Gymnast joins the circus

November 4, 2016
Former Seawolf gymnast Leisha Knight, B.A. '00, went off and joined the circus. Several circuses. Including eight years with Cirque du Soleil (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Former Seawolf gymnast Leisha Knight, B.A. ’00, went off and joined the circus (several circuses, actually, including eight years with Cirque du Soleil). (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Magician’s assistant in France? Circus director in Nepal? Nearly a decade performing with Cirque du Soleil?! Leisha Knight’s résumé is about as diverse and incredible as it gets.

Her most recent endeavor brought her back to Anchorage in October, where she taught eight classes in the dance department. She’s a testament to the value of variety, both in life and on a college transcript. Though she earned her degree in English (after competing four years on the gymnastics team), it’s been Leisha’s entertaining electives—French, dance, rock-climbing—that have influenced her path even more.

Ala. to UAA

Originally from Alabama, Leisha attended UAA for the same reason as generations of gymnasts: the effective sales pitch of Coach Paul Stoklos.

“He came to Alabama and just sold the program and sold the state on all the amazing things it had to offer,” she said. That included preseason training hikes up Flat Top and a coach who encouraged mountain biking and snowboarding. Leisha summarized Stoklos’ approach as “You’re here, enjoy it. This is an amazing place.”

Up until 2014, gymnasts shuttled across town for morning workouts. For a night owl like Leisha, waking up at 4:30 a.m. was a struggle, but the work paid off. She captained the team twice, and was named Outstanding Senior at the national championship in 2000.

“I loved being a part of the gymnastics team, it was fantastic,” she added. In fact, she loved it so much she convinced her sister, Melissa, to compete for the Seawolves as well.

Leisha recently returned to teach dance classes at UAA, adding circus elements (like the aerial hoop) into contemporary choreography (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Leisha recently returned to teach dance classes at UAA, adding circus elements (like the aerial hoop) into contemporary choreography. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Falling in Love

After graduation—with her sister’s help—Leisha decided to make an audition tape for Cirque du Soleil. Melissa first told her about the Montréal-based circus; after seeing a show in person, Leisha knew she could contribute.

But it took five years to hear back about her audition tape. By that time, she had established a dance career back in Alabama, while Melissa stayed up North (she still lives in Anchorage). But she accepted the invitation to audition live, then moved to Las Vegas when offered a company spot in the Beatles-inspired show Love.

Leisha instructing Olivia Brown in her choreographed routine for the danced department's November show (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Leisha instructing Olivia Brown in her choreographed routine for the danced department’s November show. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Her dance and gymnastics background provided a base for higher risks and greater reaches. Dance led to trampoline. Trampoline led to couples bungee (exactly what it sounds like—rhythmic aerial dancing while responding to bungee cord recoil while synchronizing with a partner). Most of her acts were aerial, wheeling within suspended silk strips and sturdier straps (unlike bungees or harness dancing, silk and strap performers are entirely reliant on their own strength and energy).

For eight years, Leisha experienced a whole lot of Love in Vegas. But after a while, as all acrobats must, she just needed to break out and see the circuses of the world.

First, she headed to France (thanks, UAA French class!) to choreograph and perform a silks routine for a traditional traveling big-top circus, with animals and the works. Next, she joined the traveling North American tour of Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna. After that, it was off to Nepal to serve as artistic director and lead trainer at yet another circus.

So what is it about the circus? And why do Nepal, France and everywhere between share this performance style.

“I think it embraces the unique, it embraces the difficult, it embraces the beautiful,” she said. Many circus performers are already living on the edge of the mainstream, and the circus provides both creativity, community and playfulness. “On some level, I think that playful lifestyle is appealing to us as adults,” she continued. “You don’t have to be the grown-up.”

For her, personally, the appeal is the magnetic connection between the performers and the audience. “It’s really more about being a part of something beautiful and presenting something beautiful,” she noted.

(Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

(Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Risks and returns

This October, she was bringing that beauty to UAA. Leisha taught eight classes for students, injecting circus arts into contemporary dance. In addition, she choreographed a piece for the department’s fall show, ‘UAA Dance in Performance,’ running Nov. 17-20.

What does she think about teaching in the same studios where she used to rehearse? “I love it. I LOVE IT,” she said. “I had a great experience here … I think it’s really cool to come back and have something to give, [both] to the students and to the department.”

Marissa Lynn Citro is raised into the air during a Leisha's Cirque du Soleil-informed dance rehearsal (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Marissa Lynn Citro is raised into the air during a Leisha’s Cirque du Soleil-informed dance rehearsal. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

As a professional performer, she brings both an example of career success, as well as unique techniques grabbed from circus life. Hopefully, that combination sparks similar interests in her students.

However, Leisha won’t be here to see them perform as she’s planning several future adventures. She’s led yoga/backpacking trips in Yosemite and is now organizing the same for Nepal (she was there for the devastating 7.8 quake that rocked the country in 2015; these treks will help redevelop its debilitated but crucial tourism industry). Leisha’s non-profit Global Movement Project, a social circus outreach effort, has worked with addiction centers in Alabama and she’s scoping future opportunities in Alaska and beyond. And, oh yeah, she’s expecting twins next year.

She and her husband will spend the winter in Vail, Colo. Then… who knows? Like a good yoga instructor, she’s very much a flow person. And like a good aerial performer, she’s comfortable with risk in all forms—in the high-flying spotlight, on a late-night climbing adventure, and in waiting to see what’s next.

Don’t expect family life to slow them down for long. It’s hard to keep an acrobat grounded.


‘UAA Dance in Performance,’ featuring a piece choreographed by Leisha, runs Nov. 17-20. Tickets are now on sale at UAAtix.com.

From the left, Kimberly McGrath, Ashley Roylance, Olivia Brown, Leisha Knight, Carmel Young, Katie O'Loughlin, Marissa Lynn Citro, and Stephanie Brenner pose for a photo during a practice of a dance and Aerial routine in the Harper Studio in the Fine Arts Building on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus in Anchorage, Alaska, Friday, Oct. 28, 2016.

From left, Kimberly McGrath, Ashley Roylance, Olivia Brown, Leisha Knight, Carmel Young, Katie O’Loughlin, Marissa Lynn Citro and Stephanie Brenner prepare for an aerial routine in the Harper Studio. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

 

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

University of Alaska Anchorage - University Advancement
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