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These days, Pixi spends her time writing about circus life. Photo: ALICE PARMINTER

Aerial dancer spins tales of the circus

Live music under the stars, a circus tent behind her and caravans all around – it’s one of Tapu resident Pixi Robertson’s earliest and strongest memories.

The petite 75-year old, who was born in Australia, spent most of her working life inside a circus tent.

Her eclectic career has come in handy, as she has spent her retirement writing books about the circus.

“I trained as a ballet dancer but didn’t get very far on account of my height,” she laughs.

“[But] this chap Alfie Warren advertised for a new partner and he wanted a girl who was under six stone. I was a girl and I was light, and I had dance background.”

Pixi answered the ad, and thus began her career as an aerial dancer.

It turned out Alfie was a cousin of the Ashton family, the proprietors of the renowned Australian Ashton family circus established in 1850.

“He had an act called a Risley act, where someone lays on their back and juggles props and people on their feet. So I got to be one of the props being juggled,” she says.

Following her stint at Ashton’s, Pixi travelled to Europe and found a job with a flying trapeze act in Germany.

“I was in my caravan putting my makeup on and the band warmed up,” Pixi says.

“That memory from when I was four or something just came flooding back. I thought, ‘bloody hell, here I am in Germany in a circus’!”

It wasn’t all glitz and glamour in the big top, though.

“I started at the top really – the flying trapeze has always got a lot of cachet – but it’s a lot of hard work, it’s hard sweat learning it,” she says.

“You’ve got to put the gear up and down, and do all that stuff.”

Pixi travelled for years with various circus companies. Spending every waking hour with the same people, relationships were sure to blossom.

Back in Australia, a clown in the Circus Royale had caught her eye, and they were married in the tent. They had a son together; of course he was a natural performer as well.

“My son and a couple other members of the family were trained to do the flying trapeze,” Pixi says.

Pixi Robertson and her husband Jim rehearse at Circus Oz in the late 1970s in Adelaide. Photo: SUPPLIED

After she stopped performing, Pixi pursued a degree in fine arts.

She quickly transferred to the English department, and began writing about what she knew best: the circus.

There was little time for drafting stories though, as Pixi was still occupied with work – first as a teacher and director in a circus skills school; and finally as a personal assistant at Ashton’s circus, back where it all began.

Three years on, Pixi moved to New Zealand, where her son was now performing.

Retirement finally gave her time for the stories in her head.

“Since I’ve been here, all I’ve done really is just write,” she says.

“All these circus stories just keep coming up – I just thought of another one this morning!”

Pixi’s works include picture books for children, romantic fiction, a yet-to-be completed detective series – all informed in some way by her life experiences.

Her current focus is a detailed non-fiction work chronicling the history of Ashton Circus. It’s a huge project; she’s looking forward to getting back to some fiction when the manuscript is complete. But she’s never too far from reality in her writing.

“[My books] are so deeply embedded in the reality of the circus culture rather than the fantasy,” she says.

And she has plenty of memories to draw from.

“[I remember] being in a tent when there’s tigers in the show,” she says.

“When the tigers run out and sit up on their pedestals you can see the people’s faces just change because – you know how big a tiger is, well when it’s maybe [from here to here] away from you, it’s pretty impressive.

“That’s a really strong image for me.”

Pixi Robertson will be speaking at Grey Power Waihi’s meeting on May 26. 

By ALICE PARMINTER, Public Journalism funded by NZ on Air