Up, up and away: human cannonball brings high-flying excitement to circus

Courtesy photo Human cannonballer Gemma Kirby says flying through the air for the circus isn't about being fearless; it's about being brave and using your fear to be safe. She's in town with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for nine shows Thursday through Sunday.
Courtesy photo Before becoming a human cannonball for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Kirby was an aerial trapeze artist.

There's no such thing as flying through the air with the greatest of ease. That’s according to aerialist and human cannonball Gemma Kirby.

“A lot of the time, people look at circus athletes and think ‘fearless,’” said the 24-year-old, who performs with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus this weekend at the Charleston Civic Center. “People confuse fearlessness with bravery.”

Fearlessness is being unafraid. It’s not being concerned with the height or the speed of flight. It’s being disrespectful toward the unassailable rule that what goes up must come down and that men were not designed to fly.

Whenever Kirby gets ready to crawl into her cannon, she always feels something — nerves, a little tension, fear.

“I’ve always had the jitters,” she said. “It would range from a little bit when I perform a trick I’ve done a million times to my heart racing and my hands shaking when I’m about do something I have little experience with.”

Kirby pointed out that the circus is very safe. Performers train and rehearse their acts. Ringling Bros. takes plenty of precautions. There are safety mechanisms in place.

“But ultimately, it’s up to the artist to control their own body in the air in order to stay safe.”

Sometimes things go wrong.

She doesn’t obsess about what might happen, but she doesn’t ignore it. She’s serious about it.

Kirby said, “I’ll take some deep yoga breaths. I always do my yoga breaths before I cannonball. I harness all that nervous energy to be successful and safe.”

This is how she’s brave.

Gemma Kirby didn’t start out as a human cannonball. She didn’t even grow up in a circus family.

“My dad is a writer,” she said. “My mom is a midwife.”

Her parents were free spirits with jobs requiring frequent relocation. This was Kirby’s introduction to the gypsy life.

“I got to see a lot of the country,” she said. “Every place we went, my parents signed me up for dance lessons. I did Irish, jazz, modern, everything. That’s where I really learned to love performing.”

In St. Paul, Minn., she discovered Circus Juventas, the largest youth performing arts circus school in America.

“I thought it would be a cool way to transition from dance into something more acrobatic,” Kirby said. “I fell in love with it from the very first day.”

She studied aerial acrobatics.

“It was completely extracurricular,” she said. “I loved being in the air. I loved using my dance experience to create movement in the air.”

But she wanted to train for the flying trapeze.

“All the cool kids did it,” she said. “It was the most daring, the most scary, and only the bravest kids at the circus did the flying trapeze.”

She had to audition several times before the circus school let her do it.

“It wasn’t easy for me. It was the hardest for me to figure out for my body, for my skill set,” Kirby said. “That made me want to conquer it even more.”

When she was 17, she was discovered at the school by Jill Pages.

“She’s a really legendary flying trapeze artist,” Kirby said. “She spotted me and offered me a place in her troupe. I didn’t think twice. This was my shot.”

She'd graduated high school at 16, so with little holding her back, she left Minnesota for Florida and began training with The Flying Pages. She worked with the troupe for a while and then moved on to other troupes with different circuses.

She returned home often.

"I'd go out for a couple of months then go home to St. Paul. I went to college for a couple of months," she said.

In late 2012, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and was the trapeze coach at Circus Juventas for a time before joining Ringling Bros. as its human cannonball.

"That's kind of been my journey," she said.

Kirby joined the circus' "Built To Amaze" tour at the midpoint. She explained that most Ringling Bros. shows run for two years, and the cast typically sticks with the tour until the end.

"But things do come up," she said.

Kirby is glad to be on the tour, performing for crowds and traveling the country again, though there is a downside. She won't be getting home much.

"This next year, they have the schedule pretty packed," she said. "I really won't have more than a couple of days off here and there."

Missing her family will be the hardest part. Kirby has three brothers and a couple of sisters. Her older sister just had a baby.

"I was able to fly to Milwaukee to meet him," she said.

Kirby couldn't say if anyone in her family would be following her into the circus life, but she seemed to doubt it. Her older sister works at a preschool. One of her brothers plays football, and the others are just too young. Which leaves her 20-year-old, younger sister.

"She's very talented at aerial arts," Kirby acknowledged. "But she chose to go into advertising."

A media circus.

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