It’s cold as a walk-in refrigerator at the Mongolian Circus School, housed in a once-proud edifice now on the verge of collapse with cracked walls, moldy ceilings and the stale smell of decades of cigarette smoke embedded into the venue’s wooden frame.

A group of teenage acrobats shrug off the frigid, fraying surroundings to practice leaping and somersaulting through the air, kicking up dust as they land, and enduring the bark of a gruff instructor needling them after each imperfection.

Outside on an unpaved driveway, a pair of girls in leotards, one age 11 and the other 13, tiptoe around puddles of muddy water to practice one of the most difficult and dangerous contortionist poses, the Marinelli bend. They bite a pad of leather attached to the end of a metal stand and use their jaws to help lift up their bodies. They muster enough strength to curl backward until their buttocks rest on the back of their heads and their legs stretch out in front of their faces like a scorpion’s tail.