WEB EXCLUSIVE : A young ballet dancer runs away to the circus.
by Donalevan Maines
In ballet school, Antoine Banks-Sullivan was always telling friends he wanted to run away and join the circus. Now he’s done it and he’s bridging language and cultural barriers — as a gay member of the spectacular international cast of Cirque Dreams illumination (at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts through March 7).
Banks-Sullivan is the principal male dancer in a company of acrobats, tightrope walkers and contortionists in this amazing show that blends European cirque style with American circus antics, mixed with illusionists and a magical black light presentation.
Banks-Sullivan has danced, studied and performed with Deeply Rooted Dance Chicago, Central Florida Ballet and Cleo Parker Robinson in Denver, but he was in the Middle East when he left the international touring production of High School Musical to join Cirque Dreams two months ago.
“This is a totally different life,” he raves. “My new persona is that I am a dancer in a circus. I get to mesh and mold in with the fabric that is Cirque Dreams. These people that I’m around have been doing this since they were children. The contortionists studied at the Mongolian School of Contortion. The gymnasts are Olympic-caliber athletes who left sport to work in art.
“And the stories!” he beams. “We sit around after the show and tell each other everything about our backgrounds. In spite of language barriers, we are able to communicate everything. I learn the most interesting things in the world, and I’m deeply grateful to possess that knowledge now.”
At 24, Banks-Sullivan is living his dream, in a show called Dreams.
“Growing up in Chicago, I had an amazing childhood with a strong family background, the best schools, in an amazing cultural city,” he tells OutSmart.
When he came out to his parents in his senior year of high school, he says, “My mother was a little emotional, and my dad was hurt and a little angry. My mother was the first to understand, then my father came around, once they realized that being gay is not a choice.
“After my senior year in high school I was supposed to be a veterinarian but I told my parents that instead of college I wanted to go to a performing arts school,” he explains. “They asked me to give them one year of college. I had played violin, and guitar, and football my mind was always jumping around so they wanted to see if I would stick with dancing.
“I came back after a year and told them I felt the same way. From that point on, they’ve been my biggest supporters.
“I am happy, he tells me a few hours before show time. Tonight, this won’t be me going to work. This will be me doing what I love to do.
“I cannot pay for the experiences I’m having. I’ve touched four continents. This is so much better than any pay check!”
Banks-Sullivan adds, “I’ve been in a relationship for four and a half years, and we will celebrate the third anniversary of our domestic partnership on March 25.”
While he didn’t become a veterinarian, he did marry one. And the couple had a big gay wedding presided over by an uncle of Banks-Sulllivan who is a Baptist minister in Chicago.
“It was important to show the community in Chicago that this is normalcy. We wanted to show everyone that being gay is not just going to bars and picking up men,” he says. “This is normalcy.”
In the past few years, “there have been a lot of moves” for the couple, from Chicago to Orlando to Tampa to Denver, and now Las Vegas, where they plan to stay and raise a family after Banks-Sullivan gets off the road.
He’s signed with Cirque Dreams through June, but he fully expects the show to continue for several years, allowing the couple to rendezvous in cities that include Houston, where the veterinarian will visit dancer in the current engagement.
“It works,” says Banks-Sullivan.
At the cast party at Artista following the Feb. 23 opening of the show at the Hobby Center, I saw how much the cast seems to like Banks-Sullivan and how readily they’ve accepted him into the company. Tipping through the crowd of admirers, Banks-Sullivan could have been the social director at Olympic Village, with performers representing Argentina, Belarus (including my favorite, Siarhei Kuzniatsou, the buff handyman and paint can stacker), Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Mongolia, Russia, Trinidad, Ukraine Uzbekistan and the USA.
“In ballet school, it was just an expression when I would say I wanted to run away and join the circus,” says Banks-Sullivan. I meant that I wanted to get out of town and do something different. I’m always willing to try a new adventure, always up for anything new, always.
“It’s thrilling to be in such an amazing show,” he says. “One thing I can guarantee is that you will be blown away.”