Ekaterina Shustova “Simply Purple” is a great aerial artist. She performs with aerial fabric, straps, lyra and pole. Ekaterina comes from a circus family and began her performing career in 1997 when she was eight years old. She has also performed in Cirque du Soleil show’s ZED and MYSTERE.
1. Ekaterina, could you please tell me about yourself?
How is it to grow up in a circus family? How was your process of discovering your favorite circus arts and becoming aerialist?
I think this is the best thing what can happen with a child, to get born and grow up in circus. My memories starting from 1991 when my parents for the first time went to work season in Europe. First it was Italy, France, Hungary then Austria, Switzerland, Nederland, Belgium, Spain, Germany, almost all Europe!
I remember me and my older brother always played in the circus and at the site of the circus. We could see with our own eyes, everything that what later we taught in the school on lessons of geography or history.
My father with his twin brother was working «Hand to Hand» ! My mom and dad, uncle and aunt was working really beautiful act «Jugglers with Big flags». Me and my brother were always there next to the stage, when parents were rehearsing. We were playing around with flags and hula hoops was trying to do some acrobatic tricks on the floor. When I was 3 and half years old I already could twist 3 hula hoops.
Around that time when I turned 6, my parents started to teach me more and more acrobatic and start to do stretching and strength conditioning. First like a game, and then slowly more and more seriously.
All my childhood I were hanging everywhere, where it was allowed. On every single playground I was creating some aerial acts. I was climbing on every single tree. Dresses and skirts wore not for me. Ha-ha-ha.
My first unofficial appearance on the stage was in 1991. My parents decided to let me go on stage in the middle of the act, that I can make a couple of easy acrobatic tricks in the hands of my father. And fill out the break, while my uncle take couple of breaths. At that time I was 2 and half or 3 years old.
My first Official appearance on the stage happened on 1997 in Circus «Dannebrog». Madame directress was having birthday and all circus artists decide to make a little show for this birthday and also to have fun.
Because I was a child who was loving heights, my parents saw only one way, to make an aerial act for me. They made an aerial cerceau for me, and chose a very symbolic music «From Russia with Love» – Shirley Bassey. Director of the circus, fell in love with my act and asked my parents that I worked every day, every show. Parents warned him that I was only 8 years old child, and that I can get tired or do not want to work, and they can´t force me. They asked me – can you and do you want to work every day the show with us. I was happy to answer that, yes, I want to. I received my salary, each time in an envelope, and so I worked until the end of the season. So that is how I started to perform on stage.
2. What inspired you when developing your own style?
I don´t think that I have some special style, but I always want to move forward and develop. My father and my uncle had a very good number and they were considered one of the best partner performers in Russia and Europe. What I can say concerning the style that you begin to feel softness of the movement and flexibility by the quantity of trainings, rehearsals and performances. The more time you spend with the apparatus, silks, straps or some other the more you will feel it. The same as with the person, you will get more familiar with it.
3. With which aerial apparatus do you train and perform?
Which is your favorite and why?
Like I’ve said above, the first equipment what I started to work with was a Aerial Cerceau, then I moved in to aerial straps in 1998 and then in 2001 I first tried aerial Tissue and I fell in Love with it. Of course between these main disciplines I was doing acrobatics on the floor, Unicycle, Russian Bar with my dad and uncle, hand to hand with my dad, contortion, a bit of solo trapeze, a bit in every discipline.
In aerial tissue, I have everything what I like. I have adrenaline from big falls. I have freedom to move how I want and where I want on these two pieces of fabric. And the most important thing, I can control everything what is going on.
Because with hand to hand or Russian Bar you have to give control and balance to the person who is on the bottom.
4. How does your usual day look like?
How long and how often do you train and stretch? How long do you warm up before the training? How long do you warm up and stretch before the performance?
The days when I have trainings or shows, it’s always lined up for training or show.
It means I wake up usually at 9, sometimes 8 o’clock. Then I can do some things at home or go shopping, grocery store. I prefer not to eat 3 hours before training and two hours before show begins. (eat I mean big meals, cookies tea and chocolate are allowed. hihihi).
Usually I do one or one and half hour warm up before training or show. Stretching on massage roller, and massage balls and baseballs. Stretching splits on the chairs, it’s all part of warm up. After warm up I’m going up on the Tissue and staying up there doing some tricks and creating some new falls. Usually I stay up there not less than one hour. If I feel that I’m tired I wrap my leg in to node on the tissue, and have a little rest there. It all started with the fact that I was too lazy to get off after every trick or fall, and then again to climb up. And I decided that the best way not to get off the tissue during the training. hahaha.
