It was love at first catch. Hanging upside down, Justin Chodkowski grabbed April Brown as she flew through the air under the Big Top.
The magical moment was around Christmas 2010. They had been performing for the circus in Lisbon, Portugal, living out of shipping containers for nearly three weeks.
Now, the pair are performing for the Flying Angels at Circus Circus on the Strip. They live in a 25-foot trailer in a KOA campground at the hotel-casino.
They love their jobs and couldn’t think of anything better they would rather be doing; and yet, in the back of their minds, they know there are inherent risks that come with a profession that defies gravity. As proof, they need only point to a pair of accidents at Cirque du Soleil shows this year — one that ended in death.
Yet there’s no sense of fear between them. In fact, someday they would like to work for Cirque du Soleil, long considered one of the premier theatrical productions in the world.
At least that’s their dream.
Chodkowski and Brown are not alone. They are among thousands of performance artists who are eagerly awaiting a call from the Canadian-based company that puts on 20 shows worldwide, a few of them in Las Vegas.
The death of Sarah Guyard-Guillot, 31, a Parisian acrobat who fell during a “Ka” performance at the MGM Grand in late June, has done little to put a dent in the popularity of Cirque du Soleil among performance artists who want to take their work to a higher level.
Cirque du Soleil officials said it was the first time a performer had died from an onstage accident in the company’s 29-year history.
Nor has the Nov. 1 fall of a performer from the Wheel of Death during a “Zarkana” performance at Aria discouraged acrobats and trapeze artists from standing in line for a chance to work at Cirque shows. The performer, whose name was never disclosed, escaped serious injuries.
While they mourn the loss of any artist, Chodkowski and Brown say taking risks is just part of their career, which often attracts adrenaline junkies like themselves.
Chodkowski, 33, drove motorcycles up narrow cable wires in past performances. He was riding elephants at age 9.
“I started flying when I was 15,” he said, referring to the trapeze. “And I haven’t looked back since. It’s one of the funnest jobs around, although that’s not to say I wouldn’t mind moving on to the big time.”
There’s a reason why Chodkowski’s friends and fellow performers call him “Justincredible,” a play on his first name. Circus blood courses through his veins. And yet he doesn’t come from a traditional circus family.
His father, who rode bareback in the circus, wasn’t ever really in his life, he said. His mother worked at concession stands at various circuses, but son and mother parted ways when Justin left her at age 12 to perform in another show at Ringling Bros. and Barnum &Bailey Circus.
His legal guardian in the early 1990s was a clown named Huel Speight, who coincidentally now works at Circus Circus. The circus circuit is a small one, it turns out.
Brown’s her mother was her inspiration. Her mom turned her on to the exciting life of being an acrobat and flying trapeze artist. She, like her mother, ended up attending Florida State University in Tallahassee and joining the school’s High Flying Circus.
Brown said it wasn’t until her senior year in college that she started to contemplate a career as a trapeze artist.
She likes to push her acts, often going for the double and triple flips.
“What’s the point of coming out here if you’re not going to give them a show?” Brown asks.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
And yet this pair knows, and virtually all of their circus counterparts concur, that the show must go on, whether it’s at Circus Circus or at Cirque du Soleil.
Which is why, before each performance, they check the cables, the pulleys and the stability of the trapeze bars. Their future children depend on it.
They often defer to head rigger Gilles Desrosiers, who has hung from the rafters more than once, checking the welding and inspecting the overall integrity of the Big Top, which was built more than four decades ago.
“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something were to happen out here and I knew there was something I could have done to have prevented it,” Desrosiers said.
But Desrosiers admits that he can’t control everything.
Once a Russian performer climbed up silk cloth, then twisted downward, head first. She forgot to tie an extra safety knot and slammed to the floor.
Luckily, she was able to walk away from the fall.
And he finds himself closely watching Brown as she swings from a triangular piece of rope, high up in the air Sometimes, she swings upside down on it. There’s no net when she’s doing it.
Chodkowski jokes about it, telling Brown that if she ever loses control and slingshots into the casino below, could she please hit a jackpot?
‘MOM WOULD BE PROUD’
Brown thinks the real jackpot could be at Cirque someday.
Cirque is the equivalent of the major leagues of gymnastics and trapeze.
Circus Circus is the Triple A team.
Cirque du Soleil brings fantastic theatrical productions to large Strip audiences, complete with drama, lights and action.
Circus Circus is traditional circus acts performed in a carnival-like atmosphere. Children throw darts at balloons on the periphery. Others shoot at red stars with BB guns. Mechanical claws dig at teddy bears through the glass of quarter-fed machines.
If a sword swallower wandered off the Strip, there’s a chance he would fit in.
Circus Circus is the perfect place to work, and yet the gravitational pull of Cirque du Soleil is irresistible. It’s “prestigious.” Or, as Brown said recently, “Why wear the Kmart brand if you can wear Nike?”
“My mom would be so proud if I called her up and said I got a job with Cirque,” Brown said.
Chodkowski wouldn’t mind the limelight, either.
Said Chodkowski, “I’d like to start saving a little bit of money so that I could buy a house someday. Maybe even in Las Vegas.”
But the two aren’t holding their breath. There’s a long line ahead of them.
And so they work at Circus Circus as independent contractors.
They are starting to branch off a little, preparing for the future.
On the side, they teach children how to perform on the trapeze bar at a local school. And if Cirque doesn’t work out, then they daydream about some day forming their own traveling troupe.
But the application for Cirque is in. It can be found on the database. It’s just a matter of time, they hope.
NO FEAR OF HEIGHTS
Lisa Jones, the senior acrobatic talent scout for Cirque in Las Vegas, said the job application process works this way: When there is an opening, the casting team will first check the database to find artists whose profiles fit the immediate openings.
By no means, she said, is it “a first-come, first-served basis.”
Each show has its own set of criteria, Jones noted.
“We’re looking for dynamic, experienced, physically fit aerial performers with very good upper body strength and strong technique and spatial orientation. Our aerial performers should possess an extensive repertoire, demonstrate a high level of execution, be comfortable with heights and have a strong stage presence.”
Which could be a good description of Chodkowski and Brown.
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at email@example.com or 702-224-5512.