Hollis native on tour with Cirque du Soleil

MANCHESTER – A woman who grew up in Hollis will perform for the home crowd when the international touring company of Cirque du Soleil’s production of “Verakai” comes to the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester from June 25-29.

Kerren McKeeman, a 2003 graduate of Hollis Brookline High School, has been on tour in “Verakai” for two years. She joined when the show was in Brazil and has traveled throughout South America.

“It’s been stunning, beautiful, completely a dream,” she said of her experience thus far. “I went from the Amazon to the southern tip of Argentina, and saw glaciers and the Columbian coastline. Now the tour is back to North America. For it to come to my home state is very exciting for me.”

As youngsters, McKeeman and her twin sister, Kaleen, used to climb out of their cribs, climb trees and do all sorts of maneuvers that generally alarm parents.

“Both girls were energetic and always interested in trying new things,” said her mother, Dorie McKeeman. “They began young – climbed out of their cribs at 18 months – and it was nonstop after that. Seeing the writing on the wall, for their second birthday present we constructed a climbing apparatus of four ladders. It was an instant hit. Later, their dad installed hooks in our living room ceiling beams so the girls could practice their aerial acts year-round.”

The girls started gymnastics lessons when they were 7 and by the age of 12, both knew they were more interested in acrobatics than gymnastics. They attended the Pine Hill Waldorf School in Wilton, where students performed in the Hilltop Circus each year, under the direction of physical education teacher Jacqueline Davis.

At Pine Hill, McKeeman learned to ride a unicycle and juggle, along with other beginning circus skills like partner acrobatics and aerial work on the trapeze. She performed in the Hilltop Circus in 1998 and 1999. As other Hilltop alumni often do, she moved on to Circus Smirkus, Vermont’s international youth circus, and began touring with them at the age of 14. She toured New England with them from 1999 to 2003.

“Circus Smirkus exposed me to a lot of coaches who trained in partner acrobatics and aerial work,” she said. “That is when I fell in love with being up in the air.”

While continuing her acrobatics, McKeeman attended Middlebury College in Vermont, and graduated with a degree in East Asian studies.

“I immersed myself in something totally different,” she said. “It comes in handy since I sometimes work with Chinese performers.”

McKeeman spent time on the West Coast, honing her aerialist skills under the guidance of Aloysia Gavre, a former performer with Cirque du Soleil who runs the Cirque School LA. There she toured with Troupe Vertigo, Cirque Mechanics and Midnight Circus.

She joined Cirque du Soleil in 2010, performing in a Las Vegas show, before joining the tour of “Verakai” in 2012. She has progressed from static trapeze to swinging and triple trapeze, and is the only aerialist in the show who performs on the single-point trapeze.

“I think the single-point trapeze is beautiful because it is very strong,” she explained. “It is shaped like an angular teardrop and can change shape and form, unlike other solid apparatus. For my first time performing in Cirque du Soleil, I’m honored and lucky to bring this to the stage. It’s my personal routine that I’ve worked on. It’s my first time being showcased, and I’m the only artist doing this.”

Family time is precious when you’re in the circus, and McKeeman has been fortunate to usually be home at Christmas. Her parents saw her perform in “Varekai,” in March and are anxious to see the show again in Manchester.

“Performing for Cirque du Soleil is truly amazing,” her mother said. “I was always confident Kerren would choose an unordinary life. She has consistently sought experiences that challenged her intellectually and physically – and she works really hard to meet and exceed those challenges. From a purely proud Mom point of view, though, I think she’s fabulous in ‘Varekai.’ She’s a tiny thing, but she commands the stage when she’s performing. It’s quite moving; I can’t wait to see her onstage again.”

“Verakai” premiered in Montreal in 2002, and has traveled to 72 cities in 20 countries. More than eight million people have seen the spectacle. The cast is comprised of 50 performers and musicians from 18 different countries.

The word itself means “wherever” in the Romany language of the gypsies, and the show is an acrobatic tribute to the nomadic soul. It draws from the mythological figure of Icarus, whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun despite warnings. In this version, rather than plummeting to his death, Icarus lands in a lush forest full of exotic creatures.

McKeeman’s character is a protectress of the forest. Icarus falls in love with La Promise, a caterpillar, and McKeeman must make sure she and the other forest denizens are protected from the newcomer. While most of the action occurs on the stage level, she watches over the creatures from high above on her trapeze.

“Everything is about falling down and getting up again,” she said. “Icarus is presented with failure over and over and he gets up. It’s about communication. My role within the community is to be wary of him and make sure La Promise is OK.”

When on tour, the ensemble travels to a new location every week. The cast typically performs Wednesday through Sunday, with Mondays and Tuesdays off for relaxation and sightseeing.

“We spend a week in each city,” she explained. “If you like it, enjoy it fast. If you don’t, you’ll be gone in a week. I try to find a way to enjoy it and make the best of the few days we have there.”

Although rehearsals are no longer needed, the artists train daily, with conditioning exercises and Pilates. Two physical therapists accompany the tour, to help with special targeted strengthening exercises or injuries.

So, after two years on tour in the same production, has the circus life gotten old and does she wish she could put down roots somewhere?

“I think I will always love traveling,” the 29-year-old laughed. “Sometimes, we feel like nomads because we are, but I think there will be a time for (settling down). It’s more about making it feel like home. I am still finding inspiration here, and it’s a very unique message. My character is a powerful part of that.”

McKeeman’s twin sister, Kaleen, has been working for Cirque du Soleil in Berlin, Germany, but is temporarily on tour with her. The girls are both looking forward to seeing family and friends and some home cooking – their own, since they seldom get to cook while on the road – and to watching classic movies together, a favorite family activity.

“Hollis was a great place to grow up,” McKeeman said. “It will be a really cool experience to bring the show to them and also bring friends on the show, who are from all over the world, to get to see where I come from.”