At the edge of Montreal's Saint-Michel neighborhood, a zone known for the diversity of its immigrant populations and street gangs, a relatively unremarkable office park perches on the edge of a landfill. The glassy facades of the three buildings are pleasantly unremarkable in the way that most office park buildings occupied by accountants, insurance agents and software developers are pleasantly unremarkable. The parking lots are filled with average cars.

This is all to say that a passerby hustling along Boulevard Saint-Michel hoping not to get mugged would probably never guess that this place is devoted to pushing the physical limits of the human body, making the impossible achievable through practice.

The buildings are the Ecole National De Cirque, the TOHU Cite Des Arts Du Cirque and the International Headquarters of Cirque du Soleil. They house, on any given day, what may well be the highest concentration of traditional circus skill in the world. Inside, men and women bend themselves into unlikely shapes, hoist each other high into the air and ride very, very, very small bicycles.

Wandering the halls of the Ecole National De Cirque -- unfortunately off limits to the general public -- is like walking the halls of that mutant prep school from the X-Men comic books. In one room, a group of 13-year-olds diligently read and answer questions. In the next room, two women roll around in metal wheels, spinning like quarters about to go heads up only to return to their rims again. Through one door, a clown does a silent, mesmerizing dance while laughing to himself.

It should be said that not all the rooms here are the same size. Some are classrooms, others are basically airplane hangers carpeted with pads and foam shape filled pools so aerialists can practice their most dangerous tricks on wires, corde lisse and aerial hoops.

The graduates of this academy of the unbelievable frequently go to work for their neighbors, Cirque Du Soleil. The Cirque building is a no more than 100 yards away and the demand for their particular skills is amplified by their obvious scarcity.

The place where travelers are most like to meet this community of performers is the TOHU center, which hosts regular performances and serves as a sort of liaison to the Saint-Michel Neighborhood, employing locals in entry-level jobs and handing out free tickets to its elaborate shows to local organizations.

During the day, TOHU is a quiet place. Performers chat in the dark, circular theater where they will perform come evening. This is not Barnum and Bailey's so their are no animals or goofs. Levity is injected during the gasps after performers attempt something truly terrifying. In the service of these attempts, everybody seems to be stretching pretty much all the time.

At night, the center fills as locals and plenty of paying customers arrive to view a presentation of ID, a West Side Story-inspired performance with a hip hop flavor. The first performers on stage dance, quite simply and quite well until one hoists the other above his head on one head and she decides to do a one-handed handstand on his extended palm. The trick is far from complicated because it isn't really a trick, it's just something humans can do. The audience claps enthusiastically because they didn't know that.

In many ways the whole performance is about educating the audience about what they could do if they put there mind to it. Here are a few things they could do: Stack chairs on top of one until they are twenty five feet up and standing on their hands, jump rope inside of an already swinging jump rope, bounce on a bike up a staircase then between somebody's legs, do sideways pull ups on a vertical pole, juggle seven bouncing balls against a glass wall to a rhythm, tap a shoulder with a foot curled over the back.

Of course the audience will never do any of these things because the audience doesn't work in this unremarkable office park on the edge of Montreal's worst neighborhood. To do something this extraordinary, you have to be willing to devote your life to practice. You have to go to work every day like everyone else.

Impossible isn't an amazing thing, its the same thing, again and again.

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  • Ecole National De Cirque

    Inside the school, which does function as a traditional school, future performers perfect tricks and learn new skills in a padded environment.

  • Ecole National De Cirque

  • Ecole National De Cirque

    Performers work with industry professionals who help them create new pieces and push themselves further.

  • Ecole National De Cirque

    The school doesn't exactly announce itself. It is as grey as the fall sky in Montreal.

  • Cirque Du Soleil

    Sure, something crazy is going on there, but from the outside it might as be Mutual of Omaha.

  • TOHU

    The one giveaway may be the round theater in the middle of the TOHU center.

  • TOHU

    The ceiling of TOHU's circus theater allows for almost anything possible to be strung up.

  • TOHU

    The round theater accommodates all sorts of acts even though most know gravitate towards a stage setup.

  • TOHU

    A circus tent set up outside TOHU.

  • TOHU

    A miniature circus tent set up outside the miniature model of TOHU.

  • Performances

    It is hard to know where to look sometimes.

  • Performances

    This sort of thing does not happen on the spur of the moment.

  • Performances

    It is a relief for the audience that the performers are buckled in as they seem determined to kill themselves.

  • Land

    The land behind the circus buildings was a quarry before it was a landfill and is now set to be a massive park.

  • Land

    A very massive park.