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Why some performers choose Circus Circus over Cirque du Soleil

Circus Circus - Skating Ernestos and Rolla Bola

Leila Navidi

The Skating Ernestos, Veronika and Paolo Ernesto, a roller skating duo from Italy perform at the Circus Circus Midway in Las Vegas on Thursday, August 2, 2012.

Updated Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 | 10:44 a.m.

Circus Circus - Skating Ernestos and Rolla Bola

The Skating Ernestos, Veronika and Paolo Ernesto, a roller skating duo from Italy perform at the Circus Circus Midway in Las Vegas on Thursday, August 2, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Skating Ernestos Family Album

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Circus Circus Acts

Slack wire artist Evgeny Vasilenko of Russia performs at the Midway at Circus Circus Thursday, August 2, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Paolo and Veronika Ernesto didn’t run away to join the circus. They grew up under the big top.

Before falling in love and getting married, they lived in families that had spent 150 years or more performing in sawdust rings around the world. They performed on television shows in Europe and in tents in Japan.

But the place Veronika Ernesto remembered most fondly was the casino midway at Circus Circus, where she performed as a teen. For years, she dreamed of returning there.

“She loves Las Vegas,” husband Paolo Ernesto said. “For six years we’ve been married, and all she could talk about was coming back to Circus Circus. We finally made it. She made it.”

Some might see Circus Circus, built in 1968, as a second-tier stage in a city where Cirque du Soleil is king. But there’s nowhere else Veronika Ernesto, and many other performers, would rather work.

“Some places, they tell you exactly what to do and what to wear,” Veronika said. “It’s not as relaxed. Here, everyone is friendly, and they make you feel comfortable.”

Circus Circus Entertainment Director Jill Breslaw has no problem finding eager talent. She sits at a desk surrounded by six two-quart Tupperware containers crammed with hundreds of discs of audition footage. Breslaw signs a dozen acts every year.

“I look for something that amazes me,” she said. “That’s our job, to take you away from your world for a few minutes and show you something amazing.”

Each act performs a free show for six to eight minutes, two or three times a day, six days a week. Acts sign one-year contracts but can be given the option to renew for a second year.

For the Ernestos, that means a roller-skated Paulo whirling around at high speed on a small circular platform while Veronika dangles from his neck, holding on by only her arms, feet or neck.

Breslaw doesn't ask acts to change what they do, which is a big draw for the performers. Cirque du Soleil, by comparison, requires act to adapt to fit the theme of the show for which they are hired. They must match their outfits to other performers’ and work within defined scripts.

"If you go to Cirque, you're going to do it the way they want you to do it," Breslaw said. "At Circus Circus, you're going to be able to do what you do. I allow you to do your art the way you need to do it."

For the Ernestos, keeping their performance the same is crucial. Veronika Ernesto has fallen many times during practice and suffered serious injuries during performances. Their act depends so heavily on balance that changing one sequin on a costume can throw the routine off enough to result in a slip, she said.

"We really couldn't go some place that they ask us to wear other costumes," she said. "That's really why we like it here."

At Circus Circus, performers start working immediately. At Cirque, they can spend months training before they join a show.

Acts that make it to the pink top are paid as independent contractors and must buy their own insurance, although they do receive certain perks afforded to the hotel staff, such as access to the employee dining room.

Salaries vary based on each act’s length and level of danger. Performers can make from $1,000 to $2,000 or more a week.

The salaries compare to those paid in Europe and Asia, but benefits in those countries typically include health insurance and housing.

Veronika Ernesto comes from a family of unicycle-riding jugglers from the Czech Republic. Paolo Ernesto comes from seven generations of Italian clowns.

Neither performer’s family was thrilled when they learned their children wanted to start an act of their own.

Paolo had played a clown since he was 4 years old and never before roller-skated. He learned how to swing his wife around by practicing first with a leather punching bag.

Within four months, the couple was performing professionally, traveling across Europe as the Skating Ernestos.

Their job at Circus Circus has enabled them to finally unpack their suitcases and settle for a bit. That was especially important when their 2-year-old son, Daniel, arrived.

All the Circus Circus performers are from abroad — Argentina, Poland, Russia, China and Ethiopia.

Some do more than one routine, including Veronika. In addition to her skating act, she performs a solo aerial silk act in which she contorts her body while suspended by two lengths of fabric. Being multifaceted allows her to make a living even if injuries keep her from skating, she said.

The Ernestos’ relaxed life in Las Vegas contrasts drastically to their life on the road. Then, they used to travel to a different city every day.

Circus Circus has given them the chance to slow down, if only for a year or two — which still is longer than Veronika has spent in any one place.

“To be in the same place two years, it’s like having a second home," she said. "A piece of my heart is here. It always will be.”

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