After retiring from gymnastics competitions at 19, Christine Van Loo’s calling was up in the air.
Hovering 30-feet high, she performs fantastical feats with Cirque de la Symphonie.
The troupe of performers returns to the Orpheum Theatre Saturday night with acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers, strong men and aerialists like Van Loo.
During the program, she’ll float above the stage full of musicians from the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra suspended from aerial silks in a show of strength, flexibility, creativity and courage.
“I get scared,” she said. “It’s just part of my job. I get scared and I do it anyway.”
Before each show, she often listens to motivational speakers – something she aspires to be – and draws inspiration from TED talks or the likes of Dan Millman, a former world-champion trampolinist and author of “Way of the Peaceful Warrior.”
“I like to hear stories about life transitions – like 'aha' moments – things that happened to you that were really hard or taught you a life lesson or made your life veer in a different direction,” she said. “That’s what I’m gearing my speeches toward – things that I’ve gone through that have changed me.”
When she was competing as an acrobatic gymnast, she used to do a trick – a double back dismount. The first time she ever attempted it without a spotter or safety equipment was at the World Cup, the day after her 14th birthday.
She heard the booming announcement, “From the United States of America, Christine Van Loo …,” and stepped onto the mat. There was no turning back. Her mind was racing, filled with flashes of self-doubt.
“All of these amazing things are happening around me. And I’m just thinking, I have to do this dismount by myself,” she said. “You jump and you’re thrown 20 feet above someone’s shoulders before landing on the ground and flipping twice in the air.”
Van Loo and her partner began the routine, building up to the single most terrifying moment. She knew what was coming and what she had to do. But could she land it?
Her partner pitched her in the air. The next thing she knew, she was on the ground, looking into his eyes.
She had done it. She took the bronze and became the first American acrobatic gymnast to medal at the World Cup.
“I was given this tool,” she said. “I knew what it felt like to be afraid and to do something anyway. If I face fear, on the other side of it, there’s nothing. It made me feel bigger. It’s expanded my life.”
Van Loo went on to become a seven-time National Champion, Female Olympic Athlete of the Year and Athlete of the Decade in acrobatic gymnastics.
She retired from competing at 19 and got into teaching gymnastics, acrobatics and dance, even aerobics and stretch classes.
“I taught world champion ballroom dancers acrobatic lessons to incorporate into their routines. I taught a 50-year clown how to do a dive forward roll into a laundry basket,” she said.
She ultimately stumbled upon a profession as an acrobat. She was living in Orlando, Fla., when a friend came to audition for Cirque du Soleil. She went with him for support.
“I sat down and saw all these people. I thought this is my family. These are my people. I never knew that this world existed,” she said.
Growing up, there were a lot of things Van Loo wanted to be from an actress to an astronaut.
Now, she appears to fly weightlessly through the air with Cirque de la Symphonie, the only cirque company in the world that works exclusively with symphony orchestras.
“I discovered this world, and then, I just dove into performing,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
It was an easy transition from acrobatic gymnastics to aerial performances. Both combine art and athletics.
“I love the artistry of it, and I love that it’s mixed with challenging your body to its limits, too,” Van Loo said. “The hardest part of my job is honestly just traveling. I have a husband and a dog. I miss them. I’m used to everything else. I’m used to flying in the air, climbing and flipping. I don’t get used to sitting in one chair for six hours at a time.”
Adding to her accomplishments, Van Loo has performed at the American Music Awards with Aerosmith and at the Grammy Awards on two separate occasions. She has toured with Paul McCartney and served as the opening act in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Yet, the sensation of taking the stage with a live symphony is like no other.
“You don’t just hear the music,” she said. “You feel it coming up through your body. You become one of the instruments. It makes all the difference. It’s the epitome of performing. Having an entire symphony orchestra beneath you, it doesn’t get any better than that.
“I feel empowered when I’m up there. I feel very creative, inspired and, in turn, inspiring.”