Photos By Armando Gallardo, Words By Zeke Leeds
Should I have been surprised that the flying trapeze school of D.C. is located under a giant white tent instead of one of the large brick front factories that litter the landscape of the Navy Yard? A canvas roof is the natural settling for a trapeze, aerial hoops, and silk hanging fabric. There they have a familiarity, the inborn objects of the circus. A fixed structure would only turn them into something alien, completely unnatural. Here, the trapeze, even when vacant and motionless, has the kind of living presence of an empty stage. I can’t say exactly what magic tents are able to reveal the sublimity of a body moving through air, or how an aerial performance under such a settling becomes an innate extension of dance.
And before I could learn anything proper, before I got to try my own hand at these death-defying stunts, I had to sign my life away, for insurance purposes of course. Had I known the shame I was about to endure, of the disorientating embarrassment of upside down failure, would I still have signed? Definitely. Every kid at some point dreams of running away to join the circus, and it wasn’t lost on me that this might be my one and only chance to live out the fantasy. I was also there to talk about Pippin.
The Pippin people had arranged three stations where we, the press, would view a demonstration of a different aerial stunt/skill, have time to conduct an interview with one of the performers, and a get a chance to try it out ourselves—finally, living the dream. Beginning with the silk rope, this is where my problems also began, where my once-upon-a-time dream was exposed as a farce. Mirela Roche, a five-time Polish champion in acrobatics, was my instructor. But first she demonstrated, moving her body with remarkable fluidity and ease through an intricate silk routine. Her legs moved like helicopters spinning the fabric in grand waves, the playful fabric moving in and out. Climbing up higher and higher as she went along, finally letting her body drop down, her head careening quickly to the floor, she caught herself inches from the ground.
“How long did it take you not to feel disoriented up there?” I asked her. To which Mirela gave a puzzled expression as if I’d asked how she managed to breathe while she walked.
“I think at this point its second nature.” The answer so obvious—there’s no difference between upside down and right side up, after all that time, it all the same. I wondered whether this heighten kinetic sense counted as a superpower. Just not quite flying. To meet someone with talent like this is one of the most intriguing prospects of the circus runaway fantasy.
Then it was my turn.
We began by trying to get me to move up the fabric. Swinging the fabric around my leg, Mirela coached me, “Now clamp it between both feet and pull yourself up keeping your body in the same position.” I tried, but the bulkiness of my appendages, and my own clumsiness, fought against the dense, free-floating fabric.
When Mirela had been performing there was no separation between her long limps and the ropes of fabric, both were controlled at a whim, like dance partners driven by a shared purpose. Meanwhile, the most basic of maneuvers left me flailing around and exhausted.
“Perhaps I’ll have more luck with that hoop thing.” I told Armando, the photographer, as we walked under the trapeze net to the next station. I could see he had his doubts.
Kelsey Jamieson waited for us, looking out from the corners of blue eyes with a hint of curious intrigue after having witness my earlier struggles with the silk rope. Kelsey had started her career, she told me, as a dancer, then later, like Mirela, joined the circus. Through this transition she had gained 30 pounds of muscle in a matter of months. On the playbill, her credits read: “Cirque du Soleil, 7 doigts de la main, Cirque Eloize. Love to Preston, my family, and Witness Protection for this awesome life.”
Performing her routine with the same effortlessness I’d just seen from Mirela, the aerial hoop framed her inside its circle; her movements were less a dance than a show, a sequence of still photos strung together. After every action a momentary pause that left a bent arm or an outstretched calf hanging wildly in the air. Watching her, I felt that voyeuristic pleasure of witnessing a body without secondary concerns, totally entrenched in the finesse of its own machinery.
“Have you ever done a handstand before?” she asked when it was my turn to give the aerial hoop a try.
“As a human?”
“No, as a dog.”
“I have but only with my feet against a wall.” She stood watching and laughing as I struggled to pull my body up onto the hoop. And she wasn’t the only one watching—everyone’s eyes were now on the hovering hoop and me.
“Now hold on with your strong hand, make your legs straight, and let your body fall to the side.”
“Do what? Let myself fall?” I said, so scared that I might fall the five feet to the soft gym mat below. It was more than clear to me now that I was not cut out for a high wire life. I did, though, finally get the move down, and was so overjoyed I pumped my fist like Tiger Woods after making a clutch birdie.
Later, I’d get to relive my moment of glory when Sasha Allen, the leading player in Pippin, showed me the video she’d taken of the whole jerky, cumbersome affair. Unlike Mirela and Kelsey, it turns out she had to learn her aerial skills on the job, and this meant she could sympathize with me, although she no doubt enjoyed seeing me flop about.
“My background is mostly singing, not gymnastics.” She told me.
“How long did it take you to get comfortable with it?”
“It was scary at first, but you know that. (laughs) You have to be pretty physically comfortable with yourself—your body. So like dancing, that helped.”
“But your not upside down.”
“It’s still about body awareness.”
“And it requires a kinetic energy that you don’t get in everyday life.”
“Yes, and there’s a strength that you need to have, which you think you have, but you really don’t.
“What do you find exciting about this part of the show?”
“My arm strength has changed tremendously. My back has changed, just the body transformation from having to hold your body up. It’s a new skill.”
“Was that something that attracted you to the role?
“No, that’s what scared me.”
“A challenge to be faced.”
“I said, if I can do this I can do anything.” She said, and then pointed our attention over to Kelsey and Mike. “Look at how they have to stretch each other” she said, as Armando and me sat in amazement while they did their regular stretches, pulling and spreading limbs as if their entire bodies were made of cartilage.
“Kelsey said she does a trick on stage where she lands back-to-back with someone.”
“She gets thrown across the stage and lands on her husband’s back. He was also in the circus.” And I would indeed see this later at the show. See her body flung up in the air, twisting itself around to stick the landing, the two in colorful leotards fitting perfectly together, then rushing away again off stage. And all of it happening in the background, so easily lost in the chaos of the constructed world of the circus. All of that hard work, discipline, craftsmen-like devotion, for a few seconds all present on display, and if you weren’t paying close attention you’d miss it. This is the secret underlying the circus, which becomes abundantly clear against the backdrop of a bleached tent, when the costumes and exaggerated make-up are removed, before everything becomes drenched in the bedazzled spectacle of the carnival, that to perform on this stage takes a lifetime of deadly serious training and skill. Take that as a warning to you, runaways, not as easy as it looks.