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Skating Aratas take ‘Absinthe’ audiences for a spin

It’s exhilarating — and frightening — how fast she’s spinning through the air, like a Tilt-A-Whirl on some hallucinogenic drug.

Her feet are locked behind her husband’s neck; his arms are up, in a “V,” his deltoids trapping her ankles, preventing her from flying into the audience like a carless crash test dummy. One misstep — a failed skate, a weakened grip, debris on the table — would be devastating.

For six minutes, this perfect couple, he muscular and chiseled, she soft but strong, holds the “Absinthe” audience hostage with their dramatic stunts, each more astonishing than the one before.

Just when you think they can’t possibly keep this up — now he is skating in a perfect circle, spinning her with only a soft rope looped around their necks — the music crescendos and the audience thunders.

By the time it’s all over, you feel like you’ve witnessed true love on roller skates.

Why else would a woman let her husband sling her around so fast that the blood rushes to her head and bursts the capillaries in her face and eyes?

■ ■ ■

Ievgeniia Oborska, 27, Jenny for short, first saw Victor Arata in Berlin in 2006.

“I was single, dreaming about love and a prince on a white horse,” she says. “Then I saw Victor in his white suit and white skates and I said, ‘There’s my prince.’ “

They performed in the same variety show, Victor skating with his sister and Jenny dancing. Though she attended circus school in Ukraine, Jenny is trained in ballet and ballroom dancing.

Victor, 23, first noticed Jenny during rehearsals. Her hair was up and she wore pink workout clothes. She had no makeup on.

“She didn’t need it,” says Victor, an Italian romantic.

There was an instant attraction, if not love at first sight. When Victor was 15, his father died of cancer. Jenny lost her father, a colonel in the Soviet army, when she was 12.

They formed a tight bond; both felt understood.

“It was like I’d met her before,” Victor says. “I believe that someone’s meant for you; it’s in the skies. There was something spiritual about her. We always agree we don’t know how we lived before without each other.”

Still, it took Jenny five months to realize her feelings and a few more before they could be together.

Victor says that he wooed her with cappuccino and conversation: “I’ve learned that when a trick is hard, you don’t just give up on day one. I saw her as a really hard trick.”

■ ■ ■

Like many circus skills, there is no textbook for what the Skating Aratas do.

It’s all trial and grievous error.

During a performance at age 15, Victor Arata fell and broke his elbow. His sister and former skating partner kicked one of his teeth out. He’s also busted a knee.

Since “Absinthe” opened four months ago, Victor and Jenny have performed more than 160 injury-free shows. They have skated together for four years and, despite a few spills, neither has suffered serious injury.

Victor, London-raised and the son of sixth-generation circus performers, is a stickler for safety. His mother taught him to skate when he was 5, pairing him with his 8-year-old brother. Their younger sister joined them a few years later. His father, who gave up his performing career to become a producer of variety shows and circuses, also served as agent for his wife and children.

Because they never knew what booking agents were looking for, Victor says, his parents taught them several acts. Mom built a round table, 6 feet across, for them to perform on. That’s where Victor learned to skate in a tight circle like a spinning top. For 13 years, he spun his sister around by the hands, the feet or both. For the past four years, he’s spun his wife.

In the beginning, building speed was an issue, Victor says. To keep them on the white fiberglass table, he pushes with his left foot and pivots with the right. One push, one pivot — the perfect formula to maintain a perfect circle. It’s so precise, he can even close his eyes during tricks. In fact, he and Jenny both do. The success of their act relies more on feel than sight, he says.

Both are skilled acrobats and their tricks show it. And advances in skating equipment enable them to build speeds that were impossible when Victor was a child. What they do looks incredible and daredevilish, but there’s a lot more to it than skating. Both must be in top physical condition. Jenny weighs just 100 pounds but he spins her so fast, Victor gets significant lower-back strain.

■ ■ ■

The Skating Aratas rely on a surefire method for developing and practicing their tricks: They figure out what hurts and what doesn’t.

They go with what hurts less.

