Narrative and Interview by Carson Caffey
Veronica Blair began her acrobatic career at the age of 14 with Make*A*Circus; her first professional performance was at the age of 17, making her the youngest professional African American trapeze artist in the United States. She has also trained in Chinese acrobatics under master Lu Yi. She has studied with the most renowned artists in her field, including the Ringling Brothers, the trapeze great LaNorma Fox, first African American Aerialist Pa-Mela Hernadez, and the renowned “Godfather of the Tissu,” Gerard Fasoli of Centre National des Arts Du Cirque/Cnac. Blair was personally selected by Cedric Walker, the founder of Universoul Circus, and was the show’s resident artist for five years. Blair has also performed with many other world-renowned groups around the globe such as AntiGravity, Universal Studios Japan, Warner Bros., Germanys most successful Circus show, AFRIKA! AFRIKA!, and was the lead artist in KAMAU’s “BooDha” music video. In 2010 Blair launched the development of The Uncle Junior Project, a documentary focusing on the careers of African American circus performers. And in 2017 Blair was invited to speak at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival about her experience as producer and director of The Uncle Junior Project; there, she served as an organizer and moderator on a panel highlighting the African American circus experience. Blair has worked with the African American Art and Culture Complex to stage Entrapment to Entertainment: A Celebration of Blacks in American Circus, a three-month expedition with over 1,000 attendees from October, 2013 to January, 2014. Blair is a professional artist who puts her heart into the circus and entertainment community.
Could you share how long you have been choreographing and producing aeriel work and what led you to this career path?
Blair: I have been choreographing and producing aerial acts in different capacities for about 10 years now with the last three years being for large companies, for different events, and my own contemporary circus show. The thing that brought me into the world of choreographing-we would say being an artistic director-is my participation in circus arts and my own career as a circus artist/aerialist. I have been doing circus professionally for 20 years. I started professionally when I was nearly 18 years old. It was a process of having all this experience and being completely in love with circus arts, being completely in love with some of my dear friends that are just amazing artists, watching bodies move over the years, and performing in really good-and some really bad-shows. I always sit back and think, “Oh, I think this would work better if it happened like this . . . Having those thoughts and ultimately realizing I could actually do that myself and I didn’t just have to be onstage. That I could also create shows and I could help people explore and realize whatever their goals were for their own personal acts . . . I realized that I could actually be a guide for people.
How or where do you find your inspiration?
Blair: I find my inspiration from the people I meet. I’m learning that don’t feel like I’m an expert, rather, I look at people and see what they’re capable of. I see their potential, I see where they can go and that’s where I start. So, the inspiration, again, comes from the individuals I’m working with. That’s where the challenge and excitement comes from. I love being on that journey with someone where I am helping to create something and helping them realize that they you actually can do this thing, and it’s going to be sick, and it’s going to look good on them.
I also watch a lot of different shows. I don’t just watch dance shows I don’t just watch circus shows. I live in a theater district, so I go see all kinds of stuff. I worked for two cruise ship companies and cruise ships have their own formula for how they put shows together. I like the gimmicky things that they do, like their LED lights and how they use projection. I like to go to shows to see what’s new and what are people doing with production elements on the shows. So, I get a lot of inspiration from what is hot now. Those two things: I get excited when I work with people and I get excited when I see how other people put their productions together.
What are the steps you take in making a new piece?
Blair: Journals. I have a couple of journals that I use: 1) A concept journal. When I first get an idea, I’ll write it in the journal, and I always come up with a good title first and I write it out and look at it. Then, I’ll write out the premise of what it is about so I have the concept and the creation in the journal. 2) I have another journal in which, when I’m working with an artist, I watch them move and write down what they do well and that’s my note taking journal. Most people need to write. I need to visualize what’s in my head because if I see something that’s really exciting for me, I’m going to forget the details of what I saw and why I’m making the decisions I’m making. So, I tend to write them down in those notebooks and then I’ll go to my computer and write a proposal in a Google document. Then I go to Canva and make a mockup of the title of the show and visualize what the vibe is, and I’ll start going on the internet and look up exactly what I want things to look like visually. It’s a lot of work on the front end and then I’ll go to a couple of people that I trust and run my idea and concept by them. I do that because I trust certain people and I want to get that “Yes, and it would be sick if you did this” and “Yes, that’s interesting” from them. I go to people that will give me that energy. This step is also for my confidence. It helps confirm me and my ideas. For my own personal projects, that’s pretty much how I start things.
