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Two-Ring Circus

Written by Michele Maciejewski

Two-Ring Circus

Toronto's lax laws, thriving performance culture, and well-designed cityscapes make it the ultimate playground.

An unmarked door on Yonge Street opens every Friday night into a long, narrow room with a sticky wooden floor. The air thumps with house music, the makeshift bar accepts cash only, and the stripper pole awaits a dance. It’s only 11 p.m., but party host and stuntman Leland Tilden expects the festivities to go on until the morning.

Tilden is part of Toronto’s robust parkour scene, bolstered by spinoffs from the traceur connection website PKTO (Parkour Throughout Ontario), The Monkey Vault (a local indoor training center), and the culture itself. Toronto, a city of 2.7 million residents, hosts just under 10 million visitors a year. The compact landscape, packed with parks, campuses, and accessible rooftops, is made for traceurs.

One of the city’s best-kept secrets is Leland Tilden’s rooftop, a transformational paradise. Tilden is the unofficial ringleader of Toronto’s underground performance community, composed of circus actors and stuntmen, trickers and traceurs. Every Friday night, Tilden’s company, The Flipside, throws a loft party called “Flipside Fridays.” Tilden uses some of the $20 cover charge to pay his talented friends, a cast of performers who spit fire or spin out double back flips as entertainment for his guests.

The flashy scene transforms most other days of the week. Flipside rents out its studio to martial arts, yoga, and other classes throughout the week, and Tilden often trains there with friends. On the roof is a tent filled with thick mats, a trampoline, balancing tools, gaps that range in size, ledges stacked at different levels, and wedges to do all sorts of tricking.

The counterpoint to Tilden’s party is the one created by The Monkey Vault. The gym is set in a strip mall of unimpressive storefronts in Davenport, a neighborhood known best for bakeries and take-out Asian restaurants. In 2008, Dan Iaboni founded the gym to give those passionate about the discipline a hub for training and meeting. Most of the attendees here are much younger, ranging in age from 7 to 21. Structured classes take place to teach beginners and more seasoned practitioners, but more often the gym is available for individual training. The space includes a foam pit, rock wall, beams, rings, and wall climb markers.

But Toronto has plenty of outdoor spaces to train, starting with the Downtown Toronto Parkour Club. Nearly 40, organizer Jaak Purres is one of the oldest guys in the scene, as well as a passionate teacher. He arranges a meetup every Saturday at noon at The Cloud Gardens, a conservatory in the financial district. All degrees of skill are welcome, and the event attracts 10 to 20 people a week.

Toronto is a relatively safe space for parkour. There are no laws prohibiting congregating or practicing movements on public spaces. Public spaces are not as heavily guarded from “dangerous” activities as they are in the U.S. “Police pretty much leave us alone,” Purres says. So does everyone else. “There really aren’t any bad neighborhoods in Toronto at all,” Purres says. The crime rate is low for a city of its size, so you can feel safe running and jumping even in the quietest of spots in the city.

It’s Saturday afternoon, the day after Tilden’s party, and nine performers gather on his rooftop. While many woke up only a few hours earlier, they are dressed in flame-embroidered outfits or comfy sweats, ready to put on another show. This time, the audience is not inebriated houseguests, but friends with cameras. Videographer Rich Gagne captures random bits of art for Flipside’s next web edit, which promises to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

“I think you’d have to live here for a bit to know how awesome a city it is,” Tilden says, “but the people here are really, really, really awesome. There’s endless opportunity here.”