Strength exercise I usually do on my training days, after all warm up and all training on tissue or straps.
5. You travel a lot performing. Could you please share some funny or maybe unexpected episode during your performances?
Just last contract, in Switzerland there was a small incident. Before my act there was an act with a boxer dog. The tamer and the dog goes behind the curtain, the light on the stage switch off and I have to run to the position for the start of my act. All good, but… In the third step of my choreography, I hear that the audience starts laughing. My act is not comic act. And a moment later, I notice that the dog is standing next to me, and she looks at me and wants to play. What could I do, I began to retreat back to the curtain call her to me. And thank God the tamer did not go away and he would take a dog just behind the curtain, so I can continue my act with a huge smile on my face.
6. How do you create your transitions on silks?
Could you give some tips for interesting transitions and good flow? How is your creative process when preparing choreography? How do you choose your music for your performances?
Transitions on the silks and tips for finding transitions are really slow movements. It´s all about your ??let´s say partner, with the silks or straps. The more you stay on it, the more you train on it, the more you will find. If you don´t like a transition, then better to do something else.
The same with music if you don´t feel the music style or the way how it is written, it´s better not to push yourself against that. It´s better if you go with your heart and with your soul. You have to listen to it many times, and if still after listening to it 10 times, you think ok, it´s not my thing, that´s better if you change it and find something what is really yours.
With the choreography it´s the same kind of thing to choose. For example, I was working with Davy Brown, she is a choreographer in Canada, in France and also in Cirque de Soleil. She is putting some music, how let´s say she was putting Madonna for us, a song for a minute and she asked me and my partner to dance. Of course in a show it was a completely different one, but she wanted to take that energy from us, movement what we good for in that music and then she put it into the show music.
And that was the best way, because you just feel freedom, you move the way how you want. And that´s she finds a good music towards you feel, what comes from your body, so she doesn´t need a choreography that she thinks going to be good. She takes the choreography from you. And then you dance and again you feel this choreography. It´s not that somebody showed you to do the things that you don´t like. You can do something that you would love to yourself.
7. What do you appreciate the most important in a performance and in an artist?
Of course, it´s good to see the tricks and the strong things in the air. But of course it´s important to see your relationship to your equipment and the way you say something to the audience, what you give to them. Because you could be a robot, who just do the tricks, it´s not so interesting. It will be like – oh, cool, she does tricks, nice. That´s a sport, it´s not artist. We have to give, let´s say, soul, we have to give our emotions to the audience and they´re gonna give back to us.
8. What precaution tips can you give for starting aerialists?
Did you ever have injury and how have you cured it?
Injuries are an important topic, of course. Because when we start our life in the circus we try to do many things at one time. And we don´t think really about it what is going to happen if something goes wrong. The first thing if I give some class it doesn´t matter what you want to do on the equipment, you have to have double strength. If something goes wrong, let say, if you got wrapped in a wrong way and you are up there on the 8 meters and nobody can climb up and bring you down. So you come out by yourself. And what if you don´t have enough strength, it´s really bad. You have to have enough strength to pull yourself up, or hold only on your hands and take all the wraps off that are around you. It´s really important. For each aerial apparatus you are supposed to be strong to come out every single trick.
Bad situations. Of course when I started circus, injuries were coming. I have broken foot twice, I was out for some time. The doctor told me to walk 3 weeks on the crunches and I took them away on the first week, because I really wanted to go back in the show. But again I had to wait one month for everything to heal so that I could start working.
It´s always better to listen to people who know more about these things, because we often think “I know everything, I can do it.” No, it´s better to listen to them and save your body, because it´s what you have and it´s what you use to work. It´s only your body and you never can buy a new hand, a new shoulder, a new knee, you know. It´s all what you have.
I have pain in my shoulder sometimes, on both of them, and that´s the price that I pay for my work, what I can do on stage. I can amaze people and I pay with my pain, you know. And of course I do strength exercises to keep my muscles intense, not to break them, you know.
Pulling down exercises, stretching. It´s always good if you do them all the time, even like 20 minutes after the show. Just do it and then the next day you will feel much better. Protect yourself, let´s say like that.
Of course there are many exercises for the back, they are mostly from Pilates, also with a elastic band and exercises from physiotherapy. Because when you work with your front muscles more in the show or in the training, the shoulder will turn in the front, which can cause pain in the shoulders and in the neck. You have to compensate with the back.
What about the upper back?
