To the folks at Altrades, walking on your hands is the norm.
It tends to draw weird looks and makes your head spin a little, but it offers a different perspective of the world.
And I guess the view from upside down is pretty great.
Altrades, pronounced elle-tray-dis, is a local circus production company that takes its name from the phrase "jack of all trades".
Founded in 2020 by dance partners Beverly Wan and Koh Jia Sheng, Altrades prides itself on being "the first professional, performing circus" in Singapore.
Mostly self-taught, the troupe of 20 have managed to hone their acrobatic skills to match international standards, even garnering praise from acquaintances over at Cirque Du Soleil.
It all started with a ragtag group of artistes, each looking for a place to belong.
Troupe of misfits
Back during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, social restrictions took a toll on performers across the island.
“Most of [the people in Altrades] are commercial dancers and professional athletes, and our lives all ground to a halt,” recounts Koh, who hails from a gymnastics background.
The dwindling influx of commercial gigs had a bright side, however, as it prompted Wan and Koh to do what they do best: think out of the box.
“We turned to the next goal in our lives, which was to create a local acrobatic community, and practice our acrobatic stunts, which would take years to perfect anyway,” says the latter.
Their minds made up, the pair set about assembling a dream team, which would eventually become Altrades.
They set their eyes on artistes who had both the guts and the will to run away with the circus, so as to speak.
The chosen renegades were hand-picked for their specific skill sets and flair for professional circus performance.
But most importantly, for their playfulness.
“It’s like when I’m addressing everyone during rehearsals, I can only get everyone’s attention for a while," Wan laughs.
"Then once I turn my head and start to pan away, I start seeing this one person doing something very weird, and this other person doing something chaotic."
The way the pair see it, though, no circus ever succeeded without being a little crazy.
Members of Altrades live life based on the spirit of trial and error, the urge to test limits irrevocably woven into their DNA.
But there's a method to their madness.
The art of the circus thrives on people who see possibilities where there are none, who snort in derision at the "normal" and choose the weird instead.
“There’s a reason why we decide that maybe walking on our hands is a better idea," Wan discloses.
"Most people won’t come to that conclusion, but a circus brain will be like: What if I walk on my hands? What if I balance this on my head? What if I do push ups on bottles?
Let me try it. And then we become obsessed with it.”
Curious to find out more about life in the circus, I decide to meet with one of Altrades' performers: their resident fire guy, Phiz Nasrudin.
A week before we're supposed to meet, I get this text from Phiz:
"Hey Julia!! Bad news, I had a little accident from [a] recent fire gig... and right now my mouth [has] burn scars... Do you think it's okay to postpone this for another week so at least my scars are a little bit more healed??"
Yes, he called this a "little" accident.
Phiz was clearly more well-versed in the healing process, though, as just week later, his mouth healed without a single scar.
Our original plan of meeting at sunset at Siloso Beach was back on.
And if it wasn't already clear to me, within seconds of meeting Phiz, it’s easy to see how he has an affinity for fire.
When I first greet him on the beach, the 36-year-old is all charming smiles and affable banter, and his warm demeanour is quick to thaw the ice.
He tells me that the performing arts has always been in his blood, long before he was swept away by the circus.
Back in 2001, 14-year-old Phiz started out as a breakdancer for a prominent crew in the dance scene, called “Styles From Beyond”.
Participating in competitions and shows “opened up [his] eyes” to more genres of dance, which enabled him to eventually add hip-hop, jazz, and contemporary dance to his repertoire.
“That’s when I realised that I could actually make money from this hobby of mine,” he shares.
Like many other artists out there, Phiz became a job nomad of sorts, flowing wherever the wind took him.
In 2009, it took him to Egypt.
The Ancient Egypt zone in Universal Studios Singapore, to be exact.
If you went to the theme park during that period, you might've seen him snarling at you on stilts as a member of the Anubis guard.
There, Phiz crossed paths with fellow contractual performers who introduced him to a lucrative one-year gig at Dubai Parks and Resorts.
All he needed to do was to learn to play with fire.
“I started learning [fire performance] from my friend one day and within three hours I realised, oh, I can do this, I’m actually good at this,” he says with ease, as if he was talking about flipping a pancake or something.
He started out watching experienced friends perform fire tricks, before mimicking their movements with just these glowing ball things called "pois".
Once he developed muscle memory of the routine, he then transitioned into the actual burning props.
It wasn't long before he was doing so in front of live audiences.
His growing proficiency in the art brought out his competitiveness, prompting him to constantly learn new tricks so that he could one-up his friends.
Then came 2020, which heralded what Phiz called his “heartbreak phrase of life”.
Nursing the wounds from a breakup with a long-term girlfriend, the artiste found his professional growth hindered as well by the pandemic.
