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.
from Cirque du Soleil:
As a performer with , 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
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
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
“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.