Couple Stays Up In the Air

Mark Pieklo and Laura Smith are Boy Throws Girl, an aerial act they performed for years with the French Cirque Plume. Last year, the couple left the contemporary circus to join English dance company Tilted Productions, which tours the United Kingdom and France. They live in a renovated 1850s church in Cévennes, France, with their twin toddlers.

After years as a circus acrobat, Mark Pieklo ’94 still feels the pressures of putting on a show – the glare of the spotlight, the eyes of the crowd, the need to nail every performance.

“Imagine all that, only you have to do backflips at the same time,” said Pieklo, a longtime aerialist with the French contemporary circus Cirque Plume.

In Boy Throws Girl, the act he performs with his wife, Laura Smith, Pieklo must climb to a perch high above the circus floor, toss a somersaulting Smith into the air, and catch her again. And they do it all without safety lines.

Taking chances comes naturally for Pieklo. He earned a bachelor’s degree in math from Mary Washington but bypassed a conventional career, opting instead to audition for the National Circus School in Montreal. Two decades later, he’s still flipping, twisting, and bouncing his way into audience members’ hearts. But to realize his dream, Pieklo – now 41 and the father of twin toddlers – would turn once again to his alma mater.

Growing up, Pieklo spent winters with his mother in Falls Church, Va., and summers with his father in Hawaii, where he went to community college. He transferred to Mary Washington, lured by the liberal arts.

“The way you got to take a bunch of different classes was really nice, and I liked that Fredericksburg was a small town,” said Pieklo, who worked for a while as a cook at Sammy T’s restaurant.

That first post-graduation circus-school audition called for five minutes of juggling, which Pieklo had picked up in high school, but it was heavy on gymnastics, theatrics, and dance.

“The only part I had done was the five-minute part,” he said.

Undaunted, he teamed up with a gymnastics coach, re-enrolled at Mary Washington – this time in theater and dance classes – and aced tryouts the following year.

Like Canadian counterpart Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Plume cuts animals out of the act, relying on acrobats, trapeze artists, jugglers, and gymnasts to convey stories or themes to audiences. While Cirque du Soleil flaunts fancy costumes and throngs of performers, Cirque Plume focuses on artists and features far smaller casts. (L’Atelier du Peintre, or The Painter’s Studio, which ran through December, included just 13 people.)

“It’s like comparing a small art film with a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster,” said Pieklo, who practices with Smith on a trampoline they installed in their home, a renovated 1850s church in Cévennes, France.

Late last year, the couple took a detour, leaving Cirque Plume to tour with England’s Tilted Productions. The new company blends performance art with contemporary dance and lets Pieklo keep whisking spectators into fantasylands of beauty, intrigue, and danger.

“The important part is not doing tricks, it’s sharing something with the public.

“When you’re on stage, you have an opportunity to interact with people that you’d never have otherwise,” he said. “It gives you a license to make them cry and laugh.”