Interview – High Fliers: The Aerialist and The Entrepreneur

IMG_7169To inaugurate In Bed with Art (where would you rather be?), I interview aerialist Christine Van Loo, seven-time National Acro gymnast champ and Olympic Hall of Famer (www.christinevanloo.com), and songwriter Jonathon Conant, past President of Trapeze School New York, which he co-founded and expanded to locations in D.C., Santa Monica, Chicago, and Boston (www.jonathonconant.com).
I met the couple preparing to move to Costa Rica to build a trapeze and aerial arts retreat. A moving sale sign affixed to a plastic bin led down a steep hillside stairway, across a bridge, past a furry gatekeeper, into the apartment of a preternaturally fit, sunkissed couple; she, sinewy, in constant motion; he, radiating intensity, seated on the couch. The apartment was small and rather dark, but a deck extended from it; open to the West, overlooking a tangle of green, dominated by a four poster bed. Through billowy sheers, past palms and bougainvillea, the ocean stretched to the horizon, the gentle arc of shoreline teased the surf, mountains angled to meet sky.
Shangri-La.
And they were leaving it to begin something new.
So a few days later, I returned to Christine and Jonathon to learn more about their lives, the drive for reinvention, and what inspires them to fly so high.IMG_7171

DM: Tell me about your artistic path; where you started, why you’re here and where you’re going.

C: I started when I was 8 years old. My parents put me in a gymnastic sport called acro-gymnastics because I was hyperactive. I was really bad at it, but I loved it and stuck with it, and ended up becoming a seven time national champion. I’ve always been attracted a mixture of arts and athletics, so this was a natural transition for me, to become an aerialist. I’m still performing with live symphony orchestras every weekend somewhere in the world.

DM: And your next phase?

C: Jonathon and I are buying a property in Costa Rica and we’re going to build an aerial retreat there. Over the next year – we say three years, but I can’t imagine it will be that long – I’ll completely transition to living there and teaching aerial retreats.

J: I come from a very artistic, musical family. Mom was an opera singer, my sister is a world famous harpist. I was the least focused one, but I really enjoyed writing and playing. I had a couple of bands that got popular with people who were doing these huge trance events. Then I picked up some gigs writing music for film and television (in Boston). I was working very hard, and would stay up for three, four, five days at a time trying to meet a deadline for people who were just never happy with the work. I decided I was going to put (the music) down. I didn’t know if I was ever going to come back to it. It was just at that time I discovered flying trapeze and I put all my energy into building a national company.

DM: You discovered trapeze, and you stopped writing music?

J: I stopped everything. I didn’t sing, I didn’t write, I didn’t even think about music. One hundred percent on building the trapeze business.

DM: Can you pin a turning point as an artist where everything changed for you?

C: I performed once with Aerosmith at the American Music Awards. I was relatively new to the (aerial) world, and the show was being choreographed by Debra Brown, Cirque du Soleil’s choreographer. She put the music on at rehearsal and said, “Play.” I went up and started doing my tricks and she started yelling, “Christine, stop posing!” So I thought, maybe she wants more dynamic elements. I was doing everything I could think of, and she kept yelling at me. I’m like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you want. That’s all I know how to do.”
A friend of mine, Bianca (Sapetto), who had worked in Cirque du Soleil, climbed up and showed me. She did the most basic aerial move, called a hip key, but she started tearing at the fabric like she was mad at it; and she threw it on the ground, and it was like she threw her child on the ground, then she slowly gathered it to her breast, and I just started crying. I was like, oh my God, it’s not about the tricks, it’s about how you can make people feel something with your movement! That was a huge transition for me.

J: In my family there was a lot of judgement around art, that if you’re not doing what my family would call real music, either opera or classical, then you probably shouldn’t be playing at all. That, combined with listening to other people’s music and thinking, not only are they good but they’ve kind of said the things I want to say…I remember when Sting’s album came out, he wrote this song where he says, ‘if I built this fortress around your heart’ – I was just, like, you cannot say it better than that. And it was at that moment that I decided I was never going to be able to make it as a songwriter.
I started getting into writing for film and television because that was kind of mechanical for me and I didn’t have to worry about whether people would like it or not, because I knew I could pull it off. I carried that with me until I was in my forties. It wasn’t until I had the guitar that it got really personal. I remember that, that moment, when the music started to flow from me, without going through the judgement filter first, and hearing my own voice in the words that were coming out of me, and knowing I had found that thing. It was great.