Of course you have to stretch it, but not stretching by bending in a back, because you still collapse your spine, it´s more like stretching up. SO before you band in the back, you just pull it all up reaching up to the ceiling. And the same on the floor, you just lay down on your belly and you just try to reach with your arms one side of the room and with your legs another one. The same on your lower back. And of course doing exercise when you lay on your upper side, your legs are still in the air and you pull on the upper side not only with your legs together, but also with your hands open. It´s straddle but also on the shoulders. The same thing in the opposite position when you lay with your legs and your waist hanging, you go up.
If you have injuries, for example in ligaments or muscles, it´s better to listen to the doctor, what he/she says how fast or slow you can train, how many exercises you can do. With bones it´s a little bit different. My injury wasn´t that big, of course I couldn´t jumping on it, but that was much easier than ligament problems.
Did you have overstretching?
Yes and also recently. This winter we had a very hard schedule. My muscles were really tired and the problem was that there was no time to recover. And of course, I wasn´t eating very well, I wasn´t eating these special meals, you know. So I started to feel pain in my legs, especially when I went on split and it was really hard. In the beginning I couldn´t understand what was going on. Because usually I oversplit putting my front leg on the chair with my back leg on the floor. And at that time, when I started to feel pain, I couldn´t even sit on the floor in the split. It was really painful. So I wrote to my massage therapist in Russia and I asked him what can it be. And he explained to me, you workout really hard and you work too much. You don´t have time to recover, you are supposed to go to the sauna or you are supposed to have a special massage and you have to eat better, more meat, cottage cheese, milk and the things that can help your muscles to recover.
In this case if you workout really hard and have a lot of training, be careful with your meal, what you eat and how you eat. You can´t eat just salads. If you workout hard, the salads are not the best thing.
I was pushing my body to the limits really hard. Maybe it will never come back, maybe I will never sit on a split anymore, because I will have pain all the time. But thanks God it´s not like this. I had a break of let´s say ten days without doing anything, no strength exercises, no stretching, just relaxing my muscles. I now it came back, I don´t feel so much pain now.
When you do tissue, you can´t do all the tricks equal to the right side and to the left. On the straps it´s easy, you can do straps on the left and on the right. On the tissue it´s a little different. So in this case, let´s say, you are always pulling your right leg and your hip ac go a little bit twisting, then you will start to feel pain in your lower back or in your hip, so you have to go the the physiotherapist, so that he/she will see if you are ok and it will crack here and there, they crack your back, shoulders, etc., make you do some exercises to keep your bones in place. The muscles which are holding our bones, they are supposed to be strong.
9. What tips and exercises can you give to master one hand hangs?
And how many times and repetitions one should do in the beginning? What one should consider not to get injured when doing one hand hangs?
Every time when you start new tricks, you don´t have to kill yourself. You are supposed to go slowly. Let´s say if you can push yourself and you can do 10 times, then do 10 times for the first week. And slowly you can do more.
Or if you want to try to do that, you can start with 5, the next day you can do 6 times. And then you will be able to do 7, 8 and so gradually you will go higher and do more.
All these exercises, you know, when you hang on two hands and pull your shoulders down, you pull your body up by the shoulders but not by the elbows. All these kind of exercises will make your shoulders stronger. The same is when you sink down and push yourself, you sink and you push.
Some girls want to do tricks on the tissue and on the straps, but they don´t want to look like a man, to have muscles. Here is the thing, if you are not strong enough, you can´t do these tricks. Here is the thing, for example, I want to drive a car, but I don´t want to learn for the driver license. There is no other way, you have to create some muscles. Of course, every single body has different body shape, have different muscles structure. For example, there are girls who are really skinny, and they can´t get these real muscles shape Some girls will be able to do hundred of pull ups, but they won´t have this shape.
Here is the thing, you want to drive a car, do a driver´s license, if you want ot make strong tricks, make yourself stronger.
In tricks, you have to control and in some parts relax your muscles, you have to control where your body goes. In some parts, where you know, you can relax your muscles, and in others you have to keep them strong. For example in flag, you have to keep your shoulders strong. Sometimes people start to relax and they come out. This moment you can injure your muscles.
10. What exercises would you recommend to our readers to get a good balance in a silk split without holding hands?
Here is the same kind of things, you have to make a mix between relaxing your muscles in your legs and at the same time keep it in control, not too relaxed and never ever make tight your upper body. Upper body is supposed to be really relaxed. Because if you will do it intense, you won´t have a nice balance. And don´t do it quickly, but slowly let one hand go and held with another hand. And the most important thing when you are afraid you bow front, so your whole body is in front and that´s wrong. You are more comfortable and easier to balance if your shoulders in the back. And of course if you have someone, you can give your hand and see if you can sit and keep yourself in the back. That´s gonna be much easier. Your weight goes into the middle and if it goes more in the back, it´s even better. But not from a back, just your lower back, but from the hip.
