When it came to thinking about what she wanted to do in life, Shelli Epstein’s ambitions were always, quite literally, sky high.
After years of showing her prowess in gymnastics, the talented 26-year-old is today a principal performer and Russian swing flyer with the prestigious Cirque du Soleil, which opens its latest show at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday.
Luzia, which runs until March, is described as “a waking dream of Mexico” and explores the cultural and visually vibrant traditions of the country through breathtaking acrobatic performances.
Among them will be Epstein, who plays the lead role of the Running Woman, a character inspired by the Tarahumara, a native Mexican tribe renowned for their long-distance, barefoot running abilities.
As just one of the magical elements of this show, her character metamorphosises on stage into a gigantic monarch butterfly, with spectacular gossamer wings, as a nod to the thousands of monarch butterflies that migrate every year from Mexico to Canada, where Cirque du Soleil was founded 35 years ago.
Arriving on the London stage is particularly special for Epstein, a former pupil of Akiva and JFS, having performed abroad for the past eight years after landing a role straight out of school with the Franco Dragone company, based
“At the age of 18, I told my parents I was moving to China to run away with the circus,” laughs Epstein. “I had never been to China, but I had no filter, no fear factor. I just knew so badly that was what I wanted to do and just went with it.”
As for her parents, Janice and Avron, she says her decision “took them by surprise”, but Epstein had since a very young age made no secret about her ambitions to become a circus performer and adds they have always been “fully supportive” of her career.
What is surprising is Epstein’s admission that her path to becoming a professional acrobat started when she was just a few months old.
“I had a lot of energy as a child, so my mum put me in baby gymnastics to release some of that energy – and unfortunately it had the opposite effect,” she laughs. “I did baby gymnastics from the age of six months, mostly just crawling around, but by age four I was selected for the squad.”
For the next three years, she trained at Hendon Youth Centre, until the family moved for a short period to Israel, where she represented Hapoel Tel Aviv.
When Epstein returned to London, she went back to Hendon, followed by Heathrow Gymnastics Club, before becoming a member of Child’s Hill Gymnastics Display Team.
It was while training in the gym one day that she noticed an audition notice for Franco Dragone and decided there and then to apply.
She speaks fondly of her time in Macau, from 2012 to 2015, as well as in Montreal with Cirque du Soleil, where she has been based since then.
But Epstein admits she was pushed a little outside her comfort zone when she was asked to work on the Russian Swing – something she describes as “one of the most high-risk acts you can do”.
She tells me: “It was one of the disciplines I said I would never do, going from swing to swing. You have two giant pendulums with a pusher and catcher on both sides. The flyer is on the front of the swing and we fly from our feet, using our legs to land on the other swing. There are mats, but no nets.”
When asked if she ever feels afraid, Epstein says, “most definitely”, but adds: “That’s what drives me. If you don’t have nerves, then you shouldn’t jump. The nerves are there for my safety. Afterwards I get this amazing adrenaline spike and it feels very special.”
As one of only four women on the team, and the only British-born performer – with the others hailing from Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia – Epstein says she feels “very proud” of herself for conquering the discipline.
Looking ahead to Luzia opening in London, she enthuses that the first time she saw a Cirque du Soleil show was at the Royal Albert Hall aged 11, and returning there as a performer will be “a beautiful full circle moment”.
She adds: “I can’t wait to show London what we have to offer, because I think it’s going to blow everyone away. The show is poetic and uplifting and when I’m on stage, it feels magical.
“As clichéd as it sounds, I really am living my dream.”
Luzia runs at Royal Albert Hall from January 12 until 1 March 2020,