IMAGINE being able to bend over backwards . . . literally. To have the suppleness to do just that and then look through your own legs. Impossible? Not if you are chilled-out New Yorker Jonathan Nosan.
Nosan is just one of the stars of Limbo, the centre-piece of Edinburgh’s Christmas 2013 attractions in St Andrew Square Gardens, until 4 January.
Limbo is best described as a sexy, sassy, modern-day freak show. Dangerous and edgy, it is a showcase of death-defying stunts delivered by a troupe of extreme artistes, each capable of shocking, wowing and then cajoling audiences’ jaws back up off the floor.
Take fire-eater and sword-swallower Heather Holliday, for example - extreme doesn’t begin to cover her act.
Or Danik Abishev, one of the most breathtaking balancing acts you will ever see - as he swings over the heads of the audience you dare not breathe.
Then there’s dancer Hilton Denis, who does so much more than dance, and former Cirque Du Soleil circus performer Mikael Bres.
Just another four of the nine star turns, all perform to a hypnotic experimental sound track, courtesy of Sxip Shirey and his vagabond band.
Set in the splendid grandeur of the Paradiso Spiegeltent, Limbo combines cabaret with circus skills, music and dance to create an evening of off-the-wall entertainment, not least of which is Nosan. To say he is in his element is an understatement.
“I get to play the trumpet, I get to do illusions, I get to contort, I get to work in the air, I get to be funny, I get to be weird. It is my dream job,” smiles the American.
Nosan began performing at the age of 15, entertaining at kids’ birthday parties by doing magic, juggling and making balloon animals.
He later worked in Sea World Amusement Park, San Diego, until he was side-tracked by the promise of an academic career.
“I lived in Kyoto for three years. I majored in Japanese language and history and went there to do a PhD in Design of Sacred Space of New Religious Movements.
“So that was the plan; do my PhD and then have a tenure somewhere in a nice academic ivory tower.”
That plan slowly disintegrated as Nosan started seeing more and more theatre. Then he discovered butoh, a Japanese performance style that involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics and extreme or absurd environments.
“When I saw butoh it just pulled me in,” he says, “The brash expressiveness and sub-human nature of it attracted me. That’s where it all started.
“I had always done juggling, magic and played the trumpet, they were my passions through my teenage years, but through butoh I learned how to move and breathe.
“Then, in 1994, when my grant finished, Cirque Du Soleil just happened to be playing in Tokyo. They were still quite new at the time and I went to see the show. That was when I decided that was what I had to do. It was a major life change.”
In his early 20s at the time, Nosan’s desire to become a contortionist involved a six year intensive training programme.
He recalls that at 22 he couldn’t even touch his toes - by 24, he could.
“To become a contortionist I did two years of butoh training, a year of physical theatre training and then three years of contortion training with a master Chinese trainer,” he says. “To begin with, though, I had actually started doing very bad yoga, from a book, on my own. I also got into macrobiotics. I found different ways of challenging and experimenting with the body; trying to find out how minimal I could live... how minimal I could eat... different ways of pushing myself.”
After four years training Nosan could not just touch his toes but also bend over backwards, today he can do that and continue bending until he is peering at you through his legs. It’s a strangely disturbing sight, and one which opens Limbo.
“I trained five or six days a week, six hours a day, to be able to do that,” he says. “The first circus performance I did was actually aerial work on the trapeze.
“The first on-stage contortion came later and was nerve-wracking. It’s such a hard thing to perform. It’s all hard to perform, but contortion is just so.... hard,” he laughs, failing to find a word descriptive enough to emphasise the extreme nature of what he does.
“And, you have to make it look effortless,” he adds.
Nosan also gets to return to his first love in Limbo, performing a couple of mind-boggling illusions, which he can’t wait to show off to Capital audiences.
“It feels like an amazing, mystical city,” he says, having paid Edinburgh a flying visit earlier this year to promote the show.
As for Limbo, he describes it as “a show with a soul and a real honesty that shines through.”
“It’s really all credit to Scott Maidment, the director,” he says. “I call him a curator of amazing human beings. He has selected this collection of nine humans from around the world, got them together in a room, and put together this amazing show.”
Discover just how amazing for yourself, from Saturday.
Limbo, St Andrew Square Gardens, Saturday-4 January, various times, £10-£25, 0844-573 8455