If it’s a corporate project, I usually have a video of what I am supposed to teach and there’s a video of the show to view. I’ll read the text and ask as many questions as possible over the material and I basically turn into a machine. Because in this kind of job, I need to execute what the director wants and exactly what is needed for the show. What I bring to the table as an individual is I individualize all the training. I’m not going to take a video that my boss shows me of someone doing an act and try to get a different body doing exactly the same thing. That doesn’t work, most of the time it doesn’t look good, and an artist that is new to the company may see that video and think, “Oh, I can’t do that.” It can create this toxic environment in the studio where they all think they can’t do certain things or make comparisons. You don’t want to compare yourself to what you see in a video or to anybody in the room. I want the person that I am working with to actually focus on themself and see what their real potential is in a situation. In order to stop that comparison from happening, I look at the video and I break the performance down into three or four parts, and then I will explain it to the artist and see what they can do. As long as they hit those three or four points in the act and as long as they are dynamic when it needs to be dynamic or spinning and doing turns when they need to be doing that in the music, it is normally fine. That is how I like to get the best out of the artist and then make the director happy. But it is done in a very methodical way because I usually have a deadline and there is just not enough time to be too emotional or fight with artist about whatever may come up.
What does success mean to you in aerial/circus work?
Blair: I was just talking to my friend from Germany about that-not necessarily about success, but what I like to see onstage. For me, success in aerial work could mean that you reach a higher technical level skill in whatever apparatus that you choose. Also, having a lot of stage presence-that it is not just about your skill level, you’re not just collecting tricks, but what it means. My favorite type of artist to watch is someone who has learned the technique and that has that experience of performing like a machine, but also someone who has went beyond that and begins to take that technique and interpret and use an apparatus in a way that is unique-in a way that we call “research.” Taking that foundation that you have and interpreting it in your body . . . When you see that an artist has reached a certain level that is well beyond that of someone who has just graduated school and has this high technical skill level, they reached a level of understanding in their body and their apparatus and being onstage that’s just completely enjoyable to watch. It may not include a lot of technique, but it’s just that they are so confident and so good that it becomes an option whether they want to use it or not. But them not using it is still amazing, so that is a successful artist to me.
What has been your biggest challenge in your career?
Blair: There have been two challenges: The number one challenge a lot of people don’t talk about, even artist that are extremely good, is the struggle with confidence. If you choose this as a career you need to understand that you are going to have different stages of confidence. It’s going to go up and down throughout your career, and it’s just something that you are going to have to manage. When I was 18-23 years old, I was working and training a bunch. I didn’t have a lot of time to take time off and my confidence was all the way up, but then it went down for about a year because I stopped working as much. And then I got a contract in Japan and it went up again because I was working. When I left Japan, it went down again. I went to Europe and it went up. I think it’s a part of growing up and choosing a life of circus or as an artist. We are constantly growing and changing at a faster rate than other people, we are having these really intense experiences. When we go out and do these shows in different countries . . . Every year you are working in a different show, or you’re working in the same company but the cast has changed. There is so much change that happens and so many new experiences, traumatic experiences when you’re traveling on the road and you’re doing a 39-city tour . . . You’re never settled, your body is in flight or fight mode the whole time because you’re staying in a hotel and your body has to be in peak shape. You’re shoving food in your mouth because you have to get to rehearsal, you have to do the show. We don’t take into consideration that all of these experiences are having a great impact on our psyche, on our mental state, on our bodies. We don’t realize it because we are so strong that we can push through pain, but your confidence just goes up and down. One minute you can feel like you are on top of the world because you are working, or you are doing a headlining act, or you got a good role, and then the next moment, as soon as that’s over, you’re thinking, “Oh, who am I? What am I doing?” I think that people don’t talk about that enough in performance and I do think that as I’m saying this to you now that there is a bit more. We need to start addressing these mental health issues that come up. Another one is being injured. An artist’s acceptance of injury and acceptance of the effect when injuries happen. They are going to happen and sometimes emotions