“One of my Romanian teachers says, ‘People in the circus are way more crazy than other people, and the people who go up in the air are the craziest of all,'” reports Lisa Clayton, hula-hoop artist, ring mistress and aerialist with local act Surreal Sirkus.
But even a lifetime of experience cannot ensure safety.
“A lot of people who fall and kill themselves have [been aerialists] since they were small,” reveals Clayton. “They get familiar with it, and it catches up to them.
“It happens all the time,” she adds with a sigh.
As a matter of fact, it happened on May 22 in St. Paul, Minn. There, Dessi Espana went to work, just like she did every other night. But the 32-year-old mother of two was nothing so pedestrian as, say, an ER nurse or a New York City cab driver — she was an aerialist with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, whose Hometown Edition branch arrives in Asheville this week.
The circus arts were a career long embraced by Espana’s Eastern-European family. Her specialty was the Chiffon Act, a ballet trick she performed 30 feet off the ground suspended by two long sheaths of fabric. She’d done it so many times that a safety harness seemed silly. Unfortunately, the seasoned performer lost her grip as she soared above the audience that Saturday night, and she plummeted to her death.
“I’ve not worked at heights over a couple of meters,” Clayton says, “[but] many people work at five meters. I’ve fallen and hurt myself, but not too seriously.”
Clayton is a professional circus performer who’s also affiliated with the Accidental Circus, Zippo’s Festival Circus in England, and the Las Vegas Circus Variety Show — a group she’ll tour with for six months in China. And so it’s surprising to hear her say, “I’m so concerned with safety.”
But fire dancer Willow Fotorny, of local acts Transform Venus and Djinntana, also professes a certain fondness for precautionary measures.
“I’ve been burned before, but nothing serious,” she admits. “I caught a dreadlock on fire once. I’m [now] one of the biggest safety Nazis I know — the fire knows I respect it.”
For Fotorny, the sheer power of the blaze keeps her humble in her art, which she began studying six years ago with the Austin, Texas, group Tantien. “When I first started, I practiced for four months without lighting up. I wanted to feel secure — I definitely had some fear. When I finally did [use fire], what was most noticeable was the sound. It was so loud.”
And at a time when animal-cruelty charges leveled against the giant corporate circuses are increasingly commonplace, the role of the acrobat is beginning to carry fresh weight. Ringling Bros. Producer Kenneth Feld released this tidy sound bite: “In these days of video games, DVDs, computer chats and hundreds of channels on TV, live entertainment is more than just an escape from the humdrum, it’s a chance for a family to spend some quality time together.”
But Fotorny offers her own take on the traveling entertainment’s appeal: “It’s all about getting together and celebrating people’s weird talents. We’re all freaks.”
Adds Clayton: “I tend to think of it as celebrating the beauty of human potential — what humans are capable of when they dedicate themselves to these incredible feats, and then put them into a beautiful setting. That’s what circus is to me.”
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Hometown Edition Circus rolls into the Asheville Civic Center Wednesday, June 9, through Sunday, June 13, with 7:30 p.m. shows Wednesday through Saturday, plus several matinee performances: Friday at 4 p.m.; Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. Tickets run $7-18. For more information, call 259-5544; for tickets, call 251-5505. (Also: Djinntana will perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 12, as part of the River District Studio Stroll’s Art Hafla at Future of Tradition Center for Folkloric Arts; see this week’s Smart Bets.)