Florida State University Alumni Association




Flying Higher
FSU Flying High Alumni Make Careers of the Circus
By Victoria Phillips

 
 
  FSU alumni at Cirque de Soleil
Six FSU alumni work at Cirque de Soleil's famed venue in Orlando. Back (left to right) Carlos Cabana, Mitch Marines, Rob Dawson and Dave Phillips. Front (left to right) Chris Cox and Brian Vogel. Photo by Bill Lax
 
  Jack Haskin
Jack Haskin built the Flying High Circus from the ground up.
Photo by FSU Special Collections and Archives
and the Digital Library Center
 
  Leigh Heisinger
After 40 years of traveling the world on his "Wheel of Death," Leigh Heisinger is putting his FSU education degree to work as a middle school teacher in Tallahassee, Fla. Photo by Michele Edmunds
 
  Tara Ogren
Tara Ogren is barnstorming the country
in Ringling's train caravan.
 
  April Brown
April Brown (left) during her days with the Flying High Circus.
 
  Alisson Blei
Alisson Blei on silks. The new mother has
married into a circus family.
 
 

Raising the Tent


When the curtain rises on the 65th Flying High Circus next year, it will gather in the rafters of a $500,000, state-of-the-art tent to be built on the traditional circus lot this summer.

"It's a combination of the American-styled three ringed tent with elements of the European cupola tent," says fourth-year Circus Director Chad Mathews (B.A. '98, M.S. '03). "For the first time we have been able to design a tent that fits the unique needs of our organization."

The festive, twin-peaked exterior boasts a sleek inner framework that will feature improved sight lines, safety and maintenance.

"The old tent required nearly 60 poles," says Mathews, "some of which have been around since the 1960s. This new design needs just eight poles and can be raise with electric winches."

Financed primarily by student fee allocations, the tent comes from an Italian manufacturer regarded as the best in the business. The new stainless steel poles can last indefinitely with proper care, and the new skin has a lifespan of ten years. Mathews is hoping to keep the test raised for longer periods of time, perhaps an entire semester.

The old tent, and all its history, will go into storage as a back up.

 

A doorbell chimes as a spotlight flickers and swivels to illuminate a man riding a bicycle upside down across a vast, black stage. A bass slowly moans, setting a melancholy mood amidst fog billowing into the air. A woman, dressed as a housekeeper in a white shower cap and slippers, cautiously walks to the middle of the stage with a wide-eyed, disbelieving stare.

Nine stories above, while the audience is silent with awe, a team of men dressed in black brings the circus to life in near darkness.

With one hand wound tightly around a rope and the other to his headset, rigger Carlos Cabana (B.S. '03) looks down to the stage through the metal grates as he awaits further direction.

"Lamp standby," crackles his headset.

Fellow rigger and Seminole Chris Cox turns to Cabana and commands, "Lamp. Down. Go."

Together, Cox and Cabana release the large bungee cord and stare at the stage below, making sure they've hit their mark.

A large, intricately decorated chandelier cascades from the ceiling and falls within a foot of the maid's head. She jumps back as the metal and glass masterpiece bounces back upward as if pulled by magic.

"I try to make it look as mechanical as possible," Cabana says.

Cabana and others will continue the show in a frenzied rush, making sure La Nouba, Cirque du Soleil's Orlando-based extravaganza, goes off without a hitch until the last act graces the stage.

The men in black work together for ten shows each week — and four of them learned the circus life dressed in garnet and gold as student members of The Florida State University's famed Flying High Circus.

"Circus gets in your blood and stays in your blood," says Rob Dawson (B.S. '93), a La Nouba trapeze artist and second-generation FSU Circus alumnus. "Even if people have left, you will find that it is still very much a part of their lives."

Under the FSU Big Top

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 1947, FSU was in its first year as a coeducational university. President Doak S. Campbell hired Jack Haskin to create an extracurricular activity that could be enjoyed equally by women students and the men who were pouring into classrooms after World War II.

"They were not in the FSU circus to go professional," says Jim DeCosmo (B.S. '49, M.S. '50), who was part of the first circus at Florida State and then worked as Haskin's assistant until 1958. "They were there for the purpose of growing and having fun. Hardly any of 'em had any kind of experience on a performing apparatus. They grew in physique and personality and character in the four years they were in the circus like you wouldn't believe. The most satisfying thing was watching the kids grow."

The FSU Circus became a national phenomenon in short order, appearing on network television and even helping the football team fill out its schedule.

"Villanova would not play us in football unless we brought the circus to perform at halftime," recalls DeCosmo.

In the late 1950s a circus entrepreneur brought his flying wheel apparatus to Tallahassee and invited the students to use it in their show. Leigh Heisinger (B.S. '61), a New Jersey native who enrolled at FSU because of the circus, was selected to perform on the "Wheel of Death." The assignment changed the course of his life.

"I used the wheel in the last show of my senior year during the last performance at Doak Campbell Stadium," says Heisinger. "The owner wanted to sell it and even had a gig scheduled for South America. I bought it and took my new wife on a 17-week honeymoon through Brazil and Argentina."

That decision was the beginning of a 40-year career touring the world as a circus performer.  Eventually, Heisinger added his wife and daughter to the act.

"It was like having my cake and eating it, too," says Heisinger, who named his show The Sensational Leighs. "When you're young you come to crossroads in your life. My mother always thought I'd do it for a couple years and I'd grow up. But the most important thing in life is to do what you enjoy doing, and if you're good at it and can make a little money at it then you have the best of both worlds."

