When he was 22—old enough to know better— Anton Von Ostendorf ran away with the circus.
A gymnast, ballet dancer, and platform diver in his youth, Von Ostendorf was a stuntman at Universal Studios in Florida when he discovered the flying trapeze. It was like a key turning in a lock.
“It was a magical moment. I just, somehow, deep down—on a DNA level—knew that’s what I was supposed to be doing. And I just did it. And I did it really well.”
For 15 years, Von Ostendorf traveled the world on a trapeze, flying his way across Europe, first with famous families like the Farfans, the Gaonas and the Riveras, and then, for seven years, with his own troupe, The Bull Dancers.
Seven months ago, he moved back to Tulsa, bringing with him his wife, Jennifer Paxton, their two young sons and—he hopes—the circus. Von Ostendorf, now 36, was born Anton Perigo—his family and a few friends call him Tony—but legally changed his name to Von Ostendorf, which was his mother’s maiden name, at 18.
“I just felt a more familial connection to that name, especially when I was 18 years old.”
And, he admits, it worked out nicely as a stage name during his tenure in the circus.
He first met Paxton on the road and brought her back to Tulsa with him. He had opened a trapeze school, Evolution Flying Trapeze, on the west bank of the Arkansas River, near the 21st Street bridge, where he taught locals and trained Paxton. When he got a call to return to the road, she packed her bags too.
They traveled together for seven years, getting married along the way. Their oldest son, Baron, was born in Paris two and a half years ago. In March of last year, when they discovered Paxton was pregnant again— another boy, named Paxton, who’s six months old now—they made the decision to move back home.
But neither of them could imagine themselves working desk jobs in Tulsa.
“It would be silly of me to just negate the last 15 years of my life,” Von Ostendorf said. “It was so much time and energy spent, it’d be a waste.”
“Heart-stopping” isn’t just a phrase made up by some marketing mastermind to sell circus tickets. Watching Ostendorf and pals fly and tumble through the air—so freely it almost appears haphazard—is enough to sink your stomach to your toes and stop the air from filling your lungs.
One flyer flings his body from the bar, flipping knees over ears. Then five or six pop into motion, hurtling through open space, speeding past each other with just inches of air between them, the individuals losing identity as the unit emerges. It’s a dance of limb, rope and sky, contained—just barely—by the nylon tent that hovers around them. Their feet and fingers brush its ceiling, as if in rebellion against its authority.
There are about 30 touring circuses in the U.S., including Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey, and Cirque du Soleil. There are 300 in France alone.
“The circus performers in Europe are really well received,” Von Ostendorf said. “They’re considered artists. You get government funding. You’re really considered a national treasure. Over here, you tell people you’re in the circus, and they call you a carney. It’s a big joke.”
Von Ostendorf and Paxton, through their youth circus, hope to prove to Tulsans that it’s anything but.
“I think the cultural elite of Tulsa know that, and to be honest, those are the people who might possibly give us some funding,” Von Ostendorf said, alluding to his trapeze program for youth. “So I don’t think we need to convince them; it’s convincing the laymen that we’re not going to steal their kids in the night.” Von Ostendorf ’s own children already have a few acrobatic stunts in their young repertoire, and they demonstrate excitedly to visitors.
Baron says, “This is Falcon.” He leaps into position, sits on his dad’s foot, and rests his spine against Anton’s tibia. Anton gently bounces his leg three times, then with a quick “Hep!,” swings Baron over his head. The 2-year-old somersaults and then lands, standing, on his dad’s shoulders.
Then it’s Paxton’s turn. Anton holds both of the baby’s feet in his left hand, and Paxton, who isn’t really old enough to stand yet, does, his attention held by his mother’s smiling face and words of encouragement. When his knees finally buckle, after about seven seconds, his dad catches him easily and then, a moment later, up he goes again.
“This is our life,” Paxton said.