DM: Tell me about your artistic partnerships, your community, who you rely on?

J: I have a friend called Athena, she’s someone who can look into your universe and help you pull out what’s most important. And then there’s Ryan Richko, who’s the producer of my album, who can listen to something I do and say, now let’s make it real in the musical world; we’ll add strings to it, arrange it in this way, and we’ll give it a hook, like this, and we’ll just make it happen. I’ve been very, very fortunate, and very lucky to work this year with a guy who mastered Sting’s last albums and works with Bonnie Raitt.
All of these guys just sit you down and they are brutally real with you. It’s a very intimate relationship because you’ve got to put all judgement and fear aside and truly, truly trust each other and make room for each other to do your thing.

C: With my partners, I’ve been working with them for a long time, when we’re performing together, it’s almost like we’re one mind and one body, like I know what the arm is going to do before it does it. It’s like my body ends and (theirs) begins.

DM: As artists who depend so much on other people to create and perform, what’s your need for solitude?

C: I travel half of every week. I spend a lot of time alone in hotel rooms and I’m perfectly fine with it. I mean, I prefer to be with Jonathon, but I’m not the person who’s lonely or bored or anything. I can get really creative writing or reading, or choreographing something or working on some project. I really enjoy my solitude. It needs to be a balance.

J: I have to have my solitude. I’ve traveled over half of every year, so Chrissy and I only get to see each other less than half the year. The thing is, when we’re together, we’re totally and utterly together. When I make a trip, it’s something I believe I have to go do, but I have spent months opening up schools. Every night I’m by myself in my room, playing guitar and having tequila, and getting into those places.

DM: How do you maintain the relationship when you have so many things pulling the two of you apart?

C: I can imagine it would be hard for other people, but we’ve always had a relationship like that, I mean, he understands I have to go away three days a week or four days a week, and I understand he needs to go open a school. We just make it work. It’s really special when we are together.
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DM: What about what you each need individually to excel at what you do?

C: I have my lists everyday and I’m totally goal oriented. I’m always working on ten goals at a time and I break it down, like, I’m going to have this done by noon and this done by Friday at three o’clock (laughs). That kind of drives me, setting goals and reaching my goals. I set my lifetime goals, my yearly goals, my monthly goals, my daily goals, and then today by three… (Laughs)

J: I love to get positive feedback, and I have to say, Chrissy’s amazing at giving positive feedback. But the thing about me is I am not a procrastinator. I’m the opposite of a procrastinator. If it needs to be done, it will be done now, and I will do everything that any human being can get done in any given day.

C: And it’s amazing the amount of things he gets done in one day. I don’t even understand how he accomplishes as much as he does.

J: When I was really young, I tried to look at the great people in history and say, how in the world could they possibly get that much done in a single life? Knowing what I know about getting out of bed in the morning and going back to bed and what happened in between, it’s not possible. So I started to look at the elements that were required to get there. There were some that I just didn’t want to have anything to do with, like power and violence, and money, to a certain degree; things that I knew would not be healthy in my life. But one of the main things that is so important for success, or for manifesting dreams, is not being resistant to the things you need to do to get there; just getting up and go, go, go, go, go, to get it done. And getting off on getting it done. And looking back at the end of the day and going, no-one else can get that much shit done.

C: Also, Jonathon has impeccable integrity. If he says he’s going to do something, he will do it. He’s amazing.

J: Yeah, if you come back to me and say, ‘Jonathon, you said you would do this,’ that will be done, even if I don’t really want to do it. I’ll try to renegotiate (laughs) but you can be sure I’ll do it if I said I will.

DM: Do you schedule on a daily basis? How are your priorities set?

J: Usually it’s about what my bigger goal is; what I need to get done today to accomplish that goal. So we get up and we get the house in order, because for me to move as fast as I need to move, I can’t be tripping over things. Then it’s exercise. Well, actually, the first thing that happens is morning love.

C: The dog is the morning love.

J: The top of the day, we just love each other up; and then we’re like, okay, let’s go! And then we give the dog love. Love has got to be first. Then you’ve got everything in order.

DM: Can I ask what time you start Love?

C: Six.

J: Sometimes a little earlier, like five. Then it’s just emails, phone calls, communicating with everybody, making sure that if there’s a pile of anything it gets taken care of, so that by the end of the day you can look back and say there’s nothing still on the list.

