Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus brings ‘Built to Amaze’ marvels to Consol
As a teenager, when Gemma Kirby was taking aerial classes at a circus-training school, she knew she wanted a life performing high-risk thrill stunts.
“I became infatuated with the idea that I could fly, that I could actually use my body in unimaginable ways,” says Kirby, 24. “At 17, I ran away to join the circus.”
Kirby initially performed flying-trapeze stunts but now has a dream job for an adrenaline junkie: flying through the air as the human cannonball in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which opens Nov. 5 at Consol Energy Center for a five-day run.
Kirby has been doing the cannonball act — where she flies 40 feet high and 100 feet across the stage before landing on an inflatable air bag — since January.
“I’m kind of a thrill junkie; I like adventures,” Kirby says. Her hometown is St. Paul, Minn., but she has an efficiency apartment on the Ringling Bros. train, because she spends much of her time on the road.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoy danger, necessarily, but I enjoy pushing the boundaries of what my body can do,” Kirby says. “It’s amazing to be able to say, every day, I fly through the air. … The sensation is indescribable, completely untethered.”
This year’s Ringling Bros. show — “Built to Amaze!” — will teach the audience about some of the engineering factors in circus acts, while people enjoy their classic favorites like acrobats, elephants, tigers and clowns.
“It’s really one of the most fun shows we’ve put together, because it really has a great whimsicality about it and taps into what resonates with kids,” says Nicole Feld, who with her sister, Alana, are co-producers of Feld Entertainment, which puts on the circus. “It taps into … how things get made, and the fascination with construction, dump trucks and all things moving parts.
“We’re sort of like the engineers of all this different entertainment,” Feld says.
Ringmaster Andre McClain — who also has been a cowboy, rodeo star and country singer and songwriter — will direct the zany action in the rings while entertaining people with his singing and doing much of the engineering explaining, Feld says.
In the cannon act, for instance, the ringmaster will communicate to the audience what it takes to be a human cannonball.
“The ringmaster really kind of serves as a liaison, between a person who knows these performers and what it takes to have the ability to do what they do, but, at the same time, kind of (has) that wonderment and awe that the audiences has,” Feld says. “He really does a good job in bridging the two worlds.”
Several years ago, the circus relaxed the three-ring setup. While many moments may feature all three rings, at some points in the show, one act will get the audience’s full attention. And the circus, as always, offers many things to entertain and thrill people of all ages, Feld says.
“I think audiences … are able to see so many amazing things this year, as well as getting their thrills and laughs,” she says.
“I really feel that it has to do with the kind of experience that the entire family can have together,” Feld says. “There really is something spectacular there, no matter what age you are. It really is such diverse entertainment, and it will knock your socks off.”
The egalitarian circus includes many women in management and performance positions, Feld points out. Take Kirby, for instance, who might be the only female human cannonball. Feld calls her a female superhero.
“She’s pretty extraordinary,” Feld says. “She’s a real powerhouse.”
Kirby says her unusual profession requires the strength and muscle tone to control her entire body in-flight. She must be completely stiff inside the cannon because the impact of the shot is very intense. That way, she can control her body during her flight and land correctly, even though she is free-flying.
“I really love the feeling of the freedom,” says Kirby, whose other thrill-seeking activities have included skydiving and going to Thailand alone with only a passport and backpack.
“My motto is: As long as you play it safe, you can really do anything,” Kirby says. “That’s my motto with the cannon. Follow the protocol, follow the rules, and I take care of myself.”
Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7824.