Feature Article Vol. II, No. 5

A Dream Job Never Dreamed Of

This is a tale that ranks right up there with the most cherished of show business fables: the (in this case) literal meteoric rise from unknown to overnight star.

Elliana Hentoff- Killian was at home in St. Louis, Mo., having left the circus school in Quebec City, helping her mother teach circus skills to eager young kids and wondering what to do next about realizing her ambition to become a professional circus performer, never mind star.  Out of the proverbial blue the phone rang, and an exchange previously recounted in the first half of this story that appeared in Vol. II, No. 2 of Spectacle ensued.  The gist of the conversation was that Ringling was looking for a young woman who could be trained by Brian Miser to become the show’s next human cannonball.

A hurriedly arranged audition while the show was in Massachusetts resulted in Elliana’s getting the job.  Following another hurried trip home to gather some personal belongings she was back with the show then in Boston and immediately immersed in the training that would prepare her for her January debut in the new Red Unit show “Built to Amaze.”  The title could not have been more apt as far as Elliana was concerned.

Now five months later, billed as Elliana Grace, she is indeed one of the stars of the show and still feeling very much like the young girl who gets to realize her childhood dream. “ I never thought I would be one of those people getting shot out of a cannon, but now I am, so  there is a whole new world of things I never thought I was going to do.”  One of those things is riding an elephant.

“To a lot of circus people,” she admits, that is a trivial thing, “but for me it’s the cherry on top of the sundae.  It’s really a dream job.  I get to do this amazing act, and then I get to ride an elephant, which is great.”  One minor disappointment, from which she quickly recovered, was not getting a cape to match one of those worn by her cannonball mentor, but she does get to wear her favorite costume in the opening number, and a pink bodysuit for her shot.

And she luuuuves living on the train.  In talking about the train her eyes light up again as they do when talking about riding an elephant.   “I don’t need a lot of space,” she professes.  “I am just one person so it doesn’t bother me that it’s a small room.  And just being able to sit and watch the countryside go by without having to worry about where I’m going or how to get there is great.”  As for sleeping on the train, the motion and the clickety-clack rock here to sleep. ”For me it is the most soothing thing.   I go right to sleep.”

But what is her favorite part of this remarkable experience?  “That’s a hard question,” she says, because it’s really the whole thing.  “The experience overall is my favorite part, which sounds corny, but I just turned twenty-one,  and I am in this professional setting doing an incredible act and getting to meet all these incredible people from different countries.  There are over three hundred people who travel with us, as well as the animals.  I never thought I would be here doing this, so for me it’s an amazing experience.”

Well, that’s the glamorous part.  What about what happens behind the scenes?  “I love being backstage, seeing how everything runs,” she insists. “I still get a kick about being backstage and watching how everyone does their job, and manage to not get in each other’s way.  There are so many things going on during the show that you don’t get to see.  For instance there are six different crews from various departments and the band.  I love the atmosphere backstage. “

She doesn’t mind doing interviews either, although she is one of the busiest performers insofar as interview requests go.  “Some weeks I have no PR and other weeks I have something every day, so it all depends on the city and what’s happening.  I like PR; I think its fun.  I don’t get tired telling my story over and over again because I’m telling it to different people.  And they react differently.  This is still new and exciting for me.  I’ve only been doing it on the road since October.  Everything is being experienced for the first time. “

The story she tells usually begins with how she got the job.  Her audition for Miser consisted of taking high falls, meaning diving into an air bag.  He wanted to see Elliana’s coordination and body control, and how she took direction.  A week later, after being hired, she did her first shot.  On that momentous occasion her mom, Jessica Hentoff, was in attendance along with Miser and Nadia and Dema, two other performers who help with the cannon and the shot.  Nadia, in fact, pulls the trigger.

“It was the most terrifying thing that I had ever done,” she admits.  “And still to this day it is the most terrifying thing I have ever done.  There is still that element of tension.  Before every shot I have a healthy dose of fear.    You have to respect what you are doing and understand that it is dangerous. The fear comes from that.”

Elliana and her mom Jessica Hentoff

Once inside the cannon she is able to communicate with Nadia as they get everything set and do their final checks.  “Then I let Nadia know I am ready, and she signals Andre McClain our ringmaster and then he starts the count-down.  At five I take a deep breath; at four I start to get ready and by three I am in position and two, and one I don’t even hear anymore, because everything is just clamped down.

“Once in midair I don’t have anything going through my head except trying to find the airbag.  It is so fast.  The shot happens like this [here she snaps her fingers] I don’t really have time to process stuff.  That happens afterwards, when I am reviewing how it went.   In the review I jot down how I felt, how my body felt while I was in the air, then how the landing in the airbag felt.  Nadia and Dema are at every shot so they can tell me what they saw.  Usually we all agree on the shot and talk about what needs to be changed or adjusted.  So I keep a record of every shot.  How long it lasted.  How fast it was, all that kind of stuff.  That helps me plan for the next shot.  Each building is different, although the grid remains the same, so for me the record book is a way to say, ‘Okay last week, I did this, and what do I have to adjust.’”   From her log she knows, for instance, that she has already done over two hundred shots since she began in October.  “I count them.  I am a perfectionist.”  Asked what her happiness quotient with her shots is, she says “fifteen percent.”  So approximately thirty were what she would describe as fantastic shots.  “I don’t consider a shot really good unless it’s perfect.”

