Hanging in the air, suspended on nothing but silk and her own strength, Laura Gwendolyn Burch is closer to the audience than she’s ever been before.
All eyes are on her as Burch moves down the silk, which the Tacoma resident said can be a beast if she doesn’t pay close attention to what she’s doing. Her goal is to present something the audience won’t expect.
Burch performs her silk aerial act as part of the Venardos Circus, a traveling “Broadway Big Top” that will return to Tacoma June 26 to July 7 at Wright Park. She also performs solo lyras, solo trapeze, and duo Spanish web acts.
Burch, 36, met the circus’s founder and ringmaster Kevin Venardos in 2017 in Washington.
When the circus returned the following year, Venardos asked Burch to perform for its three-week stay. A couple weeks later, she got a call offering a longer contract.
“I remember where I was,” Burch told The News Tribune recently. “I was training. It was at the circus space that I worked and trained at. I was stretching and warming up to work on some stuff. I ran little laps around the room, and I told the pilates teacher that was there.”
Burch wasn’t always in the silk aerial community, though, nor a resident in the Pacific Northwest. She said she was introduced to the art while living in Texas but on a trip to Las Vegas for a wedding.
“I basically saw people doing acrobatic and aerial, and thought that somebody had to teach them how to do that,” Burch said. “While we were at the airport I started googling and found a school in Texas.”
Once she returned, she took lessons. When she moved to Washington around 2011, she found another school and continued her education. While she learned the art, Burch said she taught yoga full time.
“I wanted to transition it into a career but wasn’t sure if it was going to be possible, but kept going either way,” Burch said. “I started performing locally and then that expanded a little bit more.”
When she had an act she felt was built, she started competing and earned first place at the Capital of Texas Aerial Championships.
When Burch performed for those three weeks with Venardos Circus in 2018, she said she loved being able to interact with the audience in such an intimate space.
“I was stilting, actually, for the first hour before the show, so I really got to talk to people and see them and have more connection with the audience than I had ever in a show before,” Burch said. “When you’re on stage, you just have so many opportunities to see the people, and that was one of my favorite things.”
A couple weeks later, Burch joined the circus on a three-month contract. She is now on a year-long contract with the cast and has traveled all over the United States — sometimes staying at truck stops and Walmart parking lots.
“It’s (an opportunity) I wasn’t going to pass up,” Burch said. “Regardless of questioning myself if I could or could not do it, it was one of those things where if I said no, the amount of regret ... I don’t really do ‘what ifs.’”
Venardos said he looks for talent when hiring performers, but he also looks for how the person interacts and melds with the rest of the crew. He said he asks friends for recommendations and meets people who are interested in performing, but he said he also takes a chance on people who are performing in the circus world for the first time.
“Talent is the most common commodity in the entire universe as far as I’m concerned,” Venardos said. “What is less common, and what is more valuable to me, is the level of determination and commitment, and a willingness to keep going when we don’t know everything.
“That’s hard to find, and definitely (Laura and Kirk Marsh, a comedian) have shown me many, many times that they have that circus heart inside them, even if it might have been an emotional experience, good and challenging, they’ve stuck with it and I’m proud of both of them — and quite a few other people we have on our little team.”
Venardos began his animal-free circus after five years with the Ringling Brothers. He said he wanted to create jobs for his friends in the arts but also wanted to create a community.
Venardos calls his circus community a family, a description Marsh, a clown or silent/physical comedian who has performed with the circus since 2017, agrees with.
“We really do find ourselves in situations that you would with a family where you are trying to accomplish the same goals and really trying to lift everyone in the family up as well as make sure everyone’s safe,” Marsh said.
Venardos said that in this context, he’s kind of like a dad. He encourages people, diffuses tension with little acts of love but makes sure that everyone is in the right mindset to deliver a great performance.
Venardos said he makes sure to give his performers the freedom to be themselves, especially through their acts.
Burch creates her acts not only by thinking about the technical aspect but by thinking about what she could do differently.
“I don’t want to recreate the Mona Lisa,” Burch said. “I want to make something that is different, that makes me standout.”
Burch is excited to get the chance to perform her act once again in Tacoma where she’ll be able to see some of her friends — and their dogs — former students, nature and her old training space.
She’s also excited about one other thing.
“Coffee has been a thing. Florida, not known for its coffee,” Burch said. “I’m a coffee drinker. Once we hit California, it was like, ‘Oh! Here it is again. Coffee, coffee is good here.’”
When: June 26 to July 7 at Wright Park; July 10-21 at STAR Center, 3873 S. 66th St.
Tickets: General admission is $25 for adults, $15 for youth under 12. Babies in arms (under 2 years) are free with a paying adult. Premium reserved seating is $35 to 45.