Christian Stoinev has no idea what led him to try balancing his 180-pound body upside down, supported only by a single finger stuck inside a wine bottle.
But it’s the kind of move that is bringing this young hand-balancer national attention from his initial audition on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” which earned him a standing ovation from the judges and the audience.
Winning the show would mean a $1 million prize and a headlining show in Las Vegas for the fifth generation circus performer.
But before he returns for another audition round on either July 22 or 23 (live auditions begin July 29), he’s performing that trick and several others as one of the stars of Circus Sarasota’s Summer Circus Spectacular 2014 at the Historic Asolo Theater, running through Aug. 2. (Read our review.)
The 22-year-old Stoinev said he recalls seeing “a picture in a museum” of a circus artist performing the one-finger trick. “The picture didn’t have it with a bottle. I don’t even remember what it was.”
That routine is just one of several demonstrations of strength, agility and balance that he puts to use in each performance.
He’ll need a wide variety of skills to advance on “America’s Got Talent,” where impressive acts have faltered because they didn’t have enough material for an entire show.
“He has a pretty broad skill level,” said Marcus Alouan, the director of the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University, the oldest collegiate circus program in the country. Stoinev graduated in the spring.
“I think he did an excellent job of showing enough of his talent and skills to get people excited and behind him, but he has quite a bit left to show them,” Alouan said.
Sarasota audiences already can see his special weapon, his 11-year-old Chihuahua named Scooby, who is surely going to make an appearance on “America’s Got Talent.” (But don’t ask him about it. He’s prohibited from talking about taped auditions, and even the organizers of Circus Sarasota didn’t know he was on the show until his audition aired.)
In his act, Scooby scampers all over Stoinev’s body while he performs a series of balancing moves. He bends his body forward, backward and does handstands to Scooby’s delight.
Scooby elevates Stoinev’s routines to another level, said Circus Sarasota founder Pedro Reis. “The audiences just love him and really respond to Scooby,” he said.
Scooby’s involvement happened naturally beginning when Stoinev was younger. “I’d be watching TV and I’d roll over and he’d walk on me,” he recalled. “We started playing with it and once it evolved into an act, more tricks came out of it. He kind of made the act himself. It’s not like we got the dog and said this is what we’re going to do.”
Stoinev has two younger dogs — Percy and Prince — who have been training to fill in when Scooby needs a break.
But the focus is always on fun, said Ivan Stoinev, Christian’s Bulgarian-born acrobat father.
“In order to have it done right in circus, you have to treat it as fun, but you also have to take it serious,” Ivan Stoinev said. “That’s how we discovered the talent of the dog and started teaching him tricks.”
Christian Stoinev said it can take months or years to develop his own strength tricks and make them look effortless.
Without sounding boastful, he acknowledges that a routine in which he switches hands on a balancing pole took a year “not even to perfect, just to be able to do it eight out of 10 times. And that’s a trick that takes up just 10 seconds of my act.”
Circus is part of Stoinev’s blood. Ivan Stoinev was the first in his family to join the circus. His wife, aerialist Maritza Atayde, is the fourth generation of the family that started Circo Atayde Hermano, Mexico’s largest and oldest circus, which recently marked its 125th anniversary.
Christian was born in Sarasota while his parents were on winter break from touring with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. But the family didn’t stay long, moving to Mexico until he was 7.
Then, they joined the Big Apple Circus, where they stayed for 10 years. His father became performance director and his mother had an administrative job. They also were traveling with their now 14-year-old son, Christopher, a juggler.
Christian got started performing in his father’s act when he was six, and later started working on his own routines, including hand balancing.
While touring with the Big Apple Circus, the family was included in the three-part PBS documentary “Circus,” which followed the troupe for a year.
In that film, Christian talked about wanting a more normal life. His parents insisted on college.
Growing up, he studied in the traveling schoolhouse with the Big Apple Circus, but he was often the only person his age. “So college was something I looked forward to, being around people my age,” he said.
He had initially planned to avoid circus work, but the Gamma Phi Circus program “totally changed my life,” he said.
He was no longer performing for just audiences, but for his fellow students, and cheering as friends learned new skills.
Gamma Phi is an extracurricular activity on campus, and Alouan said it trains students for more than circus tricks.
“My goal as director is to help these students become the best citizens they can be. Whatever they choose to do, my hope is that the skills they learn in circus acts will be utilized throughout the rest of their life.”
In school, Stoinev majored in broadcast journalism, with a clear intention.
“I plan on using that degree,” he said, acknowledging that his body will only support his hand-balancing act for so long.
“My dream would be to work for ESPN,” he said as his eyes light up with excitement at the prospect. “I love to talk about sports. I would love to use my major and put it to good use.”
College also taught him the appeal of putting down roots rather than traveling from city to city. Ivan Stoinev said he joined the staff of Gamma Phi as assistant director during Christian’s senior year of college in part to allow their younger son to stay put for high school.
“I loved being in one place, knowing a neighborhood, having friends not just for one season of a show,” Christian said. “I want to find a home base where I can live and fly somewhere and do events for a month or two.”
Sarasota is a possibility for a home, as is Orlando. “I’m trying to figure out where to live,” he said.
Circus Sarasota Summer Circus Spectacular continues through Aug. 2 at the Historic Asolo Theater in the Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Rd., Sarasota. Tickets are $15, $12 for children 12 and young. For more information: 360-7399; ringling.org
See Christian Stoinev's audition on "America's Got Talent"