The large Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ tent was pitch black. Gena Shvartsman Cristiani stood in the center ring, where she couldn’t make out any faces. But, she could tell it was a packed house from the glow of flashing, swirling and colorful toys the audience members were holding.
For most circus performers, it takes at least a few smaller circus performances before getting to go on the road with The Greatest Show on Earth, but not for Cristiani. She was a center-ring juggling sensation at just 12 years old. And, after traveling the world performing for the past 15 years, the now 30-year-old has just started calling this area home. She’s one of the featured acts in the Sahib Shrine Circus, which takes place Friday, Oct. 4 and Saturday, Oct. 5, at the Sailor Circus arena.
Cristiani originally hails from Russia. It was in a small circus building there that the fifth-generation circus performer remembers watching her father, Eugene Shvartsman, riding bareback on a brown horse while juggling — he was wearing a black costume decked out in rhinestones — like a glitzy Johnny Cash. It captivated her, so, when she was 6 years old he taught her to juggle.
“It was something that I knew I wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted to be on stage or in the ring, and I was going to do just that — minus the horse.”
At first, she couldn’t juggle three balls. Now she can juggle seven. She can also juggle five clubs … on fire … while doing spins and kicks in 4-inch heels. You can see this high-heeled display in the video below.
She also does hat spinning, ball bouncing and balancing, and hoop and ball tricks — most of which she’ll do in the upcoming performance.
“Not in heels,” she says. “I can do a lot more tricks without heels.”
For Cristiani, performing is a rush. Once, when she was a teenager, a metal club came down on her face, but she continued to perform without missing a beat. Her father, who was throwing her the clubs, kept gesturing that she should leave the stage, but her adrenaline kept her from noticing that her pretty face was bloody and bruised until she finished her act. She fell in love with the adrenaline early on, and dedicated her life to practicing as many as eight hours a day for competitions and performances.
Cristani has traveled across America and as far as China and France to perform. Her “normal,” like many of the other circus performers who call Sarasota home, is packing a suitcase and heading to a show. She has learned to check her clubs and hoops when she flies because it always takes longer getting through security.
“If I say I’m from the circus, I have to follow it up by answering a whole bunch of questions,” she says with a laugh.
What’s curious for non-circus families is par for Cristiani. In 2004, she won the club category in one of the World Juggling Federation’s world competitions, which was televised on ESPN. There are 68 famous jugglers listed on Circopedia, the online encyclopedia for circus acts, many of whom Cristiani meets at annual conventions. There’s also a Juggling Hall of Fame, but performers must be retired for five or more years to qualify.
“There are a lot of great jugglers out there,” she says.
One soon-to-be-juggler, her 2-year-old son, Mace, watches his mother in awe, and seems to be picking up on his family genes.
“He throws (things), and he’s very intent on it,” she says. “Mace will spend an hour just throwing — one day he’ll catch it,” she says with a chuckle. She’s sure her son will continue his family’s legacies, but she’s OK with him choosing whatever path he wants.
Cristiani’s husband of seven years, Mateo Cristiani, and she met when performing in the same circus in Canada — his family does an acrobatic trampoline act, and he’s a seventh-generation performer. She saw him on the trampoline and knew “she was in trouble.” He’s the reason she now happily calls Sarasota home.
It’s because of her son and husband that she’s planning to cut back on traveling and performing — her priorities have changed a little. Cristiani will focus more on short-term guest appearances and shows as well as a few other “normal” business ventures. Of course, they’re all related to her juggling passion and circus heritage. When she’s not being a wife and mother, she paints elaborate circus costumes; co-owns a custom cake business with her mother-in-law, Mara Cristiani, called Center Ring Cakes; and she commissions circus-themed paintings, some of which hang at Wall Art Gallery on St. Armands.
“Now, my life is a little new,” she says. “I love where I am now.”
FIVE THINGS THAT INSPIRE GENA SHVARTSMAN CRISTIANI
1. Francis Brunn and my father — Brunn was a famous juggler, no longer around. His style, technique and grace on stage (inspires me). I’ve always wanted to perform like him. And, of course, my father, right. I’ve always wanted to be like him.
2. My sister, Vicky Shvartsman — I’m always inspired to push myself to the limits because of her. She’s an aerialist and has absolutely no boundaries, in the best way speaking. Whenever I feel shy, I step in her shoes. She definitely pushes me.
3. My art — The colors of the sky and sunsets inspire my art. I mostly paint circus performers, and, whenever I see them, I’m very much inspired to draw them.
4. Decorating cakes — I get inspired whenever I see something unique that I can make in cake form or in sugar art.
5. My son — Everything is new to him and, therefore, it’s new to me. It’s so fun teaching him and telling him about the circus. He inspires me to be a better person, so that when he looks back, he can see all the crazy things I do in my life and he can be proud of it.
IF YOU GO
Circus Sarasota presents Sahib Shrine Circus
See high-soaring trapeze acts, aerial acrobatics, motorcycle stunts, wonder dogs, clowns, performing stallions, a trick roper, juggler Gena Shvartsman Cristiani and more.
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4; and 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday Oct. 5
Where: Sailor Circus Arena, 2075 Bahia Vista St.
Cost: Adults $12, Children $10
Info: Call 355-9805 or visit CircusSarasota.org
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