Growing up, Great Oak High School graduate Rochelle Berwick always dreamed of being a ballerina. But after realizing that dream as a professional, she discovered it wasn’t for her.
Instead, she looked to the sky.
“After working professionally for a couple of years, I realized that was not what I wanted most in life.” Berwick said. “I love the performing arts, so I couldn’t just stop training and performing completely. I took my first aerial silks class when I was 21 years old, and ever since then, I have been in love.”
She is currently performing with a Lyra Hoop in “Cirque Christmas” at SeaWorld San Diego, featuring other acrobats from San Diego Circus Center and NexGen of Cirque Du Soleil.
The show is a take on “The Nutcracker,” and Berwick is starring as the Sugarplum Fairy.
“I am loving the performances,” she said. “The show is so fun and great for the holidays. What I love most is my cast: they are so hardworking, supportive and fun. When we are with the same people six days a week for hours at a time, it is so important that we get along and have fun – which we do.”
She said she loves the diversity of the show as a whole.
“I love that it is a holiday-themed show,” Berwick said. “But what I find most interesting about the show is that, not only are there circus artists in the show, but there are also dancers. The show combines dancing and circus. The two disciplines complement each other really well and the show creators and choreographers did an excellent job creating routines with both elements in it.”
It seems Berwick has found her passion in life.
She started dancing ballet when she was just 6 years old at Temecula Valley Cathy’s Dance and continued there until she graduated high school. After high school, she trained at Joffrey Ballet School in New York and Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. She was also trained in contemporary, lyrical, jazz and tap.
She danced on teams at Great Oak High School and later at San Diego State University.
But when Berwick found aerial dancing, she was hooked.
“My first class was at Aerial Revolution in San Diego,” she said. “I walked in quite confident, a little too confident. I assumed since I was a ballerina and I had great body awareness, flexibility and coordination that I would be absolutely amazing at aerial silks. That was instantly knocked right out of me. I was pretty bad.”
But she didn’t quit. She started to take a lot of classes and discovered she really enjoyed the Lyra Hoop. She’s been taking classes for the past five years and began teaching at the school almost two years ago.
While she said she had seen Cirque du Soleil shows a few times as a child, and thought they were incredible, she never thought it was something she could do.
“The physical and mental strength required from the athletes combined with amazing costumes, lights, props and creative storyline make for a mesmerizing show,” Berwick said. “Truly, I never thought that it was something I could ever do. I assumed everyone in the circus started from a young age and that circus gyms must be so rare to find in the United States. So, when I yelped ‘aerial dance class’ at age 21 and found five circus gyms within a 15-mile radius from me, I was shocked.”
She admits the work is dangerous.
“As an aerialist, the biggest danger for me is that I am high off the ground,” Berwick said. “If I do not grab the hoop correctly, have an incorrect hand placement, hook the wrong leg, I could potentially fall off the hoop. And not a little fall but fall from 15 or more feet off the ground onto the hard floor. In performances, aerialists usually do not have a mat under them. I have never fallen off my hoop, but I have definitely had scares.”
Berwick said the work is very difficult and it takes a toll on the body.
“This line of work depends on our bodies being physically healthy,” she said. “However, when you perform and train every day, injuries are bound to happen. Every part of the body is used as an aerialist: shoulders, core, arms, hands, legs, feet, etc. If any part of our body is injured, it can make training and performing extremely difficult.”
She said she eats as healthy as she can, goes to the chiropractor and gets acupuncture and cupping done to maintain her physical health.
There is also a mental component to performing high above the ground.
“I think it is more of a mind game you need to perfect,” Berwick said. “I have to tell myself that I am physically and mentally strong enough to do the trick and that I have to remain calm, which can be super hard to do when I am 20 feet up in the air, staring at the ground below me, about to do a release skill.
“Being scared and nervous is a natural reaction to trying new skills for the first time, but as long as I remain calm, I know I will be OK.”
“Cirque Christmas” is performing at SeaWorld San Diego through Jan. 5, 2020. Visit www.seaworld.com/san-diego for more information.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.