Q&A: A Brandeis grad who’s come full Cirque

Name: Maya Kesselman
Age: 27
Hometown: San Francisco
Position: Circus artist, Cirque du Soleil

J.: You went to Brandeis School of San Francisco for eight years and  now you are a cast member in Luzia, the newest show from the famous avant-garde Cirque du Soleil. How did you get started in the circus world?

Maya Kesselman: I studied at the Circus Center in San Francisco. My mom says that it was a Hanukkah present of my first trapeze lesson when I was 10. I went to my first one, and that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Maya Kesselman performing in Luzia photo/matt beard-cirque du soleil

Do you have a specialty or a favorite apparatus? What do you do in Luzia?

Now I do hoop diving and Chinese pole — there are two separate poles, they’re about two meters apart, and they’re covered in a thin rubber and so basically what you do is you climb the pole and do tricks.

There’s a lot of different roles that I play in Luzia. They hired me and my European partners as a group because we’re all hoop divers, and we can do pole also. Then we arrived for the creation and they put us on giant treadmills. So we do hoop diving on treadmills. That and the Chinese pole number are our main parts.

Throughout the rest of the show I make appearances in various costumes. I’m a bird, I’m a girl in a dress, I’m a lizard creature; I’m versatile in this show. I’m a child on a soccer field. I also wear a disco ball dress swimming suit.

Was Cirque du Soleil an ambition of yours?

For a long time, the epitome of success for circus artists is Cirque du Soleil. I didn’t know that there was anything else to aspire to. And then I moved to Europe and saw that there’s a bunch of other things to do and ways to do circus, so it kind of opened my eyes. I performed for four years around Europe with my two European partners. And then we were called to do Cirque du Soleil.

Is there a story to this show? What are the themes and inspirations?

The whole show is inspired by Mexican culture. What I can take away from the story is there’s a main character, a clown. He jumps out of a plane over this mystical, magical place and just gets plopped down and then he gets taken through all of the different numbers. At the end he has the choice to leave or stay.

You do things that look impossible to us mere mortals. Are there acts in the show that look impossible to you?

A thousand times yes. We have amazingly talented people doing insane things that I would never attempt to do. There’s people who are doing soccer freestyling. There’s a contortionist; I can’t do that. There’s people flying from one swing to another in the air, and I can’t do that. There’s a lot of respect between all of us for the different disciplines.

Cirque du Soleil was founded in Quebec, and it’s a pretty international operation. I understand you’re multi-lingual. Is that a big help?

Circus makes the world feel so small. You know this person here, this person there. I learned French because I came to Montreal for a year. I learned Spanish in high school, and I have a Spanish partner who spoke no English or French when we started together. I can go anywhere and kind of get by. There’s a lot of Latinos in our show. I can’t imagine not being able to speak with them in their mother tongue. It helps me to know them as people.

Growing up, how did you balance the intense worlds of Jewish life and circus life?

I used to say that I lived in two worlds: my circus world and my Jewish world. I went to Sunday school and did performances on the weekends and had to do a bat mitzvah in the middle of that. I loved both worlds equally. I went to Israel when I was 16. And I went to Camp Tawonga.

My Jewish world has definitely taken a backseat. But the nice thing about being Jewish is you’ll always be Jewish. I’d go home for Passover with my family and bring the two European guys I was working with and teach them all about the seder.

How does it feel to have been away for years and to come home performing with such a famous group?

All these people of these two worlds that I grew up in, they know it’s my passion but they don’t know what I’ve been up to. Being able to come back and show them what I do and share it with them is big for me.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.