For Ringling Bros.' human cannonball, every show is a blast

mmeehan@herald-leader.comSeptember 3, 2014 

  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

    When: 7 p.m. Sept. 5; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Sept. 6; 1 and 5 p.m. Sept. 7

    Where: Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine St.

    Tickets: $15-$80.

    Call: (859) 233-3535

    Online: Rupparena.com, Ringling.com

    Special event: Eat Like an Elephant Brunch, 11 a.m. Sept. 5, behind Rupp Arena. Bring a nonperishable item to benefit God's Pantry, and watch six Asian elephants eat 300 pounds of food. Free.

Gemma Kirby tends to play down what she does for a living.

"If I get into small talk with strangers, first I'll say I'm a gymnast. If they ask further, I'll tell them I work for Ringling Bros.," says Kirby, who is touring with Built to Amaze, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show that comes to Lexington this weekend.

When pressed, Kirby will casually throw out the specifics, "Yeah, you know, I'm a human cannonball.

"Sometimes they believe me," the 24-year-old says with a laugh. Sometimes they think she's "some crazy lady in a bar telling silly fables about myself."

Either way is OK. Kirby has long forged her own path. Her family moved 14 times before she was 15, and she found an anchor in nomadic life through dancing.

She started studying when she was about 7 and thought she would become a professional ballerina.

But as she reached her teens, she grew restless with the constraints of ballet and sought new ways to challenge herself physically.

Coincidentally, a family move brought her to Minnesota, where at 16 she enrolled at Circus Joventas in St. Paul. She attended the circus school for six hours every day after school and found a new passion: the trapeze. After four years working on the apparatus, she appeared in the 2011-12 season of Big Apple Circus.

"I guess I have always been a daring kid," says Kirby, who grew up with two sisters. "We were really outdoorsy, adventurous kids."

In 2013, she received a Facebook message asking if she'd be interested in training to become a cannonball.

"I was definitely apprehensive because I was scared," Kirby says. But she couldn't resist the chance to work with Brian Miser, who himself had switched from the trapeze to cannonball. Miser has worked the cannonball act with his wife, Tina, for years.

"He is a really famous guy in this business," Kirby says.

But they needed a young apprentice to keep the fuse burning. So Kirby went to train with the Misers at their home in Indiana.

You can't prepare yourself for being shot out of a cannon because there's no way to rig a safety line, Kirby says. The first time you're launched from of the tube, you just try to listen to your coach as closely as possible and do what they say.

"I just kind of took a deep breath and went for it. It's not comparable to any sensation," Kirby said.

The first time she went 40 feet. Now she can fly closer to 100 feet.

She made her debut with Ringling Brothers in January.

Don't ask how the cannonball act works. Kirby can't tell you.

"I am sworn to secrecy on that bit," she says. "I tell people it's circus magic. It's kind of a trade secret."

She can't even tell her mom, who begs Kirby for reassurance that the act is safe. Mom will say, "Just please tell me it's not gun powder" being used in the act, Kirby says. But she has to stay mum.

It really all comes down to "physics, mechanics and math," she said.

Ironically, she says, "those weren't my best subjects in school."

Kirby, who has a college degree in psychology, isn't sure how long she will be a human cannonball.

She hopes by taking care of herself she will be able to have a long career. But her day job has caused her to tone down some of her more extreme pastimes.

"I used to snowboard and rock climb and stuff like that. But now, I don't want to risk injuries," she says.

"When I have a day off I go to the mall or go to the movies."

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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