11. You had a very interesting drop, going forward with your body, could you please describe how to do it?
Can one do it with 6 meters height?
It´s all about how many drops you´re gonna do, because it´s like a loop drop, you have your loop on the shoulder. Usually in my act I do 3 loops, and of course 6 meters is not enough for that. I have like 11 meters of tissue and that´s enough and I´m stays 2 meters above the stage. That means I need a least 13 meters of height.
If you do it with one loop, 6 meters it´s enough. I see many girls who do it with one loop or two loops and there are many different ways to wrap into it. I have one video, it´s called tissue mix and there it´s shown and the way how you can do it, how you can wrap into it. But more than that I use motor which brings me down and up and on my way I climb and do a second loop you know. In this trick the most important thing is of course, everybody wants to make big drops, but again you are supposed to have strength to do it, to wrap into it, because it´s not just the drop when you climb up and make a loop and slide, it´s a bit different. It´s new climb to do the drop. And many girls, don´t realize that they can get tired and put this drop in the end, not thinking about that they maybe won´t have enough strength to make it.
And of course the most important fact is to have a nice trajectory of falling. If you fall, but you can´t understand how you fall, if you fall in front, or on the side. It will look for the audience as you don´t have confidence. And it´s not gonna be really nice. It will be like you drop a little bag with sand, a little doll, you put it on the tissue and you drop it and then it will fall how it falls you know.
You have to understand trajectory, it´s kind like learning the right way of fall. And you don´t have to be afraid, because I know there are many girls who just close their eyes when they drop. You are supposed to see and understand how it goes. It´s like small kids when they start to walk.
12. How was that experience at Circus Festivals and Cirque du Soleil?
In Cirque Du Soleil it was a really good experience about what you can take out from yourself. Of course, not everybody form us can really dance and sing in front of people. And in Cirque du Soleil they really try to open you, to make you more creative and to make you a real artist. They give classes, if you want to take ballet classes, you can take, if you want to take acting classes, you can take. If they need you to sing, they will ask the teacher and the teacher will come and teach you how to sing. It´s a really good experience. The only one thing that I really want to say. Many people want to go to Cirque du Soleil, because they want to perform there. It´s good. But the most important part is not to stop improving after you came there. Sometimes, you know you reach your dream, and you think that you have already reached the dream of your life. Never stop moving forward, improving your acts, improving your tricks, improving yourself, you know. And if you feel that is not enough for you because sometimes it happens, you work in Cirque du Soleil, and you want to create something more and they tell you, no, but we don´t need this in this show or we don´t have the place and then you understand, it was a good time to work there and you learned a lot of things. But I have to move on. And then you are away from Cirque du Soleil and you continue working and you continue your stuff. And that´s not bad, that´s good. The experience of Cirque du Soleil was really good, if you have a chance to go there, go. That´s what I would say.
13. How is the circus scene in the countries where you lived and performed?
Do artists know each other or rather work on their own projects? What training place can you recommend there? Are all the artists in Russia from circus families or there are also people who learned circus because they wanted it, are they accepted?
In America there are a lot of place where gymnasts and kids go, like Sport halls, they also rent place for aerials or pole, there are many places. In Europe there are also many places, I went to Europe to work, but I never went there to do training. And of course there are Circus schools in Berlin, France and Spain. I heard a lot about that, but I´ve never been at those places.
In Russia we have many training places, even a small city has a place like 6 meter of height. In pole schools girls also learn tissue, but it´s not as for circus performance, it´s more like for fun. In Moscow we have a special place for circus artists with 18 meters height.
In circus there are circus families and there are also guys and girls who fall in love with circus and want to be professional artists. There is a circus school in Moscow where you can study to become a circus artist. And there are directors, they can create an act for you. There are many things like this. And I have many friends who are not from circus families and they were let´s say gymnasts, and they was that in the circus were looking for some guys to do acrobatics on the horses and they decided to try, and then they started to travel and they love it. They continue, you know, and then they find a wife, a husband in the circus you know and that´s how they create circus families. There are many circus families, and not circus families and it´s really nice to have this kind of mix.
14. Where one can book you for a show?
Photos: Dmitry Chobanu