'Cirque' aerialist teaches local dancers some lofty moves

When the circus came to town a century ago, a parade would precede the big top shows, whetting the town’s appetite for exotic animals acts and physical feats.

Tanya Burka, an aerialist in Cirque du Soleil’s “Quidam,” arrived in Charlotte a few days before the circus’ opening night Wednesday in Time Warner Cable Arena. She may have enticed them, but she came to teach Charlotte’s aerial students in a master class.

Before Cirque du Soleil heads to a new town, Burka searches the Internet for aerial companies whose students might be interested in doing a workshop of some sort. She loves to teach. In Charlotte, Caroline Calouche & Co. appeared in the search results. On Monday, Burka conducted master classes for contortion, aerial silks and lyra – a steel hoop suspended vertically. She’ll do it again Tuesday.

In “Quidam,” – the story of a young girl who uses her vibrant imagination to deal with her dismissive parents – Burka performs a solo aerial act. Solos work better for her because of her 5-foot-10-inch frame, uncommonly tall for an acrobat. Circus aesthetics value symmetry, so if one member of an ensemble is almost a foot taller than everyone else, they can look unbalanced.

Burka’s height is only one of the unusual things about her. Before she attended Montreal’s National Circus School, she earned a degree in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many acrobats have a keen interest in the sciences, Burka said, though she doesn’t know why the two seem to go together.

The MIT degree is one of the things that intrigued Calouche and led her to bring Burka to her students.

“It’s all geometry, it’s biomechanics, it’s physics, what we’re doing,” Calouche said. “It’s a pleasure to have someone come in who really understands that stuff to explain it to my geeky brain. I love that stuff.”

Calouche, who founded her aerial dance company in 2005, frequently welcomes other teachers into her studio.

“Every teacher has something different to offer,” Calouche said, “a little different way of explaining things. We worked last week on a move with another teacher, but we were still sort of struggling with it. (Burka) was able to say something that really clicked, that made sense.”

On Monday, Burka worked with Calouche’s students – all at least at the intermediate level in aerial silks or lyra – on transitioning from one position to another, maybe from “gazelle” to “amazon” or “mermaid.”

Students ranged from age 14 to 33, all clearly proficient in the aerial arts. Those who segue into aerial arts often have a strong background in dance or gymnastics, something that has built significant strength with which they can safely maneuver while suspended in the air.

Safety remains in the forefront of many minds after the death of a Cirque du Soleil acrobat who fell 50 feet when her wire snapped during a show in Las Vegas Saturday.

Burka urged students to work slowly, saying that if you can complete a move gradually and carefully, it will be surprisingly easy as you add speed.

The idea is to create a fluid aerial dance, not just individual tricks. That’s the only way to be able to tell a story as an aerialist.

“For me, I always start with a character,” Burka said, “a strong idea of who the person is who’s performing. It’s not me. I always have a character with all kinds of ideas in their head.

“I can come up with different metaphors for what the floor means, and what the silks mean, and the audience will interpret that in different ways, but it means it’s coming from me grounded in a story line. It feels real to step into that character and have them communicate with the audience.”