C: There’s always stuff still on the list. (Laughs) I try.

J: And where does that leave time for fun? Oddly enough, it does, because if you become really efficient, then what needs to be a priority starts to rise to the top quicker and you de-prioritize stuff that’s really actually not important, and suddenly your time opens up. Because there are really only certain things that grease the wheels towards success. When you figure out what those are, you will notice that they actually come in an order and in a time that leaves you plenty of time to enjoy your life and have fun, and go out and play, and exercise, and do everything you need to do.

DM: Is there anything like a typical day or typical week in the life?

C: A typical week for me is spending three to four days in L.A. running my errands and working on my lists and projects, and say, Friday or Saturday, going out of town or out of the country and performing with symphonies. Having a rehearsal and doing one to three or more shows, then coming home on a Sunday or Monday.

J: Right now I’m organizing a crew of people to take on the newest Royal Caribbean Cruise ship (The Quantum). We’ll fly to Germany and be on the ship for two months training their staff how to run a flying trapeze operation. I’ll fly down to Costa Rica, where I’m also opening a business, so I’m talking to lawyers and real estate people and another team of people and getting them all lined up to meet us down there. And then I’m organizing volunteers who are going to help us build the retreat on the property that we purchased, and making sure that they’re where they need to be, that they’re taken care of, and that they’re met and that they’re fed; and they’re buying us vehicles, so that when Chrissy shows up with the dog we can all traipse down to where we’re going to do our business, build our home. So there’s all that.

DM: Where will you stay while you build your home?

C: We have a home we’re renovating, and we’re building an aerial deck and trapeze and cabinas –

J: – and septic, and everything else that has to be built, so we’ve been talking to builders and website designers and trying to put together the right team of people, so when we hit the ground there, we can start developing the business and property pretty quickly.

DM: Where do you find inspiration?

J: Where do you not find inspiration? (Laughs)

C: You’re definitely inspiring.

J: So are you. But if I could activate on all the inspiration that I have, I would really need way more time, because I am non-stop going, ‘ah! great idea, ah! this would be awesome, we could totally do this!’ and I have to go, no, no, let’s keep it focused. Facebook for me is an awesome inspirational tool, ‘cause I’m always impressed how beautiful people’s lives are, and the way that they’re connecting reminds me to reconnect, and the ways that they’re striving reminds me to strive. That’s exactly how I use Facebook: oh hell yeah, I’m going to do that!

C: If I’m performing and I see someone else doing something, I think, I love how that felt, or that move, or I see somebody’s decoration in their house, I think, I’d love to have that in my house! or I’m reading a book…it’s just everywhere.IMG_7163

J: I don’t know if you’ve heard of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs? Everybody in the world is in little bit of a different place in the needs that they’re trying to meet. Some people are at the bottom of this triangle, just trying to meet their need for being fed; but there’s a point you get to a place where you don’t ever even think about being fed, your bills. You learn to manifest that stuff without having to think about it anymore, and then you’re just looking at the world in a very different way.

DM: How do you see your career and artistic endeavors changing down the road?

C: There are very few aerialists on the planet that work as much as I do, and it’s not slowing down; it’s just going and going and going and going. So I’m very lucky. I love performing still, but I do see going more into teaching and less performing. Being at home more and creating more of an art project; whether it’s an organic garden or decorating a home, and having people come and having these amazing spiritual, artistic experiences, and having their lives change because of that.

J: I’ve been running a national company for the last 17 years. A company of that size needs constant maintenance. I want to try to scale down those concepts to free up my time to spend more time in my spiritual zone. Which means getting up before sunrise and doing yoga, and feeling connected to the world with that energy, I want to do more community service, do more work with children and circus, helping them understand the sort of social entrepreneurship that is possible through discovering even simple gifts that they might have.

C: I think for both of us, we’ve had so much adventure in our lives, and travel, which is great, but living a simple life, staying home and eating rice and beans and working in the garden, sounds heavenly.

J: If I can make enough money with a small business and doing some retreats on the land, playing (music) here and there, to be able to do that I’ll be very, very happy.

DM: What’s the most important piece of advice you could offer another artist?

C: This is not necessarily for other artists but for anybody, this is my philosophy. I tell anyone, whether you’re buying a piece of clothing or a relationship, before you make the choice what you’re going to do, ask yourself, is it a Fuck yeah! or not? – and if it’s not, or you’re not sure, turn it down and move on.

