Now 23, Michels-Gualtieri soars 35 feet in the air from hanging ropes, self-designed trapezes and other assorted apparatus as an aerial performer in Cirque Italia. This family-friendly, modern European-style circus, which has been described as “Bellagio meets Broadway,” sets up its tent up at Owings Mills Mall July 12-21. An aerial artist, Michels-Gualtieri floats, spins, swings, flips and flies above a 35,000-gallon pool with fountains showering the “stage” and Michels-Gualtieri for Cirque Italia’s Aquatic Spectacular. Many of her breath-catching tricks and her apparatus — trapezes, carabineers, ropes and rigging — are self-designed, a nod to her days as a high-school physics and science geek.
Michels-Gualtieri, who grew up on Capitol Hill in southeast Washington, D.C., knows from family stories that she started gymnastic classes soon after she learned to walk.
“By the time I was about 6 or 7, I was on a competitive gymnastics team and competed all the way until I graduated from high school,” she said last week, relaxing at her childhood home, with her mother nearby — a great advantage to having a tour stop in the D.C. region.
A graduate of the Field School in the District, throughout her elementary and teen years, Michels-Gualtieri — with her parents’ help — juggled rigorous academics at her private school, gymnastics lessons, team practices and competitions — as a high school senior she placed third in the Virginia championships— and Hebrew school. Her family, including a younger brother and sister, have been members of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Va., where the then-rising young gymnast celebrated her bat mitzvah a decade ago.
After a high-school internship at the Circus School of San Francisco, Michels-Gualtieri, who was accepted to Wellesley College and McGill University in Montreal, took a gap year and moved to Torino, a small town in Italy to join up with a circus school.
“I love learning languages, and during a summer family trip all over Europe, we visited several circus schools. At the one in Torino no one spoke a word of English, and I didn’t know Italian, but … I said, ‘This is where I want to be.’”
She then moved on to the Academie Fratellini, a renowned professional circus school in Paris, where she trained with the world’s best trapeze coaches, readily drawing on her gymnastics training.
Every day, Michels-Gualtieri wakes up in her tiny caravan room, eats a hearty breakfast and then walks over to the circus tent. There, she said, “The first thing I do is make sure that all of my rigging is there and that everything is rigged correctly, because that’s the stuff that makes sure I don’t die when I’m performing.”
After she tapes herself up, making sure to pay attention to past injuries, she applies tape to the backs of her legs to protect from rope and other contact burns. After a trip to the makeup tent, it’s time to warm up. Michels-Gualtieri has a solo spot in both halves of the show: She performs on the swinging and the static trapeze; her set includes a number based on the blue-painted creatures of the film “Avatar.”
“I haven’t come across many other Jews” in the circus world, she noted. “And when I was in my circus academy in Paris, I had to explain to several people what Judaism was, which shocked me. I know other people who are Jewish who do circus, but in the particular places I’ve been in Europe there haven’t been any other Jewish people.”
But her mother insists that Michels-Gualtieri’s Jewish upbringing has helped her daughter along her path to succeed in the highly competitive — and dangerous — world of circus acrobats and aerialists.
“She didn’t grow up with pressure to do the mainstream thing,” Michels said, “because, of course, the Jewish heritage often still may exclude you from the mainstream. So you better figure out what you’re going to do to take care of yourself.”
Her mother noted that her and her husband’s “Jewish traditional values allowed us to support Kaely to do this.”
And Michels-Gualtieri doesn’t disagree, pointing out that she knows this is her first, not her only, career, and some day she may be headed into medicine or nursing.
“My Jewish upbringing and always being told to ask questions and go further and figure out why things are the way they are has played an important role in my becoming successful,” she said. “One of the things that sets me apart from other people is when someone says, ‘This is impossible,’ I say, ‘Why?’ That’s just a trait that I’ve noticed that not a lot of other people have.”
Cirque Italia, July 12-21, Owings Mills Mall, 10300 Mill Run Circle. For more information and tickets, visit cirqueitalia.com.
Lisa Traiger is an area freelance writer.