Las Vegan Jonas Woolverton began his career in a small Montreal circus before landing a gig in Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity in 2008. We talked to the New York native about learning to wrestle from an ex-WWE star and a recent injury, which was no match for Woolverton’s tenacious drive.
Why did you want to become a circus performer? I saw one of the Cirque shows, Dralion, and the clowns just blew me away. So I got into the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco. I was fortunate enough to see Daniel Cyr, the founder of the Cyr wheel, perform, and I said, “That’s the apparatus I want to do.” I’ve been doing circus professionally for 15 years, and Cyr wheel professionally since 2003.
What about the Cyr wheel fascinated you? I think it’s sort of a mystical apparatus. It’s not really obvious how it works. There’s something about whirling dervishes that is very entrancing. It’s something that’s very fundamental. When we’re kids we liked to spin around until we get dizzy.
How did you develop your Zumanity character, Casanova? When I first got here I was doing an S&M-based act—I had two dominatrices whipping me and blindfolding me. Over the years it just evolved. I became the gigolo, and I renamed him Casanova and gave him my own spin. Casanova is a ladies’ man from Sicily, and he’s got ADD with women. In the act, he sees this shadow woman, [and] all of a sudden he’s entranced by this imaginary woman. The whole act for me is a metaphor for being in love and falling out of love and that feeling of elation when you’re in love. I also invented this scrim projection on the Cyr wheel—that’s something I developed with another artist friend of mine, Joel Howard from [The Beatles] Love.
You were recently out of commission for nine months due to a knee injury. Yeah. I consider myself kind of lucky. I’ve had a 15-year performing career in circus, and it was my first surgery. It was a freak thing, and it happens; it’s a hazard of the trade. But luckily I have amazing physios who take care of me. [With] Cirque, you’re treated like an elite athlete, because you are. So the recovery is really quick. I’ve been back in the show since August, and I’m doing my act again.
How did you stay busy during your recovery? I was reading plays with my actor friends in town, and I was directing some music videos. Cirque has the Choreographers’ Showcase, [for] which I choreographed a piece. I ran into Mix Master Mike from the Beastie Boys, and he is an incredible creative spirit. He and I hit it off right away and created an acrobatic breakdance piece—it had some capoeira in it; it had Cyr wheels in it. It turned out incredibly well. I think the audience was super-pleased with it.
You have some experience with wrestling, too. Last fall, Cirque allowed me to be in a piece at the Cockroach Theatre called The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. It’s a Pulitzer-nominated play about professional wrestlers. They needed to cast somebody who was physical, who could do the wrestling. I had a crash course with Sinn Bodhi, who’s formerly of WWE and now has a company here in Vegas called Freakshow Wrestling. I had to learn how to wrestle in like five sessions, doing really advanced moves. It was a massive challenge, and it felt really rewarding.
It sounds like you’re always working in some capacity. What do you do in your free time? I hang out with my son a lot. He goes to circus camp every Saturday and afterwards we spin on the wheel and jump on the trampoline. He really loves circus, and he’s going to be a way better performer and wheel artist than I could ever be. Or maybe he’ll be a lawyer. Who knows?
Is there any advice you’d give to someone interested in performing in the circus? You have to really love it, because it’s really hard. Just train every day. You take the hits and you take the injuries and you just push through them. It’s just the persistence of doing something you love over and over again until you become good at it, because there is a point where you do become good at it. When I started out I didn’t know how you get in to Cirque du Soleil. I thought you had to be somewhat born into a circus family.
What’s the best part about working for Zumanity? It’s got its own vibe. We use a lot of audience members, and it’s real audience participation. The show kind of hinges on what they’re going to do and how they’re going to act—that’s where a lot of the humor comes from. That’s the beauty of the show. It’s so ephemeral, and it’s hilarious.