are tied into it. How do we treat ourselves when we are injured? Are we treating ourselves like our life is over? Our career is over? Is it traumatic and dramatic, or can we deal with those emotions as they come up with an injury? Are we healing ourselves mentally and emotionally as well? How are we treating our bodies? How are we [internally] talking to ourselves? That is a whole topic worth discussing further and has been a challenge throughout my career. The other part is-and this is more to do with being a Black woman who chose the path of being an aerialist-the assumptions that have been made about me throughout my career and the way I’ve been treated. Most of my career, I’ve been in situations where I’ve been the only person of color or the only person of African descent and things have come up. Guys have touched me because they wanted to touch Black skin, people in the same cast have called my hair weird, people have made comments about my size, about my feet, about different attributes about myself that I can’t change. And this is the nature of entertainment. Everyone is under this crazy microscope, so everyone is experiencing the same thing. The comments that I might be getting about certain parts of my body, someone else is getting it too, but I think it can be extremely isolating in a situation where you really don’t have that support. Being cast in certain situations because of my skin color first, and not necessarily my skill . . . Managing to have this super long and, in some ways, successful career, but not being allowed in certain places because of certain things has been a challenge. But then I also realized over the years that if I want to create the kind of shows and types of environments that I want to work in, I actually have to create that myself. You can only fight institutions that have already been around for years and have already built their company culture. Sometimes you break yourself into a job, you get into that situation, and you look around and think, “I was fighting so hard for this? I wanted it so badly, and, now that I’m here, the pay is bad and I’m not being treated well.” It’s just not always as it seems. I’ve experienced a lot of ignorance around [being a person of color in the industry].
What are your hopes in the field of aerial work?
Blair: My hope is to create aerial work in America specifically that has no boundaries. What I mean by that is I want to work with artists that have something they want to say and have stories that they want to tell. And they want to do their exploration and their research, or they have done it and just need help telling their story, I want to work with people who want to tell more authentic stories; we can all put on a pretty teal blue costume that flows and do something really beautiful and princess-like, but now I just want to just see people explore their range of all the emotions that people have, and really be honest about it, and have it be good-not something that is abstract and unrelatable. I want to see good aerial work that really tells a story that we haven’t experienced yet. Fortunately-and unfortunately-our field is becoming oversaturated with people who are hobbyists and really into aerial as an extreme sport or something that they can do for Instagram; they are not really invested in it. I have spent 20 years of my life as an aerialist. It can be a little bit disheartening looking on the internet and see that a 60-second clip is going to get a lot of views and the [unqualified] person in this clip is going to probably get a decent contract while some of us have been here putting in the work, doing the research. We have the stage presence, we been working for years, and it’s easier for us to get overlooked nowadays because of that oversaturation on social media. We have people from other fields coming in doing aerial, which is great, but it’s actually changed a bit of what people are looking for. So, you have the hard-core, lifetime aerialists who have the skills, technique, and performance, and then you have people who have barely any experience, but they have a nice split and they can do that split in five different positions while hanging on a hoop-and they get the job. My wish for aerial work is for it to be higher-quality, expressive work that can stand on its own.
Anything else that you would like to say?
Blair: I think that choreography and good work starts with the individual. I wish that I was in situations where choreographers and trainers were able to look at my body and see what I had to offer and work with that. I feel like I would have been on my path a lot sooner. I think that good choreography comes from looking at who’s standing in front of you and working with that body, especially in aerial. I think there is a lot more diversity that we are not seeing and there are preconceived expectations of what audiences should be seeing.
Takeaways: Veronica Blair’s Impact
Veronica Blair was an amazing person to interview about the world of aerial/circus work. She was honest and truthful about things that she sees as wrong in the field and things that need to be changed. She has been in the field for so long and has been on the performance side and the choreographer side, so she knows the ends and outs of aerial work. I felt comfortable and enjoyed getting to talk to Veronica a bit and learn more about her and what she is all about.
About. Veronica Blair. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2022, from https://www.veronicablairaerial.com/about/