Eugene Balla

'Strong man' acrobat

Yeno Balla (Eugene Balla), acrobat: born Budapest 30 October 1911; died London 29 April 2004.

Eugene Balla was one of the great acrobats of the European circus world as well as a key figure in the renaissance of circus skills in Britain.

He was born Yeno Balla, in Budapest, in 1911. His family were butchers by trade, but Eugene and a group of local boys wanted to join the circus. They taught themselves the skills of tumbling and balancing practised by the circus acrobats they so admired, and Eugene managed to scrape together enough money to pay for some classes at a gymnastics school in Budapest. He did his first somersault at 14, and was hooked. Later Eugene and his friends put an act together. Calling themselves the Breier Troupe, they joined a travelling circus and went on the road.

Eugene Balla was broadly built, and became the base, or the "strong man" in their springboard act. The others would jump off the springboard and land on his shoulders. This was the hardest and most dangerous position in the troupe. Balla could balance the whole company, five others, on his shoulders, one on top of the other.

In the Thirties, the Breier Troupe were one of the most popular acrobatic acts on the international European circuit, playing at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, the London Palladium and the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.

When the Second World War closed many of these venues, Balla found himself in London. He decided to settle in Brixton, at that time the favoured neighbourhood for touring performers. After the war, he resumed his career as an acrobat, but also opened a studio in Brixton to teach young people acrobatic skills. Hundreds of children learned their walkovers, back-flips and somersaults with him. His technique for the more advanced moves was to put the student in a harness, connected to ropes and a pulley system. Balla pulled on the ropes, enabling even a novice to experience the motions of a back-flip.

He lost his studio when Lambeth Council confiscated properties in the area to build a housing estate. This coincided with the natural end of his performing career, and led to a long depression. But, towards the late Seventies, young performers in London who had heard that there was an acrobatic master living in Brixton began knocking at his door. Reluctantly at first, he began to teach again. This time it was adult performers in their twenties and thirties, and mainly women.

In the early Eighties, there was a tremendous buzz about circus skills on the London fringe. As performers, many of us wanted something different from the "neck up" theatrical tradition of stage acting in plays. We were looking for physical skills that we could use in the shows we were inventing ourselves. There was nowhere in the UK for an adult to learn physical skills at that time.

By the early Eighties, Eugene Balla had dozens of students. Every morning at 10am he taught in his house on Kelllett Road in Brixton. There was just enough room to do two cartwheels, through the two rooms he had connected by knocking down a wall. Then it was round-offs, forward and backward rolls, headsprings and upstarts, backbends, walkovers, handsprings and back-flips on the rope. The "routine" was hard, particularly for many of us who had never done gymnastics or dance. Balla treated all of us like professionals, and inspired tremendous loyalty in his students. We learned more than acrobatic skills from Eugene Balla, we learned about making a life in the theatre.

His own healthy life style was exemplary. He never drank or smoked, ate sugar or refined foods. He didn't see a doctor until his seventies, although he frequented an osteopath before most of us knew what one was. In his eighties he could drop to the floor in class and do 20 press-ups, or grab the hanging rings and raise his legs to horizontal.

Once I showed up at class on the verge of tears. It was some boyfriend trouble. Eugene looked at me intently after a failed handspring and told me to stay after class. When everyone else had gone he asked me if it was love that had made me unhappy. I nodded, bursting into tears. "I felt like this many times as a young man in Hungary. You know what I did?" I looked at him, my mentor, my surrogate grandfather, desperate for advice. "I took a bucket, filled it with ice water, and then, I stuck my head in it."

Eugene Balla's students performed with the People Show, Moving Picture Mime Show, Cunning Stunts, Scarlet Harlets, Trickster Theatre, Trestle Theatre and Circus Oz as well as many others. His ex-students went on to start the circus-skills courses that exist today in London and Bristol.

Annie Griffin

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before