J: I would say that there’s a myth that there’s sort of a secret sauce, like a recipe to success and to manifesting what you want, rather than deciding it’ll take as long as it takes to figure out what the recipe is. Keep looking for the secret sauce, because there are people out there who get it and understand it, and if you can find them and take a little piece from them, and eventually put together your own recipe, everything you ever possibly could have wanted will come out of that.

DM: How would you express yourself if you couldn’t do it the way you do it now?

C: I’d love to be a singer songwriter, although I can’t sing or play an instrument (laughs).

J: If I had it to do over again and I wasn’t a singer, I wish I would have discovered dance and acrobatics and fallen in love with it earlier.

DM: So basically you’re both saying if you couldn’t do what you do, you’d do what the other one of you is doing? (All laugh) Speaking of each other, how did you meet?

C: A mutual friend of ours believed that we belonged together, so she got together with (Jonathon’s) employees and they made sure that we were in the same room at the same time without anyone telling either of us.

DM: Did you connect immediately?

C: Yes.

DM: Were you the only single people in the room?

J: Who knows? Who knows if there was anybody else in the room.

DM: And how long ago was that?

C: August 6, 2008.

J: I could have come up with that if you didn’t. (Laughs)
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DM: What’s the greatest difference you have to navigate between you?

C: Not anything big. It’s just little stuff.

J: Yeah. And I’m not that easy to get along with. I’m kind of persnickety and I like things a very particular way. Chrissy can deal with literally anything – any level of noise, or mess, or people being annoying or whatever. It’s unbelievably impressive, and I’m sure a survival skill of all the traveling and the performing. She’s really good with people, and consequently, everyone just adores her, ‘cause they know that there’s never any issue. She’s definitely good at putting up with me, too. I’m very lucky.

DM: Tell me about your attitudes towards risk and reward. You’re both risktakers; – (Chrissy) in a physically risky profession, and (Jonathon) having taken big risks in choosing different professions and being entrepreneurial.

C: I don’t just take anything that’s thrown me. I definitely say, is the rigging safe? Do I know what I’m doing? Is this wrap correct? I take every single precaution I can, but after doing that, there just has to be confidence in yourself.

J: I’ve always tried new things on, and I think what drives me to do that is I want to see what I’m really capable of. What’s important to me is to see what effect I can have on the world; to see if I can create the things I want to create in the world, and do my part to try to make the world a better place. That’s really what creating Trapeze School was all about. I wanted to create a system that without having to raise any flags, or make anyone think they’re doing anything therapeutic, literally gives them an opportunity to reexamine what they’re capable of. And that’s what the school is doing, so I’m very proud of that work.

C: Since I was a little kid I had a coach; he was telling me do this, do this, do this. And the skills were very scary and very dangerous, and I learned them by stepping stones. I didn’t just go to double back the first day. I did run; jump; tuck your legs. So by building a foundation, I was able to do these really scary skills, which caused me to believe in myself; and now, when people see me go out onto the stage and do an aerial act 30 feet in the air, it is a dangerous act, but for me it’s not dangerous, because I’ve built this huge foundation underneath me. I go out there and that’s normal for me. It feels very normal, very comfortable.
The things that are scary for me are like giving a speech. I’m not going to die standing on a stage giving a speech, but it’s very scary ‘cause it’s new for me. And moving to Costa Rica, dropping everything here and getting rid of our stuff and apartment, that’s very scary. But I accept these challenges because I feel like I expand every time I do, and I want to, like (Jonathon) said, to see what am I capable of. And I do believe in myself. I know I’ve done all these amazing things here, so I could do new amazing things.

DM: Tell me three things you couldn’t live without.

C: …Chocolate? (Laugh)…Love. Couldn’t live without love. Um…I don’t know. Love is definitely the biggest one. I’m not sure if there’s anything else.

J: Yeah…same.

DM: I was going to ask for five things! (Laugh) Okay, so all you need is love. What would you tell your teenage self?

C: …Don’t cut your hair! (Laugh) I mean, there’s things I do regret, but then I think, if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t know Jonathon. Thank god I made that huge mistake back then, you know? I do wish I didn’t cut my hair when I was twenty (laughs).

J: I think that I would say, don’t give up on learning, and you could be a little less selfish. But in a really compassionate way.

DM: And what do you want to tell your future self?

C: Ummm…

J: Stockpile chocolate.
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