FLEXIBLE: The life of a professional contortionist


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Photography by Sarah Race / Art Direction by Robyn Humphreys

Photography by Sarah Race / Art Direction by Robyn Humphreys

We meet to talk at a Thai restaurant in Hastings Sunrise that is playing traditional French accordion tunes. Von Parker carries himself with the grace and self-awareness of a ballerina but is down-to-earth at the same time. “I don’t look like a contortionist,” he declares frankly. “Typically contortionists in the past have been small, slender, Asian females…and here’s me, a kind of bulkier, bigger black guy out there on stage, completely painted in a really strange costume. But I let my body work for itself. People are usually really blown away.”

It’s true that, despite his “unconventional appearance,” Vixen Von Flex has had no trouble infiltrating Vancouver’s circus and burlesque scenes. You can find him performing at cabaret shows in Gastown and at the Rio Theatre’s burlesque shows. His unique talents have also taken him to Las Vegas and to perform with Cirque du Soleil.

Though he’s only 20, when reminiscing about having stage fright as a new performer, Vixen Von Flex speaks in the tone of a much older, wiser man. This is fair, given that 20 is pretty old in contortionist years, as the average age of a performer is more like 16. Vixen Von Flex only started training professionally at 15—but he had been practicing on his own for years before that, having decided at an early age that contortionism was the life he wanted to live.

“When I told my mom I wanted to do this, she told me if I was serious and I could find a school on the mainland and get myself an audition, she would support me,” he says. As soon as he secured an audition at Westcoast Contortion & Acrobatics in Langley, Vixen Von Flex and his mother left Vancouver Island in pursuit of the circus. Though the classes and equipment were expensive, especially for a single mom, it wasn’t long before Von Parker secured his first paying gig at the PNE. “I did that a lot as a child and of course I really loved it back then,” he says. “But [now] I’m nasty and old and I don’t want to be at the PNE anymore.” 

Vixen Von Flex prefers working with Vancouver’s burlesque community now that he is more grown up. “[Burlesque has] helped me really up my game in terms of costumes and choreography,” he explains. “I’m recreating myself every week or every two weeks and that’s really refreshing, whereas in the circus world it was always a different audience so I could be doing the same routine for two or three years.”

As much as his talent has grown over time, his enthusiasm for theatrics and costumes has expanded even more, distinguishing him from other contortionists on the scene. “I’ve always been a really big fan of Jeffree Star’s work. He’s a makeup artist and a singer,” says Vixen Von Flex. “For me, he was really the start of my journey of realizing I could do whatever I wanted to do, because he’s such an outlandish and out-there character.”

As a performer, Vixen Von Flex’s look is as flexible as his body; some of his characters include a Cheshire Cat and a robot in a purple body cage. He cites makeup and contortion as equal components of his performances, confessing that he hates to perform without makeup and coining the phrase “makeup courage.” He’s even learning to sew his own costumes. “I really like almost not looking like myself,” he says. “I’m definitely comfortable with the person that I am, but I feel like I’m a much more grand and exciting performer when I’m interesting to look at as well. [Performing without makeup] is very intimate, and you’re putting a lot of yourself out there. It can be draining. I like the anonymity of not being myself, which gives me the freedom to really break free and do the things that I really want to or try new things.”

Besides his makeup, however, Vixen Von Flex has no backstage good-luck rituals. In fact, when asked about it, it’s as if the thought of luck has never even crossed his mind. “I’m normally rushing around trying to get my makeup done and I’m completely scatterbrained until the second I’m on stage,” he laughs.

Though what Vixen Von Flex does during performances can only be classified as “adventurous,” he is anything but a risk-taker off stage. When I ask him if contortionists think about their bodies differently than other people, I expect a poetic reply concerning the truly amazing design of the human form. Instead, he tells me that he constantly worries about car accidents. “I think a lot of young people do things in life that I wouldn’t do just because I’m so worried about my body,” he explains. “I feel like teenagers are so excited about getting their licence, but I’ve stayed away from that because I’ve had some contortionist friends in the past who have gotten into car accidents and their backs are toast and they’re not able to do what they love to do, and I would just die if I had to give that up.” 

The fear of injury follows Vixen Von Flex on stage. Ever since an over-rotation on a back flip at the International Contortion Convention in 2009, he has had a hard time sitting on his knees. Compared to other contortionists, however, Vixen Von Flex has been lucky. At the same convention, he met a young girl who had been improperly and forcefully trained by her coach. Her spine wasn’t strong enough to hold her up, so she couldn’t stop fidgeting and wiggling offstage. Vixen Von Flex says the haunting sight now informs his own coaching practice. “There are a lot of coaches who have never been contortionists,” he says. “I personally don’t believe you should be training people in such a fine skill if you’ve never done it yourself. You need to have done this to know how it feels and feel what’s right and what’s not right.

Vixen Von Flex’s bold devotion to his craft comes, in part, from his own “lost year”—at 17, he escaped a messy relationship in Vancouver only to find himself in Toronto, underage and unemployable. “I wasn’t performing, I didn’t know anyone, and I got really sick,” he recalls. “As much as it’s a job, it’s also a creative output for me. I feel like I was really sick when I wasn’t dancing. When I moved there I kind of gave up on contortion, but I discovered I could never work a conventional office job or a factory job, either.”

A year later, he returned to Vancouver with a renewed passion for his art. Besides performing, he also coaches kids at the Vancouver Academy of Dance and adults at the Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society. Though it’s certainly easier to become a contortionist when you’re younger, he sees no reason why an adult of any age could not learn the craft. Somewhat breezily, he says, “I would say contortionism is for everyone physically, but mentally I would say it’s not for everyone. You need to be really willing to put the work into it.” 

That he thinks about contortion as an exercise in mental strength rather than physical strength is what makes Vixen Von Flex so endearing. Caught between the cynicism of his industry and the innocence of his youth, here is a person who truly believes you can do anything you put your mind to.

 This piece was first published in 2015 for Issue No. 19: Movement.
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