The actress Erdenechimeg Chimgee Haltarhuu, who goes by Chimgee, sits inside the big top at the Circus Juventas school in St. Paul, watching boys on trapezes and girls dangling from blue silks—her students. But her eyes reflect a long-ago tragedy. She grew up in Mongolia, where her father regularly beat her mother. At 16, she joined a circus, hoping for escape. Then she married a fellow performer. “He was a strong gymnast,” she says, “and when he beat me, I’d fly way back. If I said the word divorce, he’d beat me more.” Eventually, he broke her jaw and teeth.
This month, after Circus Juventas begins its summer show, Sawdust, Chimgee will travel to Mongolia to perform with her small family troupe, Circus Manduhai. But it won’t be strictly entertainment. She hopes to share her story with the country’s nomadic tribes, in which an estimated one in three women is abused.
The circus eventually was Chimgee’s escape. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had come calling, and Chimgee refused to travel to America without her 5-year-old son, knowing she never intended to return. “They said no,” she recalls. “But I was an important person in the act. There were six strong guys and they would throw me in the air to do somersaults. I thought, ‘I’m the smallest. If I’m not going, who are they going to throw?’” Ringling relented, and Chimgee and her son lived on a circus train for five years. She became a U.S. citizen in 2004.
Pointing to her heart as tears pool in her eyes, she says, “I hurt, and I kept it here for many years.” Now 45, her jaw is healing, and her mouth gleams with new teeth. Her heart is mending, too—a result of her activism. “I’m not a strong, powerful woman, but I can do a little bit to change girls’ and women’s lives,” she says. “I want to tell them my story. And I want to tell them they can leave.” And with that, she heads to the trapeze to coach her 5-year-old students in the arts of balance, strength, and trust.
5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT CHIMGEE
1. Her new husband, Eron Woods, is a jazz drummer. They had been friends for 10 years.
2. Chimgee was performing with the Mongolian State Circus when she was discovered.
3. With Circus Manduhai, she juggles, performs handstands, and works the Hula-Hoop.
4. She borrowed from Ringling to buy dentures. She’s spent $45,000 on surgery.
5. Her son will attend St. Catherine University for graduate school in physical therapy.