Most shows that a young child would watch take place on a television and often leave a fond imprint on a child’s mind.
For Risa Perez, a certain show from her childhood does stick out to her now. But it’s not about a talking sponge or a secret pop star. The show that Perez, now a sophomore gymnast at ASU, remembers, is one she saw on the stage, complete with bright lights, sound effects and incredible athleticism.
Nine years later and Perez still vividly remembers the Cirque du Soleil show she attended as a child.
“I saw one of their shows when I was 10, and I was just like, ‘I can do that! I wanna do that,’ and it was at that moment that I got the dream,” Perez said. “Since that moment, I just stuck with this dream in my head, saying, ‘I’m gonna do that one day.’”
As those young children get older, most of their dreams don’t turn into realities. But through competing at a high level of gymnastics, Perez’s dream of being a performer in Cirque du Soleil is still alive and well.
A dance major, Perez is a vital cog in the machine that is ASU gymnastics, competing on uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. The latter is where she has the most freedom to show off her flourishing entertainment skills.
“Risa is a natural performer,” assistant coach Hollie Vise said. “When she is out on the floor, everyone in the arena is watching her. She loves the attention and loves to be unique and different. She is a little fireball that the audience cannot get enough of. She is exactly the kind of person that they are looking for.”
Many Cirque du Soleil performers go straight from high school into the esteemed show, but Perez wanted to compete in collegiate gymnastics before further pursuing that dream.
“I knew kids that were in shows, but I wanted to go to school, too,” Perez said. “Going into college, I thought if I could do another four years of gymnastics and get some more experience, I thought I’d have a better chance of getting into Cirque.
“Just performing and getting used to performing live in front of so many people instead of just performing for your parents like you do in club gymnastics, so I thought it’d be a good way to ease into it and get used to the craft.”
A sport like gymnastics sees its athletes have short career spans. Shawn Johnson, who was the star of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, retired from gymnastics when she was 20 years old. Fellow star Nastia Liukin retired at the age of 22.
Perez understands the short career span of gymnastics, but hopes that Cirque du Soleil will be less physically demanding, allowing her to lengthen her career.
“I feel like as an athlete your body has so much time of extreme physical activity you can put it through,” Perez said. “We see athletes every day retire. If mine upholds for the next couple seasons I have at ASU, I should continue to perform and do what I love.”
Vise said it’s not uncommon for collegiate gymnasts to enter the performing arts.
“There are a lot of gymnasts in most Cirque shows, so it is an easy transition and a fun job for former gymnasts,” Vise said. “They can still do what they love and be on a stage performing in front of people.”
While collegiate gymnastics is fairly limiting with its four events, the range of acrobatics performed in Cirque du Soleil is much more extensive.
“Cirque has a lot of different acts you can do,” Perez said. “There’s a dancing act they have, they have gymnasts, they have aerial performers who are on harnesses. I don’t know exactly what I want to do in Cirque. I really want to expand things I can incorporate my gymnastics with.”
Different from gymnastics, there’s a new element of danger that comes with some of the performances done at Cirque du Soleil. In June 2013, performer Sarah Guyard-Guillot fell 94 feet to her death.
“I think whether it’s gymnastics or Cirque you have to trust the apparatus and you trust the equipment and the people backstage,” Perez said. “Gymnastics relies more on you but you have to rely on the equipment. The chances of something bad happening are slim because you already know what to do.”
Through the danger, Cirque du Soleil is still an enthralling career that Perez has had her sights on for nine years, and she is drawn to the opportunity to entertain for a career.
“I’ve been a dancer since I was six, and I’ve choreographed my own pieces,” Perez said. “I think on floor I get to showcase how I originally plan. I think I can really put my personality into floor and show everyone who I am, because you can’t talk to 4,000 fans in the crowd, but you can definitely show them a piece of who you are when you’re out there on the floor.
“In Cirque, you definitely have that, too. They give you characters to play so you’re kind of an actor as well, which is another thing I absolutely love. I’ve always loved performing and not really being the center of attention but being like ‘watch me.’ I just really like performing, and it makes people like my loved ones really happy, and it makes me happy, too.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @shane_writes