Heisinger says his act became the most imitated show under the big top, but outside of the three rings even family members did not embrace his success.

"In those days being in the circus was looked down upon," says Heisinger. "I was on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, and my mother didn't even tell any of her friends."

Today, Heisinger is retired from the circus and using his FSU education degree as a middle school teacher in Tallahassee.

Learning The Ropes

Staging home shows in front of hundreds of people, teaching a circus school at Callaway Gardens, rigging their own equipment, designing lighting and sound, sewing costumes and even assembling the Big Top tent at home and on the road, prepped students for the hard work, discipline and focus it takes to do well in the real world. 

Recent graduate Mitch Marines (B.S. '08), a member of the La Nouba rigging team, says anytime he wasn't doing schoolwork he would be down at the circus tent practicing or helping out.

"There is always that core group of people that make it their lives," he says. "They're out there to work no matter what needs to get done."

During any given show, students gracefully perform some 18 to 22 acts of stamina, strength and willpower. From the well-known flying trapeze to ground acts like hand balancing, a group of about 100 students produces nine shows throughout the spring semester.

"Your work is your life and your life is your work when you're in the circus," says Cabana. "You don't go to work and then go home. You are at work, and you are at home."

Cabana earned a degree in exercise science, but says he contributes 100 percent of his current life path to performing with the FSU Circus. To him, the friends he made during his circus years are more than family.

"It's more like a tribe," he says. "You have this community that works together even though you're traveling around to different places."

Although all of Cabana's FSU colleagues at La Nouba came from different eras, the program serves as an eternal bond and conversational cornerstone. 

"Everyone who seems to come from FSU are the best actors, performers and stuntmen," says Cox, who was a member of the Flying High circus in the 1980s. "Our people know you don't stop pulling until the tent is up."

The Greatest Show on Earth

Like Cox, circus alumni throughout the country hold jobs behind the scenes but also in the glare of the spotlight. Tara Ogren (B.A. '08) is in her third year as a trapeze artist and aerialist for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"The FSU Circus helped prepare me for Ringling Bros. by not only teaching me various circus acrobatics but by also giving me experience performing in front of a crowd," says Ogren, a Colorado native who majored in studio art at FSU. "Through the annual spring shows, as well as the summer program at Callaway Gardens, I was able to fine tune my performance skills along with learning how to handle the nerves that come with being in front of an audience."

Ogren embodies the true spirit of circus, traveling in a caravan of train wagons from city to city, bringing fantasy and magic along for the ride in nearly 400 shows per year. It's a completely different kind of lifestyle, but one Ogren embraces with pride. 

"I don't have a mortgage or a car to pay," she says. "I may not get paid as much I would working a job for my degree, but I got lucky."

The circus life does not require a suitcase and passport. Al Light, who earned a pair of FSU degrees (B.A. '98, M.S. '06), enjoys a normal work life as head coach of the Cirque du Soleil production of KA, staged permanently at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The show costs $165 million to produce and is one of seven Cirque shows along the Vegas strip.

"It seems really corny when I say this is like a dream job," says Light, who also served as head coach of Illinois State's Gamma Phi Circus.  "Cirque is pretty much the top as far as the field goes. If you talked to any aspiring artist at FSU and they really wanted to pursue this as a career, they're going to say they want to work for Cirque du Soleil one day."

No matter which path they've taken — performer, choreographer, rigger — these FSU circus alumni embody a spirit and passion you won't be able to find anywhere else.

"Just being on the fly bar — I love that I fly," says April Brown (B.S. '09), a touring aerialist with the Flying Pages. "I get cranky when I don't get to swing. I think we all do a little."

A second generation FSU Circus performer and human sciences major, Brown made up her mind to follow in her mother's footsteps when she was just a junior in high school.

 "I remember when I had that 'My mom was in the circus!?' moment as a girl," she says.

Fast-forward to her senior year in college, and Brown found it tough to follow a career path that didn't involve circus.

 "Lucky for me, within 18 hours of posting my demo on YouTube, I was contacted by the Pages," she says. "I was on the road three months later."

Allison Blei (B.S. '05) also got her start with the Flying Pages, but not before she spent time testing the waters in a traditional work setting as a financial analyst.

Even when Blei was working a 9-to-5 in Miami Beach, she taught trapeze lessons on the side. Eventually, her love for flying high won out, and she quit the financial field altogether.

Blei solidified her transition into the circus world when she met her husband, Ivan Espana, and joined his acrobatic, touring family in the Espana Family Circus.

The group of eight tours with their own show for half of the year and spends the other half traveling and working for other circuses.

"You don't want to leave," she says. "It's addicting and such a thrill."

Recently, Blei and Espana welcomed a new circus performer into the troupe, their son Kiano.

"He'll be a sixth generation circus performer," Blei says. "I wouldn't change it for anything. This is a unique life."

Curtain Call

It's after the show, and the group of fellow FSU Circus alumni change out of their blacks and head next door for a quick nightcap at Downtown Disney's House of Blues. They each settle into the metal chairs on the outside patio and turn the conversation to their favorite topic — life on the circus lot at Florida State. 

Cox munches on a french fry while he banters with Marines.

Cabana's eyes light up as a slow smile spreads across his face as he does a silent salute and says, "Let every day be a circus day."

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