called a German wheel, as well as being in charge of getting the big top up and down. Every now and then, he's carried by Marcella Manzilli (see cover), a bullet-shaped 31-year-old strongwoman who has been with the company for seven years after coming to Wales from her native Italy. "It's crazy, cuckoo, here!" she says. "But everyone is very easy to live with."
The high flyer
When Simone Riccio worked as a director of photography on music videos in Italy as a 21-year-old, he thought his career was set. Then he took a circus-skills course while on holiday in Barcelona. Nine years later, and he's an accomplished acrobat. "I like NoFit as it does not just pretend to be contemporary, it is," he says. "I do miss the comfort of a proper home, but it's worth it. The way we do things, the work is more like real life."
NoFit State circus will be at London's Roundhouse (0844 482 8008, www.roundhouse.org.uk) from 28 March to 19 April