High-flying artists

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June 20, 2011 // UPDATED 9:06 am - June 20, 2011
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch

Northeast’s Xelias Aerial Arts Studio takes students to new heights

Northeast is giving day campers a nontraditional boot camp this week — one that teaches circus stunts like trapeze and high wire.

Based in the Waterbury building, Xelias Aerial Arts Studio offers intense workouts on ropes that hang from the ceiling. Some are training for professional circus jobs. The youngest students are 3 years old. The oldest student, who spent a recent Wednesday night hanging upside down wrapped in lines of fabric, is 62.

“For people at an office all day, this is a fun outlet,” said founder Meg Elias-Emery.

When Elias-Emery opened her studio in 2001, the Waterbury building at 1121 Jackson St. NE hadn’t been renovated into the bright red landmark it is today. Students took classes next to a potato truck and a boat-building workshop. Elias-Emery used tarps to border off the studio. But rent was cheap, and she could warehouse all of her rigging there. Her sister, the Northeast artist Anne Elias, painted clouds on the walls and designed a cozy lobby.

Xelias teaches 250 students, 100 of them adults. During a recent class, a handful of students climbed up the tissu to the ceiling, and then suddenly dropped and spiraled downward, unraveling in the cloth until the ties stopped them a few feet from the ground.

“It’s so scary,” said Jeannie Modaff, who was inspired by her daughter’s friends to take a circus class. “But you start to train and get stronger. … It’s so much fun.”

Off to the circus

Elias-Emery figures she must have been fearful of the aerial tricks at some point in her life, but she can’t remember it.

“I just like the freedom of the feeling of being in the air,” she said.

She grew up in a family of nine children in Mendota Heights, and she ran off to San Francisco to join the circus at the age of 19 — with her parents’ blessing. Her background as a dancer and competitive gymnast helped her land a job as an acrobat-dancer with a small one-ring circus. When Ringling Bros. held auditions in town, she was hired on the spot. She sold all of her belongings and flew to Ohio to start a three-year job traveling the country.

She rode elephants and performed on the Spanish Web, which is a braided rope that hangs from the ceiling and allows performers to spin and climb. She met her husband, Sean Emery, in the circus.

“I married the clown,” she said.

Sean is a juggler and a clown skill coach who still performs 250 shows a year.

Elias-Emery has fond memories of her time with Ringling Bros. The circus was like a family. They bounced between each other’s train cars, made dinner and celebrated holidays together.

“It was really cool to see all of the United States by train,” she said. “You would really see the countryside.”

She remembers jumping the train in North Carolina near Sean’s hometown — the train was moving slow, and they had the day off — and they ended up in an Irish pub and called his mother. They were written up in the local paper that day.

“There was always that kind of craziness,” she said.

The circus wasn’t always glamorous, of course.

“In each town, one of your goals was to find a Laundromat, and you’d go do laundry,” she said. “You would get really great at cooking with a hot plate.”

After Ringling, she attended a small circus school in New York, where she practiced the trapeze, Roman Rings, cloud swing, wire-walking and juggling.

The worst fall of her career took place in New York at a nightclub act. She had been shopping for a wedding dress that day and arrived late at the club, with 20 minutes to prepare before going onstage.

“Everything wasn’t right,” she said. “I just wasn’t focused.”

She found herself falling head first and managed to rotate and land on her feet, shattering her heel and fracturing her back.

“Nowadays when you see Cirque du Soleil, they do these amazing things, but they’re all belted,” she said. “When I was doing circus, you didn’t really wear belts. You might wear a safety line, but I wasn’t wearing a safety line when this happened. … You don’t really think about it. It’s always the thrill.”

Elias-Emery and her husband continued to find circus jobs, and they worked cruise ships for years. She was part of Sean’s juggling act, and she did aerial work in a revolving hoop that she could lug onto the ship.

The inspiration behind Xelias

When Elias-Emery finally came back to Minnesota, she had a daughter and thought her circus life must be over. But she was soon offered another aerialist job, and she decided she might as well get back in shape.

“[This career] was always kind of motivated by money and a job,” she said.

A turning point came during Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s 2002 show “Circus of Tales.” Elias-Emery helped create circus acts and equipment for the show. Audience members were so impressed that they asked her to coach their kids in aerial arts.

“I never really set out to do this; I never had a business plan. It was my passion,” she said.

Elias-Emery had always taught gymnastics, however — it helped her afford extra gym time as a kid.

“It’s kind of in my blood to pass it on,” she said.

There are only a handful of circus schools like Xelias in the country. But popular acts like Cirque du Soleil have opened up more job opportunities for aerialists, and they have helped spur new international degree programs.

“I think it’s super cool, because it’s jobs for people,” Elias-Emery said. “But there is also more competition for those jobs.”

Her daughter — named “Aerial,” naturally — is attending a circus school in Quebec that only accepts 15 new students each year that apply from all over
the world.

In Northeast, however, eighth graders who have never seen a circus can try the Xelias trapeze as part of Project Success at Northeast Middle School.

“Going from middle school to high school is really a scary thing,” Elias-Emery said. “We all use a lot of metaphors about taking risks.”

Middle schoolers learn how to support each other on the trapeze. And they learn how to focus on the Spanish Web, so they don’t get dizzy.

“If your life is out of control, and your life is full of drama, what do you do? You have to focus,” Elias-Emery said.

As in any sport, students at Xelias must adjust to new pains and calluses on their hands and feet. Some are office workers who spend eight weeks learning a single trick, and others are Pilates instructors who learn five elements in a day. Some are college Freshmen who caution that they couldn’t ever climb the rope in gym class. But Elias-Emery says anyone can be taught — three of her students, for example, are a grandmother, mother and granddaughter from the same family.

“It’s a technique. You learn to use your legs and your arms together, and you learn to climb,” she said. “I always tell people, ‘Anyone can do this. You might not get it today, but you will get it if you continue to try.’”