Rhew gives “joining the circus” new meaning
People who go into the circus professionally often have families or spouses who introduce them into the circus world; it’s not usually something someone stumbles upon as a 23-year-old and hopes to get into professionally—but Wil Rhew’s circus journey is more unique than most.
Rhew was born in Johnson City, Tennessee, and has come and gone from the city throughout his adult life. He double majored in French and Spanish at East Tennessee State University and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in foreign languages in 2016. He intended on getting a master’s degree in education, but although he enjoyed teaching, he did not enjoy the bureaucracy within higher education.
He called his transition into aerial in summer 2017 “entirely haphazard.” He had just begun skydiving lessons when his friend, who took aerial dance classes at ETSU, recommended it to him. Since he already graduated, she mentioned Night Owl Circus Arts – the local circus school in Johnson City. Rhew never had formal dance training, but with a background in pole vaulting and martial arts, he was inclined to trying adventurous activities.
“I took one class and instantly knew—okay, this needs to be a hobby,” Rhew said. “And I didn’t really have any idea that it could be made into a career when I first started. I knew there were people obviously working for companies like Cirque du Soleil and Le Rêve, but I had always just kind of assumed that those were specialty acts that maybe only the best in the world are even considered for. I didn’t know that other companies also hire for positions like this. I didn’t know that you really could go into it with the mindset of being able to teach as well.”
Rhew quickly gained an appreciation for the art form and a desire to pursue a professional aerial career. When he began training more, he said he realized areas where he struggled more than people who start at a younger age, such as flexibility and contortion.
“I realized going into the circus that part of my professional development was going to be based upon developing skills that did not come naturally to me,” Rhew said. “Such as having that gorgeous backbend and those oh so desired over splits. So, as I started picking up more aerial classes, I also started to get into things like contortion intensives, travel training at different studios across the country to widen my aerial vocabulary aside from what we just have here in the Southeast [U.S.]”
Rhew has trained mostly at Night Owl Circus Arts and Empyrean Arts in Asheville, North Carolina. The furthest he has traveled to train is Womack and Bowman – The Loft in Los Angeles, for a performance intensive that resulted in a recorded performance in November 2019. He is scheduled to go back this November if the pandemic permits. He also hopes to someday train at the Las Vegas Circus Center.
A typical week for Rhew before COVID-19 was four to five hours of teaching, five to seven hours of aerial classes, seven to eight hours of yoga and two to three hours of contortion training, all on top of a 40-hour a week job. Since COVID-19, he has maintained his job, teaches a few private lessons a week and takes online yoga and contortion classes. However, his aerial training has decreased due to studio restrictions. His current focus is maintaining skills he gained before the pandemic, and once cases begin to decrease, he hopes to get into the studio more often to start learning new skills again.
Rhew’s favorite apparatus to perform on is fabric, specifically aerial silks, because that is where his movement is the least limited. His favorite thing about the art form of aerial in general is how “deceptively difficult” it is.
“You see these aerial acts posted to Instagram or YouTube or even in person on a stage like Cirque du Soleil, and it’s very easy to be mesmerized in how simple they make these things look,” Rhew said. “And then when you break the scale down, or you approach it from a performance perspective and you attempt the same transitions or skills yourself, you realize just how much masterful technique goes into making something look so seamless, and my favorite part about aerial is learning how something can not only be made functional, but beautiful and to achieve that that look of defying gravity. To achieve that appearance of being flawless or seamless in the air.”
While some aerialists’ future goals might be to become a director or company owner, Rhew said he still has the “performance bug” and his goals lie more in performance for now. He said he is interested in working with professional entertainment companies similar to Disneyland and Dollywood, or with cruise liners.
“I am looking to mostly perform for now,” Rhew said. “And then, depending on how my body holds itself up and where my performance career takes me, directing or leading a performance company is something that I am maybe interested in. I also really enjoy teaching aerial. I love my beginner students. I like to take people that in their life never would think they would be hanging upside down from a ceiling and get them into that. I do very much enjoy teaching. So, if I can teach workshops and classes, while I’m also a full-time performer, I think that would be almost perfect.”
Before COVID-19, he had planned to apply to a professional circus school, either in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but it is uncertain when those schools will begin scheduling programs again. For now, he wants to help his local studio survive, while also maintaining his skills and flexibility and broadening his aerial vocabulary.
“Just making sure that when the world does open and the stage comes back on, I am the best performer that I can be,” Rhew said. “So that if I go to look for something like contractual work on a cruise ship or other avenues in the entertainment industry, I’m absolutely the best aerialist I can be when that time comes, and I think it’ll happen. You know, the arts never die. We get pushed down a little bit. But the stage will reopen. I’m very confident.”
Rhew describes starting aerial at 23 in a small city as humbling and intimidating. He knows he is going up for work against people who have more experience and have trained at some of the best locations in the world, but that also pushes him to continue.
“While those things are intimidating, I think that’s also a big push for me,” Rhew said. “Because I’ve always been a person that has looked at a challenge and said, ‘Okay, how far can I take this?’ and I’m not a person that looks at things with a Plan B as a cushion. I know, realistically, as an adult, that it is nice to know I have an education that I can go back to if I need to, but I don’t like to look at my passion and my career that way. I want to see absolutely how far I can take my body and my creativity.”
One of the hardest parts about working in the arts, Rhew said, is that they are not as appreciated or valued as other career paths because people do not see their immediate profitable worth.
“You can’t look at a dance performance and tell how much it’s going to impact somebody,” Rhew said. “Or you can’t look at a music track and see how that may be helping someone maintain their mental stability. The impact of art is far deeper than what a dollar can always be counted towards, but it’s very easy as a very consumer-based society to overlook that when something is so easily quantifiable as selling products and services from the STEM fields.”
When he first told his family and friends he wanted to join the circus, they thought he was crazy. He graduated summa cum laude, enjoyed foreign languages and had various opportunities in the foreign languages field. He even applied for a master’s program, but he withdrew because he wanted to pursue circus arts. He knew if he was going to give it a shot, he needed to do it while his body is still capable.
“Everyone uses that as a joke,” Rhew said. “Right? Like, ‘Oh man, my career’s tanking. I need to just run off and join the circus.’ Let me tell you, baby, it’s not that easy. It’s much more difficult than joining the circus, but yeah, people definitely think that you’re throwing away your youth to not dedicate it towards something that is easily quantifiable in a 401(k) or in dollars. They don’t understand the value of following your passion until it’s at the end of its rope—quite literally for me. When you tell people that you’re going to be a professional dancer, an artist, anything in the fine arts, they definitely give you this look of – Oh, I’m sorry. You’re going to be a starving artist – when it doesn’t have to be that way if we maintain our industries correctly.”