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Seattle couple flies high at Teatro ZinZanni

Author's note: so I'm sitting in the green room of Teatro Zinzanni and this amazing couple walk in. You could stick them on the cover of a Harlequin: just that charming. I love their story: running away from science careers to join the circus. Go back a little earlier, and he taught himself trapeze because she loved circus arts. Later, I got a chance to see them perform. Again, simply amazing.

He is a dashing young gypsy who has invaded her restaurant. She's the pretty waitress darting between tables who has captured his heart. They exchange glances. By evening's end, this couple is flying high above the diners.

That's the nearly wordless story behind the performance of one real-life Seattle couple in Tetro Zinzanni's Under the Gypsy Moon. Ben Wendel and Rachel Nehmer met in college, moved to Seattle for "regular" jobs in science, and ended up spending so much of their time practicing on the trapeze that they decided to make it their career.

These days, Wendel and Nehmer perform as Duo Madrona as well as teach aerial classes. They have appeared at the Moisture Festival and other local events, as well as at Circus Flora, the Banana Moon Circus, and the 29th Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris.

Backstage at Teatro ZinZanni, Wendel and Nehmer discussed how they came up with the name for their act and a bit more about their high-flying career choice.

What inspired the name Duo Madrona?

Wendel: It’s homage to our home city. If you look at these trees, they are fantastic, imaginative, beautiful…

Nehmer: You always see them on the sides of cliffs, curling over and reaching out. We imagine that if an aerialist was a tree, they might be a Madrona tree.

So when did you start performing on the trapeze?

Nehmer: I was really interested as theater as a kid. I went to a performing arts summer camp when I was twelve or thirteen. They had a little circus program there, and I never did much theater at all! I was attracted to the circus arts. By the time I was in high school, I worked as counselor there, teaching kids trapeze.

Wendel: I got started through Rachel. We met at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. We were lab partners, good friends, did our thesis work together. Rachel had a former trapeze instructor come visit her and he built her a trapeze. Rachel found a way to get it…

Nehmer: …to get it suspended in the tree outside our apartment building…

Wendel: ..and she asked me to get up in it. At first, I said “No” because I was afraid of heights. That was in the autumn. But I was game to hang around and watch Rachel do it. Then everything froze…

Nehmer: …and it came down. But then in the spring, we put it back up again

Wendel: She asked again and I said “yes.” I was generally fit when we started but it was something very different. [Aerial work] crosses between gymnastics and dance, it’s acrobatics, you’re inverted, but what you’re really doing is creating movement that is readable to an audience. Something that has emotional content.

But you weren't planning to be trapeze artists when you moved to Seattle?

Nehmer: Ben got a great lab job at University of Washington, then I did too. And that was our tentative career path for the future. But, three months earlier, the circus school in Georgetown opened its door and the circus scene was about to blow up here. We just didn’t know it.

Wendel: We came out here and were working in labs. And working on our trapeze act. And suddenly, one day, we became trapeze artists. Or maybe it was more organic than that. It’s like becoming an adult…it’s not like you’re walking around and suddenly say “I’m an adult.” It’s just you’re now walking around as adults. One day, our vision became so strong that we quit labs and did trapeze.

Nehmer: My old boss at the University of Washington, where we both working as research technicians, he said “Rachel, you have to find what you think is most genuine expression of yourself so you can be passionate about your work.”

How is performing at ZinZanni compared to other places that you've worked?

Wendel: When you’re performing in a circus, you have to be more grandiose. But at ZinZanni, it’s more intimate, you’re closer to the audience.

Nehmer: A lot of our strength is an emotional chemistry and projection, and it is great to have the audience right there and have them be a part of that.

So circus or theater, which do you want to do next?

Wendel: Last summer we worked for Circus Flora: old style show business. A set-up for an act and then an act. It’s still remarkable to watch. And it's amazing to work with people like the Flying Wallendas. They don’t need to put on a costume or stylized music. They just go up there and do what they do. And pull the audience in with them. It was really beautiful.

Nehmer: I would love to do our own theater show.

Wendel: I want a tent!

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