While circus arts are generally on the descent — the company that owns the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed in 2017 after 146 years — St. Louis resident Elliana Grace is trying to ensure that performers continue to ascend high into the air.
The daughter of Jessica Hentoff, the Jewish founder and executive director of Circus Harmony, a local nonprofit that teaches children the art form, Grace, 27, is an aerial coach and performs a one-woman show at the City Museum.
She was also, according to Hentoff, the first Jewish human cannonball when she was a member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Back on ground level, Grace made time to speak with the Jewish Light about her passion for circus arts.
When did you know that you wanted to perform in the circus?
I have been doing it since I was very young because my mom was in the circus, and I was kind of born into it. I did my first show at two-weeks-old and started actually working when I was 6, so it was always there but it was also understood that if [my siblings and I] wanted to do something else, we were allowed to. We weren’t forced into it; it was very open — this is what we have here, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. But we were at practices all the time and constantly being exposed, so it’s not surprising that I ended up in this job.
What did you like about it?
I love a lot things about performing and teaching. You get to bring this sense of joy to people that you don’t get if you have a normal office job. It’s really rewarding work to be able to take somebody out of their head and any problems they may be having and bring them into this joyful experience.
How did you become a human cannonball?
I was 20 and had recently moved back to St. Louis. I was in an in-between-period in my life, and someone asked if we knew anyone who would be interested in auditioning, and I went out and auditioned. You are not allowed to do the cannon when you audition because you have to sign a contract and do all these legal things, so we did high falls, which is where you stand on a platform and fall into an air bag. I signed a contract to say I was going to do cannon for two years before I even got into one, so it was a little crazy in that sense, but it just kind of became what I was doing.
What was that experience like?
It was eye-opening. I was super young, so I learned so much about myself and really grew as a person. I lived on a train — that’s how Ringling traveled back then — so I traveled all across the country on a train, which is the best way to travel in my opinion. I would get shot out of a cannon and I rode the elephants, and it was just a surreal experience.
It sounds like what you do as part of your performances is pretty dangerous. Is that fair to say?
It’s a calculated risk; you have to have a healthy respect for what you’re doing. It’s really actually very safe when you look at the statistics compared to something like a normal sport because I have so much control over what is happening so the injuries are few and far between but they are there, so to avoid them. We train as much as we possibly can, and we really train in an attempt to predict what could happen, so that you are ready for it and prepared for it.
Tell me about your one-woman show.
The show is about four years old now. What goes in and out changes. It’s a little bit of heartbreak, a little bit of humor and a little bit of hula hoops thrown in. I try to keep it light-hearted and have fun with it, and I’m such a goof, which helps.
In the circus arts, are there a lot of Jews?
Traditionally, there were not a lot — especially in America; the numbers were different in Eastern Europe, but they exist, circus Jews exist. When I was on Ringling, there were 111 performers, and the accountant, the school teacher and the cannon-baller were the only three Jews on the show.
For a schedule of Elliana Grace’s shows or to sign up for a class, visit www.Circusharmony.org
“36 and Under” highlights interesting Jews age 36 and under who either live in St. Louis or have spent a significant amount of time here. Read past 36 & Under stories at www.stljewishlight.com/36. To recommend someone for this intermittent feature, contact Associate Editor Eric Berger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-743-3674.