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Putting the circle in 'cirque': Rachel Salzman spins a Christmas surprise at the Orpheum
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Putting the circle in 'cirque': Rachel Salzman spins a Christmas surprise at the Orpheum

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Don’t worry about Rachel Salzman’s hands as she spins around the Orpheum Theatre stage during “A Magical Cirque Christmas.”

“It’s more likely I’ll injure my toes or my shins,” the Cyr wheel performer says. “It looks like I’m going to roll over my hands, but it’s really easy to open your hands. The first thing you will roll over are your toes."

The Cyr wheel, for those who don’t know, is a hoop-like contraption that’s approximately 10 centimeters taller than its user. It weighs about 29 pounds and it requires its performer to constantly shift weight to keep moving. Make one wrong move and disaster is possible.

Before Salzman started performing on it, she was an accomplished dancer in New York, working with acclaimed companies.

Salzman

Rachel Salzman spins a holiday story during "A Magical Cirque Christmas."

In 2012, however, she moved to Montreal to study with the National Circus School. She was introduced to the Cyr wheel (named for its creator, Daniel Cyr) and realized it was a good fit. “I feel like I’m dancing with my wheel,” she says. “It’s a great dance partner.”

Still, those first weeks were rough. “It was horrible,” Salzman admits. “There’s no way to prepare to be good at it. You really just suck for a while. You just keep going.”

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Interestingly, the wheel isn’t about strength and flexibility. “It’s about learning the coordination,” Salzman says. “It’s like learning to ride a bike.”

Because the hoop can be broken down into five parts, it can be transported easily. “It fits into a golf-like bag and you bolt it together. It’s pretty heavy duty.”

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For the New York native, circus school was the perfect “next” step. She grew up dreaming of life in the circus and discovered it was “an amazing melding of athletic skills and artistic quality.”

The American concept of circus – with animal acts and “ta-da” – is much different than the Canadian and European model. Cirque du Soleil, Salzman says, popularized the idea, introducing United States residents to the more artistic side of the entertainment. In the United States, “there’s very little funding for the art form. Go abroad and a lot more is happening. Since the 1980s, contemporary circus has exploded.”

In France, for example, Salzman is part of Company Pueril Peril where she is able to do acrobatics in a different format. "We have an hour-long show with three acrobats and a musician. We’re working on a 30-minute show that we’ll perform in February,” she says. “What I love about circus is you can go from one extreme to another. I can be a part of a big Christmas show with lots of energy and lights or I can be part of an artistic, more obscure production that does outreach in foreign countries.”

For “A Magical Cirque Christmas,” Salzman also does an aerial act that involves hanging by a rope. The skill sets are different even though they both involve a hoop.

The Cyr Wheel, however, is a real passion – and a transition that will enable her to keep performing long after she might have as a dancer.

Rachel Salzman

Performer Rachel Salzman

Now on her second wheel (she gave the first one away and named it when she did), Salzman says it’s all about the practice.

“You learn how to handle it and you find time to do it,” she says. “Sometimes, we’ll have about five minutes on stage (before a show begins). I get on my wheel just to make sure I know how big the space is and to check our lights. Then, I’ll stretch and do strengthening and cardio and wake up all the muscles. It also helps mentally to prepare yourself.”

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If you go

What: “A Magical Cirque Christmas”

When: 7:30 p.m., Dec. 19

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 428 Pierce St.

Tickets: Orpheumlive.com

Details: The Christmas-themed program will spotlight acrobats and other performers in an entertainment keyed to holiday music.

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