Flying Wallendas have audience holding their breath


The Flying Wallendas, Tino, left, Alex and Aurelia Wallenda perform on the high wire over the heads of the large crowd packed into the Bo Diddle Downtown Community Plaza, during the finale of Jest Fest in Gainesville Saturday April 27, 2013. Jest Fest has been a month long event put on by the city of Gainesville which has brought many performer, but has now culminated with the Flying Wallendas, the legendary acrobatic family.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 10:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 10:51 p.m.

A 25-foot-long galvanized steel cable, little more than a half-inch thick, stood 21 feet in the air over Bo Diddley Community Plaza.

The Flying Wallendas walked across the high wire with what seemed like ease, even without a safety net beneath them.

"With all of the years we've been doing it, really, we're not thinking about what we're doing," said Alex, a member of the troupe. "We're very in our element and it's very second nature. … We have conversations, we make jokes — it's just like a day at the office, honestly."

The Wallendas performed a series of death-defying tricks on Saturday, including riding a bike, sitting on a chair and standing atop one another's shoulders — all atop the high wire.

A family-led circus troupe that is well-known for their high-wire act, the Wallendas headlined the city of Gainesville's Jest Fest! finale on Saturday.

Jest Fest! was a series of events every Saturday in April, each week featuring different performance artists, including stilt performers, clowns, jugglers and circus acts.

"We've had some great shows," said David Ballard, events coordinator for the city. "We've been lucky to fill in with some local and regional groups, but all of our headliners have been international performing stars. So that's been a treat to be able to bring that caliber of talent here to Gainesville."

Some 2,000 people crowded the downtown plaza, which is about four times as many as at previous JestFests!, Ballard said, adding that he anticipated a bigger turnout with the Flying Wallendas performing.

Organizers have received a positive response both from the public and within city government, including the tourism project committee that helped to fund the event, Ballard said. Surveys handed out throughout the events were returned with most of them rating the event as excellent, but organizers will need to apply for funding again next year, he said.

"We'll be excited to apply for funding again next year and keep our fingers crossed," Ballard said. "But we think that it's proven to be a successful program, and we think that we will be able to take it over as an annual event in the future. And that's really what we hope, (that) we'll become a month-long celebration that will spread out throughout the area."

As with previous weeks during Jest Fest!, the event began with performance artists interacting with the crowd in the downtown plaza.

The Greenwood Morris Dancers, in outfits displaying green and yellow hanging strips of cloth, performed traditional English country dances to an accompanying fiddler. Other performers wore humongous bird costumes. The parrot-like birds walked about the plaza lifting their wings and displaying their vividly colored outfits.

Santa Fe Theater students and representatives from the Thomas Center Theater for Young Audiences displayed large puppets and large papier-mâché headpieces.

Magic Mike, a local comical magician, performed and took on children volunteers for his act.

Then finally the performance most had been waiting for — The Flying Wallendas.

The troupe's leader, Tino Wallenda, donning a red-plaid suit, balanced objects on different parts of his body only to fail or hurt himself comically.

Aurelia, Tino's daughter, performed on the cloudswing, a cable that hung off the high wire like a swing. Set to the instrumental version of "Phantom of the Opera," she performed flips and other impressive feats, often seeming to catch her foot in the cable at the last possible moment.

Alex, Tino's son, performed a complex juggling and comedy act that included six bowling pins and sticks on fire.

Finally Aurelia and Alex climbed atop the high wire to begin their most famous feats as the crowd held their breath.

"… The thrill that we get up there while we're on the wire isn't from the height or from the adrenaline rush," Alex said. "It's from the applause that we hear from the audience. And that's what really drives us to do our various different feats."

The Flying Wallendas have been performing under the name for nearly 100 years. They have won numerous awards and set a few Guinness world records for their famous human pyramids, according to Tino. They have walked on wires 150 feet in the air and over rivers more than a half-mile long.

"A lot of circuses have high wire acts," Ballard said. "(But) I think The Flying Wallendas, you know, they've kind of been the high-wire act that all acts have aspired to over the years."

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