Eugene Balla

'Strong man' acrobat
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The Independent Online

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