Eli Chornenki is the founder, owner and creative director of Zero Gravity Circus, a Toronto-based circus production company.
By the time he graduated from high school, Mr. Chornenki was already a performing juggler smitten with the circus. Now the 39-year-old produces custom entertainment featuring acrobats, aerialists, fire eaters and stilt walkers for everything from marketing launches, corporate events and fundraising galas to private backyard parties.
Leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Zero Gravity toured Canada as part of the Olympic Torch Relay, performing 180 shows for Coca-Cola in front of more than two million people, and it currently partners with Harbourfront Centre to produce the annual Toronto International Circus Festival. So how does a 14-year-old Ukrainian boy from Winnipeg go from street performer to owning the show?
Q: How did the circus become your career?
A: I learned to juggle as a teenager from Canadian musician Valdy at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. It was fun, so I partnered with my friend Jeff Krahn to create a show doing acrobatics, comedy and juggling. We saw some guys doing it professionally and thought ‘we could do that,’ so we taught ourselves some cool, difficult tricks and started performing. By the time I was 20, I was working full time, and by 25, I was making a really good living at it, travelling all over the world. That’s been my full-time occupation right from the get-go. I was a pretty hard-core street performer in the beginning but later worked more in circuses and cabarets. There are festivals all over the world that hire people like me.
Q: When did you stop performing and start running the show?
A: I had the concept of running this company early on and got it rolling in 1996, while I was still performing. Once I stopped juggling, I moved to Toronto in 2000, and started the Toronto International Circus Festival within the first two years I was here. We’re coming into our 10th year and are now partners with Harbourfront Centre. It’s a free festival that attracts about 30,000 people over three days.
Q: Does Harbourfront pay you?
A: We don’t get paid to do the festival. Harbourfront Centre is our co-producer but it’s a not-for-profit venture.
Q: Why do shows for free?
A: It gets me recognition on the international circus stage, so when I’m talking to my international clients, they know me as a circus producer who does a successful event. There aren’t a lot of circus festivals in North America – we’re the first and longest running. It also creates another source of revenue for performers. Even though Zero Gravity Circus is a for-profit company, part of our mandate is to funnel as much money as possible into the circus community because a strong community of artists helps us develop better products for sale. We also get lots of attention from the press, which drives people toward our websites and sells shows for me.
Q: How do you make money?
A: Zero Gravity’s revenue comes from corporate and private events, product launches, television and film. Basically, we’re a specialized circus boutique production company. What we’re good at and known for are one-off programs. Our client list includes everybody from the major soft drink and beer companies to financial and arts institutions. We’ve produced huge shows for the City of Toronto, the National Capital Commission in Ottawa, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and did a massive fundraiser for the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where we had 65 performers throughout the gallery.
Q: Where did you learn how to produce shows?
A: Most of what I know is from the street. You learn a lot about people working on the street. People can walk away. They haven’t bought a ticket to your show so they can leave in the middle if you’re not great. I learned to create a really quality product that people were willing to pay for even though they didn’t have to, and I translated that into what we do now.