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Cedar Rapids native in Cirque du Soleil's 'Corteo' eager to share aerial artistry

Jim Csek photo

Cedar Rapids native Erin Cervantes will be flying high above the arena floor in Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo,” coming to the U.S. Cellular Center in her hometown from Wednesday (5/1) to May 5.
Jim Csek photo Cedar Rapids native Erin Cervantes will be flying high above the arena floor in Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo,” coming to the U.S. Cellular Center in her hometown from Wednesday (5/1) to May 5.
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Erin Cervantes went to a circus class on a lark while living in Los Angeles — and emerged winging her way through a new career as an aerialist.

The Cedar Rapids native will be flying high above the U.S. Cellular Center when Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo” extravaganza comes to her hometown Wednesday (May 1) through May 5.

“It’s unbelievable,” she said by phone from a recent tour stop in Topeka, Kan. “When I saw Cedar Rapids on the tour plan, I could not believe my eyes. I thought people were messing with me. I was like, ‘How is that possible, that we get to go to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, of all places — my hometown?’ I’m really, really, really excited and really happy that I get to go there and (perform for) my family and friends.”

She debuted with the “Corteo” touring show in March 2018, after rehearsing for five months at the Cirque du Soleil facility in Montreal, and she’s recently signed on for the upcoming European tour beginning in September.

When she’s not hanging from the heights of the U.S. Cellular Center, she’ll be hanging with her parents, Michael and JoAnn Cervantes, and her cat, who is living with her parents in the house they built in Bertram in her childhood.

Now 39, the last time she “stepped foot in the arena” was for her graduation from Cedar Rapids Washington High School in 1998. This time, she’ll be performing at the start of “Corteo,” when her feet leave the ground so she can dance suspended from a chandelier 25 to 30 feet in the air — depending on what part of the mammoth structure she’s hanging onto.

While audience members hold their collective breath, she’ll swing free as a bird — with no safety net underneath.

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With nearly a decade training for the “what ifs” and performing in other shows, she’s able to make decisions and corrections in a split second if something doesn’t feel right. They practice the dangerous moves low to the ground — with spotters around them — trying to fail, so they know how the worst-case scenarios will feel.

It’s the kind of thing they practice in circus school, which translates to her current work, she said, because feet can get caught in the beaded ropes of the “Corteo” chandeliers, or the artists may catch some beads when they’re grabbing the bars.

“If it’s something that you really need to redo, at that point, it doesn’t matter if you look ugly for a second, because it’s all about safety first. Do it, be safe, get into the position and carry on from there,” she said.

When she’s up in the air, she feels like she’s flying the whole time.

“It’s so nice,” she said. “The first grab of the bar when the chandelier lifts off the ground and you feel your feet leave, it’s just a nice floating, freeing feeling — especially at the beginning of our chandelier act. It’s so pretty and slow and the music is nice, and the male singers are onstage with us singing. It’s lovely.”

All of the acts in “Corteo” illustrate different points in the life of a clown named Mauro, as he’s reunited with the people who mattered to him in life.

“It’s his funeral, or the dream of his funeral — you don’t really know,” Cervantes said, and she and the other three aerialists who perform on three chandeliers represent his past loves.

“He’s lying on a bed, like he’s dead at his funeral, and they spin into the middle of the stage, and all four of his past loves run out. It’s the first time we make a connection with him. After that, it’s all about being there with this person you haven’t seen in years, and it’s a celebration of his life. All of that combined with the floating and the flying — it’s lovely,” she said.

“I really enjoy my hair blowing in the wind. It’s a nice feeling, when you can just tune out and you really know what you’re doing in the act, you don’t have to think about what you’re doing. You’re just present onstage in the moment there with the other women and with the main clown, Mauro. It’s a really lovely feeling.”

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She’ll appear at other times during the production, and is on a rotation for the rue cyr act, performed by stepping into a giant metal wheel and spinning. She’s also the backup for the suspended pole act, which she may do once or twice a month if the featured performer is ill or injured.

“It’s very much an ensemble show, so we all have a lot of cues to do within the show,” she said. “You’re an angel over here, then you’re yourself over there, and you have to go and do different cues. There’s really no acts that are alone on stage. There’s always something else going on. It’s nice to have, at times, the entire cast onstage together.”

Cervantes grew up taking ballet and dance classes, from age 4 until middle school, then joined Washington’s dance team in high school. she took some more ballet classes during college in Chicago, then when she moved to Los Angeles.

“I was never super-passionate about dance and ballet to be really good at it,” she said. “I was OK at it, but I was never the prima ballerina.”

Her real passion lies in acting, which she inherited from her father, a longtime theater teacher and performer. Both skill sets, however, meld well with circus arts, she said.

“But when I started circus, I had no upper body strength. None at all. Zero. None. It was all in my legs from dance. Now it’s the opposite. My legs are weak and my arms are really strong,” she said with a laugh.

Her path began at Cirque School L.A., when a friend invited her to come along. She had lived in Los Angeles for about five years at that point, and had never heard of the facility. She became intrigued with the training as a hobby and a different way to work out.

“Then I started to feel like I had a little bit of talent for it,” she said, studying with the owner, who had been in Cirque du Soleil for many years. “She took about four or five of us under her wing and pushed us really hard, because she saw potential.”

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In 2013, Cervantes began sending off videos of her own choreography, and submitted one to Cirque du Soleil, since she heard the troupe would be holding auditions in Las Vegas. She was thrilled to score an invitation to those auditions.

“I was a little freaked at that point, because I didn’t really think that they would invite me, because I was so new to circus. At that point, I’d only been training about a year and a half,” she said. She passed each round, and was placed in the Cirque database.

She’s now part of a “family” of about 100 people traveling with “Corteo,” where performers range in age from 20 to 43. She plans to keep flying as long as she feels healthy.

“And hopefully when I’m ready to retire, it’s my own choice and not my body that chooses for me.”

GET OUT!

WHAT: Cirque du Soleil “Corteo,” featuring Cedar Rapids native and aerialist Erin Cervantes

WHERE: U.S. Cellular Center, 370 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids

WHEN: Wednesday (5/1) to May 5; 7:30 p.m. May 1, 2, 3; 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. May 4; 1 and 5 p.m. May 5

TICKETS: $48 to $118 adults, $39 to $95 children; arena box office, 1- (800) 745-3000 or uscellularcenter.com/events/

SHOW’S WEBSITE: cirquedusoleil.com/corteo

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