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Flying Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease

Though she started practicing gymnastics relatively late in life, Danielle Ricciardi ’06 quickly developed her skills once she began the sport—so quickly that, some eight years later, Ricciardi is an acrobat in one of the world’s most renowned circuses.

Scenes from Cirque du Soleil:

As a performer with Cirque du Soleil, the international entertainment empire, since last December, Ricciardi tumbles and flies about the stage six days a week, performing in between eight and 10 shows from Tuesday to Sunday. She is a member of the company’s show called Kooza  a big-tent production that played in Hartford, Conn., through last week, and will be staged again nearby in Boston, in September.

To witness a performance of Cirque du Soleil is to return to childhood. I took my 11-year-old son, Elliot, and my 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, to the Hartford show in March and gleefully joined in the “oohs” and “aahs” as I was thoroughly awed by what the performers achieve with their astounding physical feats.

Ricciardi performs alongside a stage troupe of lavishly adorned soldiers that enters during breaks between specific acts, such as jugglers, contortionists, clowns, trapeze artists and others. At one point, she jumps nearly 25 feet from the deck of a tower on stage into a blanket held by 12 male performers.

“This is my dream-come-true,” said Ricciardi recently in a telephone interview from the makeup room on the Hartford set. “Ever since I was 5, I’ve done cartwheels and was always flipping, but I never imagined this.”

Ricciardi was half a year beyond her 15th birthday when she began studying gymnastics in her hometown of Keene, New Hampshire—several years older than most people who begin practicing the sport seriously. Most of those in Cirque du Soleil, she says, have taken lessons since early childhood.

“I had tried cheerleading, but it didn’t fit,” she recalls. “Gymnastics felt natural to me.”

When she entered Smith and registered as an exercise science major, Ricciardi began teaching classes at Hampshire Gymnastics, a longstanding school in Amherst. After graduating, she returned to her home of Rindge, N.H., and coached at the gym in nearby Keene where she first learned gymnastics. There, she had her first chance to try flying trapeze during a camp with Peter Gold, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who works with Trapeze-Experience, and took aerial fabric lessons with two former Cirque du Soleil performers.

From those connections, Ricciardi was invited to audition for the circus company last fall and subsequently signed a one-year contract.

“It was crazy when I first joined,” she says. “I had about a week to get ready. I had to put everything I needed in two suitcases.”

So far, she says, the experience has been worth all the adjustment. “It’s been the best of both worlds,” she says. “On one hand, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But on the other hand, sometimes I say to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ This is the first time I’ve traveled anywhere. And I had to overcome some anxiety when I first started.”

Since her one-month training period in Montréal, Ricciardi has covered a lot of ground, she says. She performed in San Francisco and San Jose, California, before coming to Hartford.

“I’ve come a long way,” she says. “I wasn’t a dance major or a theater major, and being on stage was unfamiliar to me. But the first time I took a bow and the audience was cheering, I got chills.”

Besides the thrills, Ricciardi says she appreciates the accommodations and benefits provided by Cirque du Soleil. She resides in a comfortable apartment in the city hosting the troupe, and sees future possibilities with the company, which employs more than 3,500 people in various capacities.

For now, Ricciardi only has her sights set on performing, literally, at her highest level—balancing atop others’ shoulders, flying through the air to the stage far below. She hopes to renew her contract with Cirque du Soleil when the time comes next fall. “I just want to learn more and expand on what I’m capable of doing,” she says.

4/29/08   Eric Sean Weld
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