By Cindy Mindell
HARTFORD – Among the death-defying, high-flying, mesmerizing spectacles of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Presents Circus XTREME, now at the XL Center in Hartford, is a human cannonball who has found as much inspiration from tikkun olam and a trip to Israel as she does from her unusual line of work.
The second of five children born to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, Gemma “The Jet” Kirby moved around a lot as a kid from her native Minneapolis, as her parents sought to make a difference in the world.
“My parents were and are political activists and they wanted their kids to learn what it was like to grow up off the grid,” she says. “They wanted to instill a sense of service and helping those who can’t help themselves. So we moved around a lot and everywhere we went, my parents lent themselves to others who were hungry or struggling in some other way, to do their own small part to try to make the world a better place.”
Kirby took dance lessons from an early age and was homeschooled until 11th grade, when she entered the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts. After graduating as valedictorian at age 16, she enrolled at Circus Juventas in St. Paul to explore the flying trapeze. After four years working on the apparatus, she appeared in the 2011-2012 season of Big Apple Circus.
While a student at Circus Juventas, Kirby went on a Taglit-Birthright trip.
“I’ve always been adventurous but I didn’t have high expectations of the impact it was going to have on me,” she recalls. “I never felt super-connected to my roots in Judaism because I always thought you had to go through certain steps in order to ‘be Jewish.’ We had all these incredibly moving spiritual experiences at historic and holy sites, and the most important lesson I took away is that Judaism is a cultural heritage and an identity that you can embrace if you choose. I realized that I did want to embrace it and didn’t want to feel ‘less than’ because I’d had an untraditional upbringing.”
It was in a ceremony on Masada that Kirby adopted Michal as a Hebrew name and embraced her Jewish heritage. A rabbi chaperoning the trip had suggested the name of King David’s wife. Kirby liked the description of a headstrong, outspoken young woman who would stand her ground in controversy and adversity – traits that Kirby had begun to ascribe to her own parents. “I didn’t fully understand them at the time, because I was just a kid, but looking back, I really admired them and how much they gave of themselves in the name of humanity.”
Taking a meaningful Hebrew name gave Kirby a sense of belonging to the Jewish people. “Like me, a lot of people on the trip also identified as Jewish but hadn’t had a spiritual upbringing,” she says. “It felt really cool to be part of a community where we came from all different backgrounds and walks of life but we all identified as Jewish, and that’s what brought us together. I came home with a new sense of self and a new sense of belonging in the world community. I could refer to these years and years of heritage that’s all in my bloodline and feel grounded in something deep and nurturing. It’s something I’ve carried with me ever since.”
Today, says Kirby, “I identify as Jewish and it’s a part of my heritage that I embrace.”
Now 25, Kirby joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® as a human cannonball 15 months ago, only the fourth or fifth woman to do so since the two circuses merged in 1919.
On the road, she celebrates Jewish holidays and cooks Jewish food. Last season, she and two fellow Jewish staff members held a Passover seder in a train yard. “We have people from every religion and walk of life and I think everybody would agree that it is tricky to keep your traditions alive in this nomadic lifestyle,” she says. “But it is definitely doable and something I try to do.”
Like her parents, Kirby puts a high priority on service to others. “I try to bring their spirit of activism into everything I do, especially when it comes to reaching out to kids and teenagers,” she says. “I am passionate about inspiring self-esteem and confidence in young people, especially in young girls. I try to encourage them that they can do anything they set their minds to and not to let themselves be limited by traditional gender roles.”
Kirby hopes to continue to pursue a career in entertainment as a way to empower others, especially girls and women. “Entertaining is great and it can make people smile but as an entertainer, I have another responsibility, which is to inspire people and set a good example,” she says.