There’s a moment — a millisecond, really — when you’re suspended in the air, only a half-inch wire between life and possible death.
In that sliver of time, fear bubbles up from your belly. It’s your instinct trying to warn you that danger lies ahead.
No matter how many times you’ve walked the high wire, the feeling doesn’t really pass; you learn to ignore it. You learn to love it and use it as fuel to drive you across the wire and back again.
“You get to the center of the wire,” says Almas Meirmanov, a high-wire walker in “Absinthe.” “You can’t go forward and you can’t go backward. It’s the same distance. And you have a fear, a panic.”
It seems like a fearless act, walking across the thinnest of wires, balancing above an audience so close that you must account for their movements, as well as your own.
Meirmanov and his partners, Tony Hernandez and Paul Matthew Lopez — otherwise known as The Esteemed Gentlemen of the High Wire — have done more than 1,200 performances since “Absinthe” opened at Caesars Palace in 2011.
In reality, their act is fraught with fear, as well as a good measure of danger.
OUT TO IMPRESS
Hernandez, 37, grew up in the circus.
He and his parents performed their family teeter board act in circuses until he was 16.
Although he was a skilled circus performer and used to flying through the air, Hernandez feared the high wire. And for good reason.
“I knew the Wallendas had fallen,” he says of the famed high-wire family, the Flying Wallendas. Several of them have fallen and died over the years.
And there’s a natural fear of heights that most people possess. But in 1995, Hernandez was in love with a Wallenda. He decided to learn the high wire.
“I was trying to impress my girlfriend’s parents, which was no easy task,” Hernandez says. “I figured high wire would do it.”
It did. He earned a spot performing in the Flying Wallendas famous seven-person pyramid. Hernandez eventually married Lijana Wallenda; they have a 2-year-old son.
Since he accomplished his goal, why is he still on the high wire?
“I feel like it grasped hold of me,” Hernandez says. “It’s a metaphor for so much in life. And I think it blows people away.”
When Hernandez’s family retired from the circus, he moved to Florida and tried to be a normal guy. He waited tables, attended college.
“It felt so wrong,” he says.
College bored him. He wanted nothing more than to be back under the big top, under the spotlight.
So he moved to Chicago to pursue acting, producing and circus-performing. Eventually, he developed the act that is part of “Absinthe.”
Still, Hernandez fears the high wire. You have to, he says. When you don’t fear and respect it, bad things can happen.
“That’s one of the things you have to practice, putting that out of your head,” he says. “If you’re thinking about falling, you’re already halfway there.”
The first time Lopez stepped onto a wire suspended high in the air, he could just barely see it, that’s how slender it was.
And the question of all questions popped into his head.
“What the (expletive) are you doing?” he said to himself.
Finding his bliss, that’s what he was doing.
Every night, when Lopez is anchoring one of their tricks, there is a Zen moment when they achieve perfect balance.
“I know this because all my muscles are relaxed,” Lopez, 32, says of that experience. “There are moments in the act when you’re in balance in a way that no one else in the room is. If you’ve got that kind of connection with (your partners), that can be the easiest act.”
Of course, much of their act is about pursuing that moment, whether Lopez is anchoring a keg and a performer on his shoulders or carrying one of the guys across the wire.
Unlike his fellow performers, Lopez was not born in the circus. As a teenager, he fell in love with clowning after seeing a clown production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
Lopez became a clown, got a theater degree and went to clown school. He was serious about European clowning until his mentor kicked him out of grad school. Lopez wasn’t clown enough. With no other options and thousands of dollars in student loan debt, Lopez got a circus job. He developed a clown-on-a-ladder act and even performed teeter board, thanks to Meirmanov’s father, who runs an acrobatic school in Chicago.
The two met through Meirmanov’s father and became good friends, hanging out and performing together.
Meirmanov, 28, had long known Hernandez through the circus. He introduced his two friends and eventually, a partnership was born.
Lopez had always admired the high wire.
“But I thought, since I wasn’t born into the circus like these guys, I couldn’t do it,” Lopez says.
One night in 2010, while playing video games, Hernandez took Lopez outside and put him on a training wire. He gave him a balancing pole to see how it felt. Hernandez needed a new guy to anchor his high-wire act for a show he produced and asked Lopez if he thought he could do it.
“I just stood there and I knew I could do this,” Lopez says.
WORKING AS A TEAM
To train his friends on the high wire, Hernandez threw tennis balls at them.
It’s important to ignore every natural instinct when you’re on the high wire, he says. A single flinch could be the move that sends you to your death.
“The presence of death is there, anytime,” Hernandez says. “It’s going to send shivers up your spine, there’s always that presence on the wire.”
Meirmanov was born in Russia and grew up in the circus, performing hand-balancing with his father. He possessed a natural affinity for balance and serves as the flier in their “Absinthe” act, the guy who does all the head-stands and acrobatic skills on the wire.
“We do work as a team, that’s one of the key factors here,” Meirmanov says. “We trust each other. We have to.”
The characters they play in the show are simply extensions of their personalities. Lopez is the big, goofy bear while Meirmanov is the ladies’ man, Meirmanov says. Hernandez is the strategy man. He’s the guy who’s always thinking about what they’re going to do next.
During a recent rehearsal, The Esteemed Gentlemen of the High Wire practiced a bicycle trick that Hernandez is thinking of putting into the show. The only reason they haven’t added it, yet, is because “it’s pretty scary,” he says.
Hernandez positions himself atop a fixed-wheel bike and gracefully rides it onto the wire, balancing his pole. He stops in the center. Meirmanov begins to climb on the back of the bike.
“This would be better if I knew what you were going to do,” Hernandez says.
At this point, they’re winging it. Lopez stood on the elevated stage, trying to figure out his role in this trick. “If we do it in the show, I’d have to stop and you’d jump from here,” Hernandez says, gesturing from a point on the wire where Meirmanov would have to jump about 4 feet to get to the platform.
Meirmanov expresses dismay. That’s a long jump, he says.
Don’t worry, says Lopez, who has figured out his role in this stunt.
“I’ll just be waiting with a giant pillow,” Lopez jokes.
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@review journal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.