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Circus Mon Nov 02 2015

Talking with Koji Kraft, BMX Troupe Leader at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus XTREME


Ringling Bros.and Barnum & Bailey's show Circus XTREME will be coming to Chicago from November 5th until the 29th playing both at Rosemont and United Center. This circus promises to be a mash up of old and new, mixing classic routines like the human cannon ball and high wire with extreme sports like parkour, slack line, trampoline wall and even BMX biking. Perhaps this careful blend of old and new is meant to attract three generations of circus fans with a hankering for the exotic, the sporty and the adventurous. I had a chance to talk to Koji Kraft, BMX rider and Troupe Leader, and one of the new breed of circus artists, about what it is like to be in the circus and how he got there.

Koji is excited to be back in his home state of Illinois. It's only been a year since he left to go on tour with Circus XTREME, but now he says he is looking forward to the chance to eat at his favorite local places (like Portillos) and to catch up with his family, some of whom are flying in to see him perform. Still, if you follow his Instagram, you will see that although he misses home, Koji likes a life of adventure on the road just fine. How could a man who does double back flips on his bike for a living not seek adventure? But talking to Koji, you would never know that he is a 3 time silver medal winner of the X Games, and former BMX World Champion. He is soft spoken and down to earth. This could be because he comes from modest beginnings, raised in Addison, Illinois where he says he learned how to ride a bike around the same time as everyone else, except he had to wait in line to take his turn, "I started riding with my older brother and sister around the neighborhood. We had some trails by my house in Addison. There were a bunch of jumps in there. We didn't really have a lot of money, so we shared one or two bikes and they got switched around. I was always trying to prove to them that I was good."

Proving how good he was to his siblings soon led to other BMX stunt opportunities, and by age 13, he was signing up for competitions around the country. He has been traveling, competing and performing ever since, except for one occasion where he worked a normal day job for four years as he recuperated from breaking both legs. "I couldn't really handle it. After four years, I had to get back on the road!" He admits. He was turned away from the army due to his injuries, but nothing could keep him off of his bike and when a friend suggested he come try out for Ringling Bros., he gave it a try and found himself a family on the road.

How many BMX riders are in your troupe?

There's seven guys. We started with a lot of new people. We are slowly integrating a group of eclectic, talented riders. But it takes more than riding, you share the whole performance, so you turn out to be a performer. It's an interesting balance that we all had to adjust to. We all learned new skills and we are enjoying that you can step out of your own element of just riding a bike. You're in the whole show and you're in different acts. In one part you're riding around people and in another part -- all of a sudden you're dancing.

What inspired you to become a performer?

I really have no idea. I rode my bike and enjoyed getting away from the everyday hassles of life-parents arguing and stuff. Turned out I was really good at it. People enjoyed watching me do it, so I got invited to a lot of demos. I've always been performing I guess, but now I'm no longer competing professionally. Still, performing uses a lot of the same elements--like how to work the crowd, but now I'm using it in the performance sense. I transitioned pretty quickly; I mean I had no idea I could even dance. They have me doing a lot of dance sections in the show. We'll go out to a company party and everyone will get in a dance circle and then we end up doing the same thing as in the show and I think, "Wait! I didn't sign up for this!" But it's fun. I enjoy it and I can see how other people enjoy it as well.

What's it like traveling on the train?

Traveling by train in the US is incredible. You get to see the backyard of America. It is something really spectacular. I would suggest you do it if you get the chance. Especially on the west coast! The train goes down by the beach. It's breathtaking. You literally see a different part of America that you didn't even realized exists. I've been on different tours before but this one is taking me to different spots that I overlooked in the past. Like going to different mountains, and ocean snorkeling...and different adventures.

Did you ever think you'd be in the circus when you were little?

I had no idea what the circus was until I saw it last year and thought, "This is an incredible thing to be part of!" Even our backstage crew are old circus performers. I had no idea. We have a world champion trapeze artist, and no one has touched her title in forever...we have the Iron Jaw and his wife Nadia the Human Cannonball. They've been in the circus forever and they can do every act in the show. If someone gets injured they can just jump in for them! I am intrigued by all the people I work with and everything that goes with it.

Why should people go to Circus XTREME?

The BMX biking of course! Originally, the BMX part was supposed to be designed as something we could just do every day, but when you put a whole bunch of talented athletes together with creative minds it turns out to be a more chaotic and high stress environment. Our act is very high energy. When it ends, we all look at each other like, "Holy cow! Did we all just survive that?!" But it's all good, because we're all just human and the interesting thing about our act is that it is so real and obtainable. Everyone can relate. I mean, everyone can ride a bike. Maybe not in this manner, but... we've all incorporated our own thing in to it and it's turned in to something great. A lot of BMXers have come to see it and said it is the most incredible show they've seen. I definitely suggest you should see it. And that's just one of the acts. We have a human cannonball that gets launched 100 or so feet, and high wire, man, those guys are great. And of course, we are the last unit to have the elephants if you want to see them.

What is the most surprising thing about working in the circus?

Being around the animals is pretty crazy! To be around elephants, camels and tigers and lions -- it blows your mind when you first get there. You think, "These things are really close to me...they are real and there's no leashes..." It's just you and them and you're just trusting that they are well trained.

What is next for you, Koji?

I already have a year and a half deal. With the circus it's like, once you become family they take care of their own. You kind of have this period of six months-- it's like a test to see how you work out. We have been working out. Like I said, people have been here for 20 years. It's cool because it's not just a job, it's a lifestyle. It's an entire culture and tradition and it's a really cool thing to be part of, especially since they welcomed us in so openly.


Ringling Brothers And Barnum & Bailey's Circus XTREME will be at Rosemont Nov. 5-15, and United Center Nov. 19-29. Ticket prices range from $20-$65.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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