At 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, when most 12-year-olds are starting their homework, Natasha Patterson is under the big top, rehearsing one of her routines.
Patterson, the youngest member of Cirque du Soleil's Kooza tour, stands at the end of a Rockettes-like line and kicks her legs up past her chin. For her, this is the easy part. Tonight, when Kooza makes its Baltimore debut, Patterson will do a handstand on top of another girl's stomach.
"She's not your usual 12-year-old," said Maxime Charbonneau, the tour's publicist. "She has the chance to see the world as well as do something she likes."
Natasha has never been an average kid. She was 2 when her mother, Georgina Patterson, enrolled them both in a mother/child gymnastics class near their San Francisco home. Natasha took an interest in gymnastics, and by age 5 began taking part in rhythmic gymnastic competitions. A year later, she teamed up with Julie Bergez and Dasha Sovik to form a contortionist trio called the Mystic Pixies. Corporations hired the Pixies to perform at their events, and Cirque du Soleil invited them to audition when Natasha was 9.
Patterson was surprised when Cirque du Soleil offered Natasha and the other Pixies a spot on the Kooza tour. Part acrobatic performance and part clown show, Kooza features tightrope walkers, jugglers and contortionists. It's one of 17 shows Cirque du Soleil is presenting around the world this year. Founded in 1984, Cirque du Soleil (French for "circus of the sun") is one of the world's premier touring companies.
Even so, Patterson had reservations. She believed that Natasha was too young and that the tour would take her away from her parents and overwork her. At first, she refused to let Natasha join the cast.
"She cried when I said no," Patterson said.
Natasha persisted. Eventually, her mother gave in.
"I thought about it and said, 'Well, if you're going to do it, we can always try it, and if you don't like it, we could stop,'" Patterson said. "But she loved it."
Once Natasha started touring with Cirque du Soleil, there was no thought of returning to gymnastics tournaments. She now loathes the thought of being judged on the slightest mistake.
In competitions, "if your toe is too much to the left, it's like, 'Oh, God, five points off,' " Natasha said. "With performing, if you fall, you can fake it, and probably no one out there knows you messed up, except for your coach and the other girls on the act. Of course, you're like, 'Oh, God, I'm stupid, why did I mess up?' But at least you're not being judged on it."
Natasha performs in Kooza eight to 10 times per week. She and her team have a six-minute routine, and Natasha also appears in a handful of other Kooza skits. Even short skits take months to prepare and rehearse, Natasha said. The girls prepared long and short versions of their skit, as well as a two-person routine to use when the third gets sick. Since Natasha is so small (she's 5 feet tall and weighs 85 pounds), she is often hoisted by her teammates.
Through the years, Natasha has learned her physical limits, but her body still surprises her from time to time.
"Sometimes your muscles are really weird," she said, "and they decide to be really loose one day, and you're like, 'Whoa, why is my leg up there?' "
So what runs through the mind of a 12-year-old contortionist as she forms the top of a human pyramid for thousands of spectators? Depends on the night, really, Natasha said.
"Sometimes you're thinking about nothing, and you're on autopilot, and your body just does it," Natasha said.
"Sometimes you're thinking about the audience and the act in general," she added. "Sometimes you're thinking, 'Oh, what groceries am I going to buy tomorrow?' "
On days with only one performance, Natasha spends an hour training and 90 minutes warming up for the show. On two-show days, she trades the training time for an hour of warm-up between performances. She also spends 15 hours a week in class. Natasha may be on tour with Cirque du Soleil, but she still has homework. Her classroom is a trailer, and she is being taught in French and English (Natasha, whose mother is from France, speaks both languages fluently).
In September 2007, Natasha, Julie and Dasha performed on the observation level of the CN Tower in Toronto, setting a Guinness world record for the highest circus performance. The tower is more than 1,100 feet high.
"I'm not scared of heights the slightest bit," she said.
When Natasha is on the road, her family stays as close to her as it can. Patterson went on tour to support her daughter, and Patterson's husband, Scot, works as a welder and plumber on Kooza's road crew. Natasha's brother, Andrew, 14, toured with them for about a year before re-enrolling in high school on the West Coast, where he lives with his aunt.
"I respect her because she worked so hard," Patterson said. "It wasn't easy to get here. She worked for years and years to get here. She deserves to be here, to do what she wants to do. Even if she's young, I respect her decision because she works so hard."
IF YOU GO
Cirque du Soleil's Kooza opens today and runs through April 5 in M&T Bank Stadium's Lot O, 700 W. Ostend St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $55-$125 for adults, $38.50-$87.50 for children ages 2-12 and $49.50-$112.50 for students and seniors. Go to cirquedusoleil.com.