NORMAL — Rebecca Angles has never flown on an airplane before. But this week, she will not only fly to Nevada, she will fly above a Las Vegas stage hanging on to a witch's broom.
The “broom” is actually a trapeze bar that is part of an act the Illinois State University junior will be performing at a circus arts competition.
The Bloomington resident is one of five members of ISU's Gamma Phi Circus who will be taking part in the Vegas International Variety Act Festival, a competition bringing together amateur and professional circus performers from around the world.
In addition to the competition, there will be seminars on various circus arts, such as stilt walking and trapeze.
ISU was invited to participate in this first-ever U.S. circus competition, said Ivan Stoinev, assistant circus director.
“It is in the heart of show business,” Stoinev said of VIVA Fest. “It will be good exposure for the university and for the students.”
Angles, who is majoring in exercise science and Spanish, is teamed with junior Mattie Schaefer, a legal studies and English studies major from Frankfort, in an act on the dance trapeze inspired by the Broadway show “Wicked.” Angles also sings in the act.
Three other students are performing an act inspired by the Broadway show “Cats” that combines the Lyra Hoop and Cyr Wheel. They are senior Savannah Wetzel, a fashion design and theater production major from Bloomington; Joseph Kernes, a senior in elementary education from Bloomingdale; and Alison Tye, a junior in physical education and teacher education from Glenview.
Both acts take the student performers 10 to 15 feet or more above the stage as they spin, turn and fly in various choreographed poses that require strength, flexibility and teamwork.
“It's going to be great,” said Stoinev. “They're well-prepared. I'm sure of that.”
In Las Vegas, mechanical winches will move the hoops and trapeze up and down, but as the students practiced recently at Horton Field House, their Gamma Phi Circus teammates worked together pulling and letting down the ropes that move the pieces of apparatus.
Mechanical devices like the ones used in Vegas are expensive, said circus director Marcus Alouan.
“We don't have money. We have manpower,” he said with a smile.
Wetzel put her fashion design education to work in designing her colorful cat costume, which she hand-painted. She was up until 4 a.m. the day of the first dress rehearsal finishing her multicolor wig. Wetzel said the wig alone took 6 or 7 hours to assemble, not counting preparation work, tying together small bundles of yarn.
“I'm looking forward to meeting a lot of people who have performed in a professional setting,” said Wetzel, whose mother was part of the Gamma Phi Circus when she attended ISU. “I want to see their journey … and their take on circus arts.”
Tye said preparing for the Vegas competition and the April 7-8 circus at Redbird Arena has meant practicing about 20 hours a week, plus attending classes, doing homework “and trying to find time to eat and sleep.”
A former competitive gymnast, Tye has been doing circus activities since she was 10.
“I like the aspect of performing,” said Tye. “The art of circus is beautiful. There are so many stories you can tell through our bodies and our strength.”
Kernes said joining Gamma Phi Circus “opened up a whole new world for me.”
He likes the different career choices available since becoming involved in the circus. But he said, no matter what he chooses, “I plan to return to teaching at some point.”
Like Wetzel's mother, Schaefer's mother was a Gamma Phi Circus performer.
“I like how even if something goes wrong, people try again,” said Schaefer. “It's a really powerful environment.”
Angles likes the opportunities to learn and have fun with Gamma Phi and also to gain leadership experience.
“You become a close group of friends,” she said.