One December day at the International Scene of Contemporary Dance in Stockholm, Sweden, a man named Olle, one of the best air acrobats in the world, did a triple-somersault jump. It was a jump like hundreds of others he'd done before, but this time was different.
He fell on his head.
"Within that second I heard my neck break. A moment devoid of time," Olle writes. "The sound of the neck break echoed in my head, itself an endless, dark, spherical space in which I was hovering weightlessly."
Olle crushed several cervical vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the neck down. The doctors couldn't say how much brain functioning he'd regain, or even whether he would walk again. One thing was sure: He'd never jump again.
It's been 10 years since then. Olle has miraculously recovered. Many people like him would count their blessings, move to a quiet town and take up gardening. But in what's being dubbed "the most irresponsible circus performance ever," Olle is gearing up to repeat the same jump, with just one difference. This time, he'll do it from up to 12,000 feet in the sky.
The potentially suicidal stunt is brought to you by the same team that, in 2012, dropped free-speech teddy bears from an unlicensed airplane in Belarus airspace—an act that got people arrested and a bunch of others fired, including two generals, air defense and heads of the Belarus border guard, who all failed to intercept the plane.
The guy who led that caper was Tomas Mazetti of Studio Total, who has since created his own agency, Mazetti, dedicated to creating "beautiful sponsored performances," according to Mazetti graphic designer Helena Melander.
Sponsored by bicycle café Wheelys and produced by Radical Circus, Mazetti and Sweden's Cirkus Cirkör, the so-called "Broken Neck Jump" is Olle's comeback show. The jump will take place on a platform hanging from a hot air balloon, over Berlin at an as-yet-undefined time. For every Facebook share the story gets, Olle will jump one foot higher.
The current count is 1,030 feet, and the jump's final height will be determined by the height of the clouds on the chosen day. The final drop could be anywhere between 4,000 and 12,000 feet. "The jump will be made this autumn, as soon as the weather allows and we're completely done with the technical preparations," says co-founder Sara de Vylder of Radical Circus.
"I've been going through this a thousand times in my head," Olle tells us in the video. "It always ends the same way: That I crash. This time I have to change that."
Why would he attempt something that even his doctor calls unadvisable? For Olle, it's a tribute, "dedicated to all circus artists who landed three millimeters further to the left than me and are no longer with us."
But the goal is loftier still. The circus used to be a highly anticipated community event, second only to Christmas, according to Tim Tegge, himself a modern circus performer. But let's face it: The circus is over. It was big from about 1890 to 1965, after which it sputtered and began dying out. Today it's little more than the stuff of nostalgia, fodder for another Ryan Murphy show, or something to watch half-heartedly while waiting for the Ferris wheel line to shorten.
The groups involved in the Broken Neck Jump hope to "re-establish the circus as the place where society laughs, cries and battles with the hardest questions of life and death. The place of mystery and dreams. We have therefore established 10 principles to guide us in our desire to again circusify the world."
You can read the Radical Circus Manifesto on the website. Its first principle? "Circus is everything." In the meantime, share Olle's comeback tale and keep your eyes peeled on the sky over Berlin. If he makes it, it'll be a miracle. But that's what the circus is all about.
"A circus artist is always testing limits," says de Vylder. "Most circus artists define limits by what they have tested. Not Olle. Also, there is a deep personal importance for him to this—to moving into a new life after the accident."