By Ellen MORTON Hamil ‘59
Kaleen MCKEEMAN ’03 has been a star in the heavens . . . the heavens of
ZAIA, a Cirque du Soleil show in Macao, China. For more than two years she
played the part of Zaia, a girl who travels into space. No, she isn’t an
astronaut in a spaceship, she’s literally hanging onto a rope. That’s because
Kaleen is an aerial strap artist. You know how you get that tickle in your
stomach when you watch a rollercoaster as it creeps over the highest peak and
points its nose to the long, low dip ahead? Well, you get the same feeling
watching Kaleen as she’s swept from the floor of the stage and soars into space
hanging on by a strap. And when I say she’s swept into space, I’m not
exaggerating. The theater in Macao is seven stories high! Click here to see Kaleen performing as ZAIA.
Kaleen didn’t know about Cirque du Soleil when she was a child growing
up in Hollis, New Hampshire. She knew she liked to climb trees and, much to the
dismay of her parents, get as close to the top as possible. In elementary
school at Pine Hill Waldorf School, Kaleen met Jackie Davis, the movement and
circus arts teacher, and her fate was sealed. Kaleen performed in Pine Hill’s
middle school “Hilltop Circus,” and helped form the “Flying Gravity Circus”
which traveled to nearby schools to perform and lead workshops to teach kids circus arts.
While a student at High Mowing, Kaleen was accepted into Circus
Smirkus, and spent four summers traveling through New England with the Vermont
based group. Although High Mowing did not have a circus program, Kaleen said
that the school’s open and supportive environment helped her personal
development, as did the two years of French she took. After graduation, she
attended The National Circus School of Montreal and was the first woman to
graduate with a specialty in aerial straps. Instead of oral and written finals,
the senior class puts on a circus performance. Cirque du Soleil saw Kaleen in
action and recruited her despite the fact that the show they had in mind for
her was only in the planning stages.
While performing in ZAIA, Kaleen lived in Macao, China, a former
Portuguese colony off the coast of Hong Kong. She is well-traveled and spent
many days in Hong Kong, which she describes as a modern city, easily accessible
from Macao by
hydrofoil. She had four weeks off annually and made trips to Singapore,
Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, mainland China and what she
describes as two relaxing and fascinating weeks hiking in the province of
Kerala in southwestern India.
Kaleen enjoys coming home to visit her family when she is between
contracts. Even when she isn’t sure what her next adventure will be, she knows
she’s sticking with flying, as that is her passion.
Click here to see a trailer for ZAIA.