This Cirque du Soleil Acrobat Defies Gravity In Latest Stunt

This Cirque du Soleil Acrobat

Defies Gravity In Latest Stunt

Cirque du Soleil’s LUZIA spins to life under the big top in a vibrant burst of color, a shimmering rush of rain. Now playing in the nation’s capital, the show is a love letter to the magical realism of Mexican legend and lore. A giant disk glimmers over the stage, representing the sun, moon and Aztec calendar. A butterfly races through a field of marigolds, inviting us to open our eyes and awaken our imaginations. Acrobat Kelly McDonald takes us with her behind the scenes into the enchanting world of LUZIA. 

"I was lucky to be selected for the touring show LUZIA, but also for a new creation, which is a process I’ve always wanted to take part in as you get to influence and help create an act from scratch.", Kelly McDonald (Photo Courtesy, Matt Beard)

I fell in love with performing – the feeling of transmitting emotions through movement and acrobatics is difficult to explain; it’s difficult to believe that this is a job.”

-Kelly McDonald

How did you come to be a part of Cirque du Soleil? Did you ever imagine you would end up in the circus?

Growing up, I never thought I would be a stage performer. My passion was gymnastics; I trained, competed and focused all my energy on the sport all the way through the end of college. After graduating and stopping my competing career, a friend invited me to audition for an acrobatics show in Las Vegas. 

That’s when I realized there was a way to utilize the skill set I’ve perfected all these years in a different realm. I fell in love with performing – the feeling of transmitting emotions through movement and acrobatics is difficult to explain; it’s difficult to believe that this is a job. I love the fact I can adapt the skills from gymnastics to different apparatuses as well, which breaks the monotony of repetition. For example, I do Hand-to-Hand with partners, straps, trapeze, fly in the air with a harness, etc. After performing for eight years in Las Vegas and having grown a lot as a stage performer, I decided to audition for Cirque du Soleil, which I think is the best company in our industry, from the conditions to the shows they produce. I was lucky to be selected for the touring show LUZIA, but also for a new creation, which is a process I’ve always wanted to take part in as you get to influence and help create an act from scratch. You get to add a bit of yourself into the show.

You created and star in LUZIA’s Adagio act. What can you tell us about your act? How does it feel to have been part of the creative process of the show?

I helped create the Adagio act with my four partners, along with coaches and choreographers, to fit the vision the Director of LUZIA had for the scene. Adagio features three strong male performers who are tossing me around, making me flip in the air and catching me in very impressive ways. The act combines the circus technique of Hand-to-Hand with acrobatic gymnastics. The act is set in a smoky dance salon/bar reminiscent of the fifties’ era and has a surrealistic feel with half-animal/half-human characters surrounding, dancing and drinking around the main action. It was amazing to work with my partners to find a new acrobatic vocabulary that has never been seen before in a 4-people acrobatic act. We created and tried way more tricks than what is in the final act – that’s the fun of creation, you have to try many things in all directions to narrow it down to a final product that works. I’m happy that even once I decide to leave LUZIA, a part of the work we’ve accomplished together will keep touring with the show.

Can you walk us through a day in the life of a Cirque du Soleil performer? 

As the shows are at night, I get to sleep in in the morning. I like to cook breakfast at home before going for a run, a bicycle ride or go explore the city we are performing in. We have one mandatory act training per week to maintain the elements of the act, but I also like to get to the Big Top mid-afternoon to train other disciplines and do my own workout. Before the show, I will eat in our amazing kitchen at the Big Top, apply my makeup by myself which takes about 40 minutes, will warm-up and then do a 30-min training session with my partners. The show lasts about 2.5 hours – afterwards I will go home and cool down while watching movies and go to bed. Four days a week, we have two performances a day which means I will get to the Big Top earlier to be ready for the first show and will have two warm-up sessions.

"We are evoking emotions through movement and impressive images without any spoken language. Circus is universal, anyone from any cultural background and any age can relate to it", Kelly McDonald (Photo Courtesy, Matt Beard)
Given recent headlines, how do you feel about the risks faced by performers?

There is a risk factor in circus arts; that’s why audiences come see circus and get excited by watching other human beings pushing further the limits of their bodies and capacities. As a performer, we’ve trained years to build our skill set and work on our acts daily to make sure we are in full control and feel 100 percent confident in what we are doing. The environment at Cirque du Soleil is the best – we work with the best technicians, coaches, therapists and feel 100 percent safe and supported when we step on stage. Our objective as a group is to minimize the risk factor and control it as much as possible in a way that it still looks impressive to the audience.

The act combines the circus technique of Hand-to-Hand with acrobatic gymnastics. The act is set in a smoky dance salon/bar reminiscent of the fifties’ era and has a surrealistic feel with half-animal/half-human characters surrounding, dancing and drinking around the main action.

What appeals to you about the circus arts as a way to tell stories and inspire audiences?

We are evoking emotions through movement and impressive images without any spoken language. Circus is universal, anyone from any cultural background and any age can relate to it. It’s amazing to me that I can use the skills and tricks I’ve perfected my whole life to touch people deeply. Circus arts in the context of Cirque du Soleil become so visual and sensorial as well that I think it leaves a lasting impact on people – they will remember some of the powerful tricks and go back to the emotions they felt when thinking about them. Somehow, I think we bring people back to childhood as they sit in total awe in front of the acts we perform.

Cirque du Soleil’s LUZIA is on tour in Washington D.C. and stopping next in Boston, then on to Mexico. Tickets are available at cirquedusoleil.com/luzia.

Chrissy Horansky

Chrissy is a champion for the global advancement of women and girls, whose work has been featured in national and international outlets. She is the author of Girl Power in the Age of the Millennials: Essays on Women, Youth and Global Social Change. She believes in the magic of words to tap into emotion, change media narratives and inspire humanity forward.

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