Jane Huxley is a qualifed alpine rigger and circus artist who has worked around the world including France, where she has lived for 20 years. She's also an aerial acrobat - an angel – in Place des Anges, one of the highlights of this year's Auckland Arts Festival. She talks about what it feels like to be an angel.
Becoming an angel was something that never, ever occurred to me when I was deciding what to do with my life but I must admit I love it and I've had a great career with it. I've been doing it for the last 20 years – 10 years with Place des Anges but, before that, Stephane [Stephane Girard, producer at aerial theatre company Gratte Ciel] had another circus show where we were angels as well, so it's become a bit of an obsession.
As a kid, I did loads of gymnastics and theatre. I just loved climbing trees and being outdoors and flying around and doing crazy things. Because I could teach acrobatics and trampoline, I got a job in a circus school. I'd fallen in love with the trapeze but I didn't think I would do it as a job. Back then, when I started work at the circus school, I realised that there was a whole career out there that I had never thought about because I am not from a circus family. Today circus is much more open because there are lots of schools but, back then, I thought, "I want to do this" because it just looked brilliant – the whole combination of music, theatre and putting on crazy costumes and flying around.
I'd done loads of other different jobs; I'd been unemployed, worked in restaurants and bars, I went travelling. I was a fisherwoman in Australia for a while. I got into circus quite late - I was 27 when I started - but once I did, I was like, "This is it! I don't want to do anything else!" I'm 54 now; I'm one of the oldest angels there are.
To be the type of angels we are, you need to be into climbing, ropes, being very high and feeling like you can fly, with the desire to fly through the air. How high we fly depends on where we are, but I've been up to 100 - 200 metres – the highest one we did was 200m on a building in Colombia. Normally, we're at about 50 - 80 metres but when it gets too high, it's too far from the public. It's ideal to be at 30 - 50 metres so the public can see us and we have more contact with them.
You have to love the feeling of being up high but I do sometimes get vertigo. When you turn up for the first time to a new building or place and you're not too sure of it or you haven't done it for a while, that's when I experience it. We don't do this every day or at home because there's nowhere to rehearse so, coming back into it, you can get a touch of vertigo. Then you have to be really sure of all the kit and gear, that everything is secure and trust in what we've rigged.
Then you start to think, "This is where I hold on, this is where I clip in." You start to have confidence and suddenly you're at ease with it all. It's beautiful, amazing, to see the world from so high up and you always have the most incredible view. I have seen some of the most amazing skies and sunsets. Often, we have a 360 degree view – when we're on the crane – and you can see all around and you feel, "Wow – it's so beautiful." We usually start the show just after sunset, so you have the most gorgeous colours as the night falls. You can see a sea of people underneath; you can sometimes hear the crowd starting to get excited and that puts goosebumps on you sometimes.
There have been some "moments" but usually things go more wrong on the ground – there are problems with something electrical but it gets resolved pretty quick. One time, we were playing in a massive venue in Romania and waiting to start the show when I looked down and I could see all the feathers [used during the show] flying around. The audience had opened up all the feather bags and were getting them out before the show started. We radioed in and someone got on the case and said, "Stop!" That was quite strange, it was like, "What are they doing? What's happening?"
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But things don't ever really go wrong. We usually take about five days to set up and we're pretty scrupulous about all the security so nothing can go wrong – touch wood. If there's any risk then we stop and it has to be addressed and we work it out. That's why we do dress rehearsals and technical runs.
A lot of the crew come from the Alps – working in mountain rescue, laying in cables and ski lifts. Alpinism – taking people for walks through the show or helping them climb across cliffs or coming down – jumping down – long waterfalls; a lot of the techniques we use were developed in the mountains. It's all mountain rescue and climbing techniques and apparatus which are combined with circus and theatre. Rigging has evolved enormously during the years from when I started.
I never forget how lucky I am to have such an amazing job. It's a lot of hard work and it's very physical but it's so magical and being with your mates, doing this together, and being able to do it all around the world. If I was an angel who got to leave heaven for 24 hours once a year [the premise of Place des Anges], I would go to the jungle and fly around with birds and animals, listen to music and dance and be with people who were having fun.
Place des Anges is part of the Auckland Arts Festival and is on at the Auckland Domain, March 13-15