ALBANY, N.Y. -- As a child, Gemma Querida Kirby always dreamed of flying. Now, at the age of 24, she’s attained that dream.
She’s not a pilot. She’s not an astronaut. Instead, Gemma gets shot out of cannon and flies across arenas for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which is at the Times Union Center tonight through Sunday.
And she couldn’t be happier.
"Looking back, everything I did in my life has prepared me for this," she said in a telephone interview. She jokes that her mother is always telling her "We bred you for the circus and never knew it."
Part of that breeding was a nomadic childhood that had her living in 15 states before she was a teenager. Once the family settled in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Gemma enrolled in St. Paul School Conservatory for the Performing Arts, focusing on dance. At the age of 16, she graduated as valedictorian and went to a youth circus school where she combined her love of dance with her craving for flight. She calls it "air choreography."
After a period of intensive training she became a trapeze artist. For the past seven years she’s been working as a trapeze artist with various circuses including the Big Apple Circus (2011-12). Last year Ringling Brothers recruited her to be cannon fodder for this year’s "Built to Amaze" tour.
However, in case you get the impression Gemma is an "air-head," while flying through the air with the greatest of ease she found time to earn a B.A. majoring in psychology from the University of Minnesota. Furthermore, her favorite method of relaxing is playing the violin.
She reveals she just started with Ringling in January and is still in awe of the demands of performing the Human Cannonball Stunt which takes only seconds to complete.
"No one is born knowing how to fly," she says. "It has to be taught and I had the best coaches in the world which gives me confidence."
She says her trapeze training and experience were the ideal background for being shot out of a cannon. "Trapeze work prepared me to make split second decisions and to control my body while in flight. Once I am out of the cannon I have to respond instantly to the flight path. By moving my arms or flexing my knees I can adjust my path, but only slightly."
She reveals that human flight is similar to airplane flight in that the two critical periods are take-off and landing.
"The position at take-off is critical," she explained. "You must start on-line to the target. If you are too far off you might lose control and miss the landing area."
Gemma points out that when you do hit the landing area it is essential that you land flat being careful not to risk injury to your back, neck or legs.
She insists that one way to reduce the chance of injury is to be in top-notch condition. To this end she works out daily building a solid core through Pilates, Yoga, running and ab exercises.
Her biggest enemy is over-confidence. "It takes mental focus and physical strength the make to make a difficult stunt look easy," she said. "Once I take things for granted I am increasing the chances for injury."
Not only does she reject complacency, she admits to nerves.
"Our ringmaster, Andre McLain, does a wonderful job explaining to the crowd the dangers involved in the flight, the complexities of the shot and what can go wrong," she says. "It is very effective and you can feel the audience getting tense with anticipation."
She laughs as she says, "However, I’m waiting inside the canon hearing all this and he’s actually making me nervous as well."
Her reward for all this danger and hard work? "To be part of the circus," she answers with enthusiasm. "I love it. It’s so gratifying to see the joy in people’s eyes -- especially the kids. I love traveling the country with our family of talented and devoted people.
"It takes hundreds of people to put on a show and we are united by one goal -- to produce the best show possible, every time."