“There are a lot of tricks that cause a lot of pain,” Victor says. “We have to try a different way if something is painful.”

At a recent rehearsal, they worked on the trick where Victor holds Jenny around the lower legs and spins her high and then low. It relies on his speed and her body control. She arcs through the air like a carnival ride — up, down, up, down, up — and it seems as though her head will smash into the table.

During the performance, the audience in the intimate theater is so close to the skating platform that Jenny could easily hit someone who stood in the front row.

Their execution of the trick is nearly flawless.

But the faster Victor spins, the harder he must hold her. And he is spinning so fast that his grip is crushing Jenny’s knees. Still, that’s better than the alternative. It took three months to develop the method they use now but she has pain. There really is no way around it.

“I worry about her knees but any way I do it, it’s always going to hurt,” he says.

■ ■ ■

“Absinthe” opened at Caesars Palace in April.

It’s a variety burlesque show featuring 11 acts. Billed as a cross between Rocky Horror Picture Show and Cirque du Soleil, the show is theater-in-the-round and staged in a tent just outside of the hotel.

Each act is unique. There’s Maxim, the acrobat who builds a tower of chairs and climbs them; Oxsana, an acrobat who flies through the air using straps; Penny and her sock puppets, a three-man high-wire act and other acrobats and singers.

The Skating Aratas almost don’t seem to fit this group of high-flying performers, buxom singers and bawdy comics. Roller skates don’t really say “amazing, death-defying feats.”

Then, before they take the stage, the master of ceremonies tells the audience to remain seated during their performance.

Otherwise, you risk getting hit in the face.

■ ■ ■

Jenny grew up wanting to travel the world and perform.

When she was 15, her mother sent her to circus school, where she learned acrobatics. Dancing classes came next. By the time she met Victor, Jenny was a skilled dancer but had never even dreamed of performing stunts on roller skates.

After realizing they wanted to be together, the couple decided they had to try performing together, too.

“I still had doubts about whether I wanted to do it,” Jenny says.

Years ago, she saw a video of a similar circus skating act. “I saw that video and thought, if I had to do that, no. I couldn’t. It’s so much trust you must have.”

Her family was shocked by the idea. Jenny may have gone to circus school, but some things were unimaginable.

“You will never do this,” her mother lectured. “Do you hear me? Why would you risk your life?”

It took some convincing to win her over, Victor says.

Indeed, what they do is dangerous, if not for the immediate risk of injury, for the cumulative effects of being spun around so fast. They have never measured their speed, Victor says, but it’s fast enough Jenny sometimes has headaches and bleeding in the eyes. Pilots and astronauts call that “redout,” when blood is forced into the head because of negative G forces.

After every performance, he checks her face and eyes for broken capillaries; if there are too many, “I go slower next time,” Victor says.

Though she had ice skated as a child, Jenny needed to learn how to move on roller skates as though she were born wearing them. For several months, she wore her skates everywhere, even while cooking and cleaning. Only after skating was second nature to her did they start learning the tricks.

There are no names for their movements, just descriptions. In one, Jenny links her hands behind Victor’s neck and he spins her until her feet are off the ground. He spins her by an arm and a leg, by her ankles and then by a rope around the neck. The rope is the only thing holding her to him and, to add to the effect, she twirls while he spins her.

It is breathtaking.

The Skating Aratas are on a five-year plan.

Victor, inspired by his father, wants to become a producer, and Jenny wants to one day be a mother.

One thing is certain: Their bodies will not withstand the physical demands of their act forever, Victor says. They perform 10 shows a week now. They couldn’t possibly do more than that and still be safe and healthy, he says. Their contract with “Absinthe” expires in September, but they are negotiating to extend it.

“We’re saying five years and see how we feel,” Victor says. “I have certain issues with my health; my lower back is quite sensitive. But for my wife, it’s the pressure of the speed to her eyes and head that worries me a lot. I don’t want to play with that. I think the older you get, the harder it is to resist the spinning.”

For now, however, they will perform or practice every day in spite of the health concerns.

Because, as Victor says, “It’s our life.”

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.

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