Tanya Burka may describe herself as an introvert with a background in nuclear physics, but you can often find her suspended 30 feet off the ground, without the benefit of a harness or a net, with only her grip on a bolt of lycra keeping her aloft as she spins, swings, and flies through the air.
Fresh off her run with Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam, Tanya Burka will be in town this October as part of the Wonderbolt Circus show Bolt out of the Blue.
The circus seems traditionally to be a family business. Does it run in your family?
Performance definitely does not run in the family, no! My mom, before retiring, was a project manager for a pharmaceutical company, and my father runs an auto-body shop. My parents thought I was going to become a rocket scientist and work for NASA. Instead, I’m the first professional performer in my family.
What brought you to the circus?
Perfect chance. A gymnast for years, I decided to have my last hurrah (before going off to become a rocket scientist, naturally) by trying to learn a bit about the circus. I found a circus school online (the San Francisco Circus Center) and asked if I could be their personal slave in exchange for taking some classes. They said yes.
In exchange, I took classes in contortion, Chinese acrobatics, and static trapeze. I loved it so much and found I had a natural facility with it that I had never really had with gymnastics as a competitive sport.
I had never considered a career as a performer. I had never so much as tried anything like this before! But the idea instantly grabbed me and took hold in my mind, and deep down, I instantly thought, “I want this opportunity.”
I knew it wasn’t really practical to drop my plans for university and my future on a month’s acquaintance with the circus, so I decided I would go to university and get my bachelor’s degree, and just see how I felt about the idea as those four years went by. I figured if it was worth waiting four years, I would know I was serious then.
I auditioned for the National Circus School of Montreal as I was finishing my bachelor’s thesis in nuclear engineering, and they accepted me. I graduated from university and enrolled in circus school just a few months later to do a three-year professional program to turn me into a performer!
I’m told you have a physics background?
Yeah, I worked at my university’s research nuclear reactor while getting my Bachelor of Science. I often did handstands in the reactor control room.
Although I’m a performer now, I do find that my background in physics stays valuable in developing and teaching acrobatic moves in the air. The physics of how we use our bodies and our equipment in the air is fascinating. Acrobatics is all about propulsion, momentum and torsion.
Even for a circus act it sounds extremely physical. How do you prepare for something like this?
You have to be really fit to perform on aerial silks. It takes years of preparation and work to get to a professional level. Learning to use your upper body to support your full weight in the air is challenging. And falling isn’t an option.
After being a gymnast for almost 13 years it took me three years in school full-time to transition to being an aerialist. And I still have to work constantly to maintain peak form. Depending on the flexibility involved in the act, I might start stretching up to an hour before each performance, and I’m constantly doing abdominal and upper-body strengthening work.
What’s your biggest challenge as a performer?
My biggest challenge is that I’m an introvert. Performing is an intensely social experience. You have to project lots of energy towards the audience to be interesting to watch onstage. Most circus performers are naturally high-energy extroverts, and performing comes easily to them because of that. I had to learn to push way outside my boundaries of comfort to function as a performer onstage. I work on it constantly.
What’s going through your head when you’re performing?
When I’m up in the air performing, I’ve often got a story in my head about what the fabric represents, or about what’s around me in the space that my character is moving through, so that my choreography has a bit more meaning. Sometimes I dedicate my performances to someone specific that I care about, so that I think of projecting my energy “big enough” to reach them too.
For sure there’s always a part of my brain that’s processing the technical part of what I’m doing, but I make that part as small as I can. That way the rest of me can concentrate on who’s out there watching me and be as generous as possible towards them.
Wonderbolt Circus will be at Holy Heart Theatre on October 11-13. Tickets available at the Holy Heart Theatre box office. For more info visit www.wonderbolt.ca.