Arts & Culture

Former trapeze artist joins U. through RUE program

After attending schools in Italy, France, Michels-Gualtieri ’20 finds herself landing in Providence

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2017

At just 27 years old, Akaela “Kaely” Michels-Gualtieri ’20 has authored a children’s book, lived and studied in multiple countries and volunteered as an Emergency Medical Technician aboard ambulances in various cities. Perhaps most prominently, she has spent nearly twelve years touring the globe as a professional trapeze artist “living and breathing circus.” Now, Michels-Gualtieri has returned to academics as a first-year at Brown as part of the Resumed Undergraduate Education (RUE) program.

Internship turned gap year

The February of her ninth grade year, Michels-Gualtieri interned at McDonalds — an internship that paved the way for her future career. “The next year, we were joking about what I should do to top McDonalds,” Michels-Gualtieri said. “I should join the circus!” Michels-Gualtieri recalled herself joking. “And my mom said, ‘That’s a great idea!’”

So join the circus she did. Michels-Gualtieri’s mother discovered — or rather, established — an internship at a circus in San Francisco. “I would work in the daytime … and then at nighttime I could take any classes at the school that I wanted,” Michels-Gualtieri said. Though she had been a gymnast from a very young age, this internship was her first ever encounter with the art of trapeze.

Inspired and supported by her mother, Michels-Gualtieri decided to defer her acceptance to Wellesley College to continue pursuing her interests in circus performance. She represented the United States as the first American to study at a small school in Torino, Italy: the FLIC Scuola di Circo, or “FLIC Circus School,” an Olympic gymnastics training facility-turned educational institution.

Michels-Gualtieri moved to Torino, new suitcase in tow, “and was pretty much lost, solidly, for about four months.” But as the weeks and months passed, she found herself enjoying her new home more and more.

Gap year turned career

After spending a year in Torino and outgrowing FLIC’s resources, Michels-Gualtieri reached out to talented trapeze coach Alexander Doubrovski to help her reach the “next level” of aerial arts. Despite the fact that the only mutual language they shared — French — was the second language for both parties, Doubrovski agreed to receive Michels-Gualtieri as a student at the Parisian L’Academie Fratellini, one of the oldest circus schools in the world.

Further deferring her college career, Michels-Gualtieri began her studies in Paris with support from France’s governmental funding for the arts. While in school, Michels-Gualtieri traveled to many different countries to perform, including France, Spain and Italy. “I got professional experience while being under the safety net of Fratellini.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until her second year at Fratellini that Michels-Gualtieri began to seriously view circus performing as a potential career. And sure enough, she began receiving contract offers almost immediately after graduation. At the age of twenty-one, Michels-Gualtieri found herself abruptly launched into “this new career that nobody had planned for — it just kind of happened.”

Life in the circus

During her career as a professional trapeze artist, Michels-Gualtieri performed with troupes such as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus  all across Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Life in the circus kept Michels-Gualtieri busy, but she made room for other pursuits as well. As a certified EMT, she regularly volunteered with emergency medical services while on tour. “From Monday to Wednesday, I would usually volunteer on an ambulance, no matter which city we were in — and we moved to a different city every week — and then from Thursday to Sunday I would perform,” she said.

On one occasion, her medical expertise proved useful. A friend and fellow performer was seriously injured while rehearsing an act entitled the “Globe of Death” — a performance involving three motorcycles doing loops in an enormous metal sphere. Michels-Gualtieri, then a newly-certified EMT, was the most medically-knowledgeable person in the building; as such, she was put in charge of the situation until the paramedics arrived. Though the performer ultimately suffered only a few broken bones, Michels-Gualtieri described the incident as one of “the scariest” experiences she has had in the circus.

Michels-Gualtieri’s other wild circus experiences include a power outage during a trapeze act and a time when several circus animals were spooked and threw the act into disarray a mere twenty seconds before the curtain opened.

How did Michels-Gualtieri’s family react to her newfound career? Unlike her mother, who was a staunch supporter from day one, some of her family members took issue with her career choice. “Not all of my family understood it or even thought it was an acceptable thing for me to be doing with my life,” Michels-Gualtieri said. But she remarked a significant “shift” when she announced that she had gotten into Brown: “All of a sudden, you (didn’t) have to just take the path that everybody wants you to take to end up at a place you want to be.”

Back to school

Despite her twelve-year break from academia, Michels-Gualtieri always intended to return to school. After nearly a decade in the circus, she realized that she had outgrown her trapeze career. “(Performing) just became sort of empty … I’d reached the level I wanted to be (at) and I felt like I didn’t have anything to work toward,” she said. “It was confusing, because on the one hand I felt incredibly lucky to have this job. (There are) three circus jobs in the world for people who can trapeze professionally, and I had one of them.”

She soon discovered the University’s RUE program and was drawn to Brown’s open curriculum. In September, twelve years after her move to Torino, she landed in Providence as part of the RUE Class of 2020 to study health and human biology.

Of course, the transition back to school hasn’t always been smooth. At first Michels-Gualtieri suffered from “imposter syndrome,” often comparing herself to other students in class who arrived at Brown straight out of high school. But she has since found solace through the services Brown provides to its RUE students — from office hours with RUE-specific deans to dinner with President Christina Paxson P’19 herself.

She has also received support from her fellow RUE students — who, despite their small number, come from an extremely diverse array of backgrounds. “One of the most magical moments for me was our first orientation brunch,” she said. “We all sat in a big room with both deans, and everybody told their story. And everybody’s story is incredible in its own right.”

Looking ahead

Michels-Gualtieri still receives trapeze job offers. Most of the time she turns them down. This past winter break, however, she took the chance to tour in the Philippines — beginning to perform almost immediately after her last final exam. “I didn’t know if I would ever perform again when I decided to come to Brown,” Michels-Gualtieri said. “I was okay with it. And then I really started to miss it.”

All things considered, Michels-Gualtieri has gained a lot from her years in the circus. “One of the greatest joys of it is meeting people from all over the world,” she said. “I’ve had a very privileged life; I grew up in DC, I went to private school … but I’ve met people I never would have met under any circumstances, and I see the world in a completely different way than I would have otherwise,” she said. “I say jokingly I think everybody should join the circus. I actually really mean it.”

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