Meet Cirque Du Soleil’s Jewish Butterfly
Guy Laliberté was just a child in the early Sixties when he first saw Barnum and Bailey’s Circus in his hometown of Quebec City. Transfixed by the show, he then read PT Barnum’s biography, learnt fire- eating and stilt-walking for street performance, before, in 1984, co-founding the unequivocal circus experience that is Cirque du Soleil.
Fast forward to 2007, and 13-year-old Shelli Epstein is arriving at the Royal Albert Hall to see Cirque du Soleil for the first time. Mesmerised by the surreal spectacle of outlandishly attired acrobats and contortionists; like Laliberté she felt the circus beckoning.
Among the many pupils at JFS, where Shelli was then a pupil, she was probably the only one contemplating a career under a Big Top. But that didn’t deter her ,and surprisingly, her parents, Janice and Avron who live in Hendon, went along with her decision to audition for the Franco Dragone company in Macau, straight after leaving school.
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Shelli decided to join the circus when she first saw Cirque at The Royal Albert Hall
“It was that or becoming a stunt double,” says Shelli, who displayed her natural atheleticism from the moment she enrolled in baby gymnastics and qualified for the squad at the age of four. Granted it’s big leap from toddler head stands to aerial acrobactics, but Shelli had no issue tumbling and diving in front of thousands of people every day for three years in The House of Dancing Water show in Macau. As the director of Cirque’s shows Allegria and the phenomenal ‘O’ set on water, Dragone’s company in China was the perfect stepping stone for what Shelli did next and what she will be doing when Cirque returns to The Royal Albert Hall on 12 January.
In the Mexican-themed show Luzia, Shelli is the audience’s guide aka ‘Running Woman’- a character described as part Monarch butterfly, part Tarahumara tribe runner who wears wings manipulated by poles that span the stage. But there is much more to the role she has held for the past eight years than an enchanting costume.
Shelli riding the Russian wheel and taking flight
Shelli’s unique talent is riding the Russian swing; a large floor-mounted circular construction which she pumps back and forth with another acrobat until it is swinging in high arcs. That is when she jumps into an air- borne summersault before landing on another swing. Throughout the audience holds their collective breath.
Explaining the finer points of her act from Cirque’s rehearsal base camp in Wakefield, one simply has to ask – “And your mother watches you do this?” Shelli laughs.“My parents hate it. Mum says she can’t watch and finds it’s better not to think about it. When I show her videos, she’s like, ‘stop sending it to me. I don’t want to know what you’re doing.’ But they’re very proud. And I’m lucky to have such supportive and amazing parents. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
To see your child hovering somewhere in the 135ft chasm between stage and ceiling at the Royal Albert Hall wouldn’t be easy for any parent, but Shelli couldn’t be happier to be back in that space. The Pandemic put an end to her flying across auditoriums and the world with her Cirque family.
“We are very close,” explains Shelli. “It’s a natural thing, especially when you go to cities where you don’t know anyone else, so you hang out and get to know each other very well. When we knew we weren’t going to see one another for a while, it was like going through a breakup so reuniting with everyone has been so beautiful.”
Shelli is the ultimate fitness trainer
Having qualified as a personal trainer in 2014, Shelli put the empty Covid lockdown hours to good use and started teaching fitness. “I always had it as a backup plan, so decided to give it a really good go,” says the instructor who tells her clients that exercise should be fun while standing on her hands with toes pointed against the wall. “The aim is to push your own personal limits, see how hardy you are, overcome your fears and optimise your performance.”
She makes it sound so easy, but then Shelli has optimised her own performance, returning to work at her physical peak. But did she have any trepidations about getting back on the Russian swing after the long break?
“I was a bit apprehensive,” she says, jus moments before returning to rehearsal. “But as soon as I stepped on the swing, it felt like second nature.
The fear just disappeared and I’m so, so happy to be back. You have no idea what it was like to be able to fly again and do what I do. There’s nothing else that replicates that adrenaline, that feeling, and I surprised myself at how quickly I picked it back up. But it’s in my body. I’ve done it for years. I shouldn’t ever doubt myself.” Spoken like a true Tarahumara runner/ Monarch butterfly about to take flight.
• To learn more about Shelli’s coaching visit www.shelliepstein.co.uk. For Cirque du Soleil Luzia tickets visit www.cirquedusoleil.com