A woman with lofty talents

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Feature Graphic October 29th
Coloured streamers dive and swoop from rigging on the 40-foot-high vaulted ceiling.  Trapezes and aerial hoops hang like empty bird perches above a pale wooden floor. A 25-foot window reveals the mountainous coast of Salt Spring Island, B.C. This temple is known as Flying Dreams Aerial Arts Productions, home of performer, coach, and aerial artist Victoria Mihalyi.

Mihalyi is a petite woman with pixie-short red hair who looks like she might be related to Tinker Bell. She is deceptively strong and flexible, and can sink into the splits in any direction. Audiences gasp when she plummets and barrel rolls through the sky as if she had wings.

But it has taken Mihalyi over a decade to get where she is now, and it hasn’t been easy. She didn’t start taking circus classes until she was well past the age of an aerialist’s prime years; she’s afraid of heights, and when she moved to Salt Spring Island, there was nowhere for her to train.

“I never actually imagined that I was going to have a career in circus arts,” says Mihalyi, reflecting on the challenges she’s had to face. But after watching a live Cirque du Soleil show and finding it magical, she was instilled with the desire to run away and join the circus no matter what the deterrent.

She didn’t really have to run away. Mihalyi, living in Toronto, Ont. at the time, started circus training at the Toronto School of Circus Arts when she was in her mid-40s. The National Circus School in Montreal, Que. starts accepting students into its preparatory professional program at age nine. Most other circus schools, the Toronto School of Circus Arts included, offer recreational classes for anyone five years and up. Fortunately, these schools also have adult classes.

Mihalyi started with the discipline of flying trapeze. She found out quickly that it wasn’t her thing.

“There’s a timing that you need with flying trapeze, and I just didn’t quite have it,” she says.

Mihalyi attempted silks next, but though she fell in love with them, they were far more difficult than she’d expected. She had been a dancer all her life, but didn’t have the strength or endurance to manoeuvre in the air.

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“Silk is the hardest aerial apparatus to teach and learn,” says Chelsea Christie, a coach from the Calgary Circus School. Christie says the silks are harder than other apparatuses, such as corde, because the silks are slippery and stretchy. They require a strong grip and considerable upper body strength.

“I couldn’t even climb [the silks],” says Mihalyi. It took her four months just to get off the ground.

Once she achieved altitude, however, another factor came into play—her fear of heights. Christie says that people who are scared of heights often don’t even consider trying silk or other aerial apparatuses, or are “less likely to stick with [it].” Mihalyi says fear is more common than you’d think, but agrees that it can be limiting to those who practise. Mihalyi used her fear to her advantage. Instead of being paralyzed, she developed an awareness of gravity that has kept her safer than many fearless aerial artists.

“You get to a certain height and it doesn’t really matter anymore,” she says. “If you’re going to plunge off 30 feet, your chances of getting killed are pretty good. So what difference does it make? You’re just as dead from 50 or 100.”

“It gives you a real healthy respect for the ground, to have a little bit of fear,” says Mihalyi. She goes on to tell the story of one of her students: “[The student] didn’t have a sense of even the possibility of something going wrong, and so she would make mistakes that were scary, and potentially disastrous.”

Mistakes in the air can be an inconvenience, or they can be dangerous, Mihalyi says. Certain tricks, if they go wrong, can result in a nasty tangle that the aerialist has to untie. Other tricks, if badly executed, result in big falls.

Mihalyi has fallen off the silks on a few occasions, twice from the very top. Once, she caught herself just in time: her head stopped two inches from the ground. Falls are frightening and can leave emotional scars, but Mihalyi speaks of it casually. She says even increasing the altitude doesn’t bother her.

“You get to a certain height and it doesn’t really matter anymore,” she says. “If you’re going to plunge off 30 feet, your chances of getting killed are pretty good. So what difference does it make? You’re just as dead from 50 or 100.”

Mihalyi is confident in her abilities, mostly because the sense of responsibility and safety on the silks lies within her own body. For her, aerial silks have become a haven rather than something to fear.

Mihalyi has travelled to and trained in various places including the United States and the Caribbean, but when she finally settled on Salt Spring Island, she found there was nowhere to train or perform. Unwilling to let anything stop her, Mihalyi started construction on her own silks gym just under 10 years ago. The gym started out as a tall roof straddling four posts. As winter approached and the weather became colder and wetter, walls were added for shelter. Now, the building looks like a temple.

“I just had this kind of vision of a churchy place,” says Mihalyi, “because the art seems sacred in a way, it seems like a transitional thing between earth and sky.”

Having overcome quite a few obstacles since her introduction to silks, Mihalyi continues to pursue the aerial arts through training, performing and teaching.

Mihalyi cranes her neck up towards the ceiling where one of her students is hanging from a pair of red silks, one foot tied into each strand. Mihalyi reminds the girl to point her toes and straighten her knees, and gives her the go-ahead. The girl crosses the silks behind her back, arches, straddles her legs and flips upside down. Mihalyi inspects her position and makes a few suggestions. She teaches with the same vibrancy she exudes when she performs. Even retiring would be considered giving up for Mihalyi. She plans to keep practising silks until her body won’t let her anymore.

“I don’t plan to retire, ever,” she says. “I just love doing what I’m doing.”

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