Salvation, however, came in the form of a casting call by Koh, who was looking for new oddballs for his troupe.
Already acquainted with Koh, whom he had met in that year’s National Day Parade, the fire bender had no qualms about rising to the challenge:
“I was like, f*ck yeah, pick me! Please!”
Now, he's the creative director of the circus by night, and a freelance performer by day.
And he’s never stopped playing with fire.
Flirting with danger
It takes more than just courage to handle the flames like an old friend.
According to Phiz, it also takes “common sense”.
“The only advice I was given is to make sure the wind isn’t blowing towards you,” he says.
“I realised that even when [the fire] hits it’s just a brush. Just try not to wear anything flammable and if the fire hits you, don’t just stay there and let the fire barbecue your legs. Just move away.”
If you take all these precautions, says Phiz, the only thing that’ll burn is your leg hair.
Of course, with circus blood running in his veins, the performer isn’t one to heed any such "logical" advice — even if it’s his own.
There was a trick his friend did once, Phiz tells me, in which he grazed his arm with a flame and emerged unscathed.
Never having tried this but gripped by a bout of spontaneity during his next performance, Phiz decided to replicate this trick in front of a live audience.
He says it "only" resulted in a first-degree burn.
“As long as it's not a second and third-degree burn, it’s just a normal [burn]. You just put cold water. Sometimes there are blisters, and there’s that spicy feeling when it touches water," he quips.
As he speaks, I catch a certain glint in his eyes. It gives me the sense that he actually likes getting burnt.
It’s an odd concept for normal people to wrap their heads around, but to Phiz, getting burnt seems to be a mark of bravery, growth — and ultimately — an expected by-product of chasing thrills.
“Growing up breakdancing, doing extreme sports like skateboarding and inline skating, it’s not that pain is pleasure. It's just that extreme sports is a thrilling thing for me," he confesses.
While dancing with danger gets most people on edge, it helps Phiz achieve inner peace.
“What do I love the most about playing with fire? When you spin it around, there’s this sound. Actually, I’ll let you listen,” he says.
Then, the showman rises to demonstrate his skill, right there against the setting sun on Siloso Beach.
With practiced grace, he wields his fire props as if they are extensions of his own arms, switching seamlessly from lazy oscillations to sharp spins.
The hungry fire licks up the ropes coated in kerosene and paraffin, threatening to touch his bare hands.
He only beckons it closer.
Then, I hear it, the voice of fire — an echoing hum so deep that you can feel it in your bones.
“The sound coming from the audience will be a blur, all I’m hearing is the fire around me. It gets me into this flow state of mind, like a trance state,” Phiz had described earlier.
"When you’re flowing, it’s beautiful."
I almost get what he means about the fire drawing him into a "peaceful, meditative" state of mind.
At least until he flings it right into my face.
The greatest showmen
Later, as we sit back down on the beach to talk, Phiz gazes out at the distant horizon.
Looking at the ebb and flow of waves seems to put him in a pensive mood, as he starts talking about the pursuit of his dreams:
“The circus community in Singapore isn’t huge. When you go overseas to Europe and stuff, the circus is their lifestyle. It’ll be nice for us to have that community."
Singapore isn’t the most forgiving place for people on unconventional career paths, especially ones that involve running away with the circus.
And while there's fire in the troupe's eyes when they speak of their dreams, reality is a bucket of ice water.
“I’m quite a home-lover. So I think that it’s quite sad that the art scene in Singapore is not very respected yet. People question us and say we should just leave Singapore, that there's no way we can make it here," Wan says.
Still, the performers are out to reconcile the love for their country and love for their art.
Wan and Koh hope that their first-ever professional show this November, "The Cabaret", will inspire people to "have faith in what [they're] creating".
The same faith they show in their own troupe.
“We tell our acrobats that we’re working towards a place where they can perform full time, we will try our best to get there, but we’re not there yet. So it’s a two-way trust thing, like I’m investing in you and you’re trusting it’ll happen eventually," Wan proclaims passionately.
It's a good thing then, that the circus folks are driven by something bigger than making bank.
“What’s important is to feel alive, have fun and play with props. To try other stuff besides just working and working like most Singaporeans have been brainwashed to do," Koh chips in.
So when people say that they don't see the value in the arts, maybe it's because they haven't yet experienced this sense of emancipation that comes along with creating — this freedom of self-expression and discovery.
Watching the Altrades folks light up as they speak of their dreams, I think of how much happier we'd be if we lived life the way people in the circus do. If we walk on our hands once in a while, rather than always trying to keep our feet on the ground.
As Phiz puts it: "Live life, man."
Top images from Andrew Koay and 1303 Photography