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Chelsea Teel, former Fort Wayne Ballet student, runs away and joins the circus

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Karen Gibbons-Brown, the artistic director of the Fort Wayne Ballet, often emphasizes how formal ballet training provides the fundamentals for a career in dance. No matter what field a dancer chooses to pursue — contemporary, jazz, etc. — ballet training offers a solid foundation, a set of techniques and habits for any kind of performance.

And apparently, ballet training even comes in handy if you want to run away and join the circus.

Chelsea Teel, a former FWB student who often returns to Fort Wayne to work with the company, is now an aerialist touring with Cavalia, a company that produces shows combining multimedia elements, circus acrobatics, and equestrian acts. Those people who perform acrobatic feats in mid-air, or spin around while hanging from a hoop? That’s what Teel does.

To be completely accurate, Cavalia is not a circus, and Normand Latourelle, the creator and Artistic Director of Cavalia, wouldn’t thank you for calling it one. Cavalia has been compared to Cirque du Soleil — Latourelle was one of the founders and early directors of Cirque de Soleil — but the emphasis in Cavalia is on horses. “(Latourelle) really stresses that the focus is on the horses and their natural beauty,” Teel says. “Aerialists and acrobats are really just part of the show as accents to what the horses can do.”

The journey from ballet dancer to aerialist might seem a little unusual, though not the way Teel describes it. Teel trained at the Fort Wayne Ballet for 13 years before she graduated high school and set out to make her way in the ballet field. She joined the Kansas City Ballet as an apprentice, and was promoted three months later to a full-time member of the company. After performing as principal dancer there for seven years, Teel took a job with Ballet Arizona in Phoenix.

But she still kept her toes in the Kansas City dance community. Shortly before she was offered the position with Ballet Arizona, Teel had started to work with a performing arts group in Kansas City called Quixotic Fusion. “They mix contemporary dance with circus arts, live original music, projections, and just about anything you could think of,” Teel says. She joined Quixotic Fusion as a dancer, but says she was hooked after seeing the aerialists in the company work.

She began to transition into work as an aerialist after her first show with Quixotic in June 2009. She was still at Ballet Arizona at the time, going back and forth between the companies, but when the 2010 season ended in June, she moved to Montreal to start training full-time as an aerialist. “Montreal is regarded as the center of the circus world in North America, sort of like how if you want to be a musical theater actor, you move to New York,” Teel says. “I knew that Montreal would provide me with the best atmosphere and coaches for aerial training. Just like it's difficult to become a ballet dancer if there is no ballet school or other students to learn from, that's how it was for me with circus work.”

Early last Spring, a group of aerialists from Teel’s training facility was hired for a new show by Cavalia. Teel wasn’t part of that group, but early in rehearsals a duo couple was let go, so Teel and her partner sent in a video of their work. They were hired and offered a three year contract.

“I was originally hired as one of the group aerialists, doing three different acts: rotating Chinese pole; cerceaux (aerial hoop); and a flying silk/hammock act,” Teel says. “On my first day at the site, BJ (my partner and boyfriend) and I were asked to perform our duo trapeze act as a temporary replacement for another act that wasn't ready yet. It's an act that we've developed on our own over the past year that combines my ballet training with the strength and skill that's expected from a circus act.”

“We began performing it for the preview shows that started mid-September, and it was very well received by the audience,” Teel continues. “Normand (Latourelle) saw our act and loved it so much that it's now going to be a permanent part of the show.”

With aerialists, the focus is most often on strength and technique; things like stage presence and performance quality are usually secondary. Teel’s training as a dancer made her stand out. Teel says the director of the show, Wayne Fowkes, instantly saw that Teel was a ballet dancer. “Dancers have an ability to know exactly what their body looks like, even without a mirror, and that translates into beautiful lines and quality of movement,” explains Teel. “Since I’ve been performing since I was very young, I'm also very comfortable in front of large audiences, and don't have to think about my stage presence during a show; it's just always there.”

“Most of the aerialists are stronger and more muscular than I am, but it was really my lines and performance quality that got me the job, and helped to make our duo act a permanent fixture in the show.”

Teel says its an incredible opportunity to present work that she’s helped choreograph to millions of people all over the world. And she also works with one of the equestrian stars of the show. The production has about 55 people in the cast, and around 70 horses… “After the shows, I'm responsible for braiding the mane of Univoco, one of the horses,” she says. “It's amazing to stand next to such a huge, powerful animal and be able to hug it, talk to it, and basically give it a make over.”

For more on Cavalia, including the tour schedule, visit cavalia.net.

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