A perfect shot, she tells us, is “a beautiful thing.  It is effortless. A lot of people think the cannon is really hard on your body and taxing.  It is.  It is very hard on your body, but when done right it’s like you’re floating through the air.”  Here she suddenly sounds like a surfer in search of the perfect wave, which is about the only comparison more ordinary mortals would understand.  “It is just an amazing, incredible feeling that makes you want to try again.  To get back to that feeling. “

Sometimes she has three tries at regaining that feeling on the same day and six in two days, otherwise known in Ringling parlance as a “six-pack.”    “My first experience doing three shows was here on Ringling,” she says. “The same for the six-pack.  That was another first.  The first month was a little rough getting used to the schedule and realizing I have three shows today and another three tomorrow.  But your body gets used to it and in practice you would do three or four shots anyway.  It was just longer days.”

The chance to ride an elephant came out of her first meeting with the show’s director Rye Mullis. ”I introduced myself and told him I really, really want to ride and elephant, and I really wanted a cape. “ She was imagining herself in one of the huge capes Miser would twirl around. “I said those were the two things I would really like if he could do that for me.  And he said, ‘Well, we’ll see what we can do,’ because you can’t really make those kinds of promises.  So when I saw the costume design, there was no cape, but when we got to winter quarters there was a list of people who were going to be riding elephants and needed to go for training.   My name was on the list, and I was so excited. I had not ridden an elephant since I was very, very young with my mom holding me.

“I learned on Asia our lead elephant what I was supposed to be doing.   They give you a leg up, and it’s all about timing which I don’t really have down pat, yet.  And I had to learn how to sit properly.   I am on one of the older elephants so she doesn’t push as hard.”   Now she and her mount are the lead in both versions of the long mount.

Although she only makes a brief appearance in the opening number before her own featured spot at the end of the first half, she says she doesn’t really have a lot of free time on her hands during the show.  She rests a bit during the horse act which follows the opening, and then right after that she starts warming–up, after which she begins prepping the cannon.  By then it is time to get into her costume and get into place for her entrance.

On her days off she likes to explore the various cities on the tour.   “I liked Philadelphia.  I had never been there.”  When not sight-seeing she might take time to do her laundry on the train, explaining that   while the train is moving all the people who live on each one of the cars have to share the limited water available from a water tank. “So you can’t do much.  Just quickee showers.”   Once the train is parked, however, and everything is hooked up the water supply is plentiful, and it is possible to do one’s wash, as well as take longer showers.  This week, parked in Trenton, NJ, where the sight-seeing opportunities were severely limited, she elected to clean her room.

Elliana and her team from left Brian Miser, Nadia and Dema

As one can tell from the first installment of this feature, Elliana and her mother are very close.  “We have a lot of history, obviously, and she has become one of my best friends.  I talk to her a lot, almost every day.  She requires a text message after each shot.  And if I don’t do it, she’ll call me.  It’s another way to reassure her that I’m okay.  I think it’s natural for her to be a little worried.  I am her daughter, and I am getting shot out of a cannon.  Not a lot of people can say that, so she’s worried, but she really trusted Brian who taught me, and she trusts me that I know what I’m doing.  I have a fabulous team behind me.  It’s not just me doing it.  The people that I have backing me up are just incredible.”  Miser, who is presently doing spot dates, comes back to the show about once a month to check up on Elliana and the cannon.

With every experience being a new adventure, the young star hasn’t had much time to learn any new skills.  “I’m still trying to master the cannon.”  However she says she really wants to learn to sew and play the piano, both of which she feels she will be able to do while on tour.  “I am friends with the seamstress, and I am friends with the band, and so between them I will learn those things.  And I have been trading recipes with one of the chefs on the pie car.  So it’s been great. He just gave me a great recipe for a salad dressing:  I just made it.”

Elliana in a sky walk with Circus Harmony

She did, however, come to the circus with a wide range of skills that she had been working on ever since

Elliana in Circus Harmony

she was a very little girl.  Before the cannon her specialty was the lyra.  “I have it on the road here with me.  I do get to practice on my own a little bit.  I did get to learn how to ride an elephant.  The rest of it kind of scares me.  I don’t think I could ever learn to do the wheel.  That really scares me.  And it’s fun to have other performers tell me that they wouldn’t want my job, and I say ‘Oh, you’re crazy.  My job is easy compared to what you do.  And so I would have no second thoughts about doing this for a long time.  It’s been really fun.”

It would be a dream come true if she had ever had such a dream.

In a barback act with Circ us Flora