A Balancing Act

Acrobat Nico Maffey ’13 performs in Pippin.

Nico Maffey ’13 practicing a hand balance
Photograph courtesy of Nico Maffey
Photograph by Terry Shapiro

Many performers thrive on adrenaline, but when Nico Maffey ’13 takes the stage as a professional hand balancer and acrobat in the national tour of Pippin, the most important thing he has to find is his inner Zen.

“It’s a challenging discipline—no matter how hard you work, if you get nervous, you will get shaky, and then you’ll fall,” Maffey says. “I have found meditation over the last year, mainly because I was having a lot of issues dealing with anxiety. I try to stay focused and breathe as much as possible to stay relaxed.” 

During the show—which combines elements of acrobatics and circus performance to tell the story of Pippin, a young medieval prince on a search for meaning—Maffey propels his body through a small hula hoop, balances on one hand upside-down on canes, sings, and acts.

Originally from Buenos Aires, Maffey showed an early interest in athletics, and began training as a gymnast at the age of five and as a circus performer at 16. He didn’t always know that becoming a professional acrobat would be on his career path: at Harvard, he concentrated in biology with a global-health secondary, and strongly considered going into research full-time. Yet the circus life still called to him, and after graduation, he first joined a circus company in New York City, and then enrolled in the prestigious circus school École Leotard in Montreal.

Harvard Magazine recently spoke with Maffey, who is performing in Pippin at the Boston Opera House from February 2-14, in the staging by American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus ’88.

Harvard Magazine: As trained gymnast, was the transition to circus arts a natural fit? Did you love it right away?

Nico Maffey: In Argentina, most circus schools recruit gymnasts, and I was recruited at the age of 16. A gymnastics career usually ends very early, and many people transition to circus to be able to do it longer. It was something I was used to physically, and I had a lot of skills already in terms of strength, flexibility, and coordination, so it did seem like a natural fit. When you go to circus school, you choose a discipline that you want to study, and that’s really when I began to work on the artistic side of performing—acting, singing, and music. It was very cool to develop tools that worked so well with my athleticism to really create an act.

There is a lot of variation that happens while you are on stage—sometimes you’re nervous, sometimes you’re more or less flexible, and that can mean that your performance will suffer or you will fall. 

HM: What inspires you about aerial arts? What challenges have you faced?

NM: I went into circus because I saw a woman perform this mind-blowing act in Cirque du Soleil—it was so beautiful and fluid the way she moved—she made all of these shapes with her body, and seemed so smooth, in control, and natural. It was in that moment that I decided I wanted to be a hand balancer. You might see people doing handstands a lot, but you don’t see many people doing high-level hand balancing performance, mainly because the training is so difficult. Primarily in Pippin I’m a hand balancer, and I never really knew how difficult doing it full-time would be—it’s very, very, very hard. Hand balancing requires a lot of flexibility, strength, coordination, and technique—and you work on them all separately. Because you are balancing, I find that it’s a very nonconsistent skill. There is a lot of variation that happens while you are on stage—sometimes you’re nervous, sometimes you’re more or less flexible, and that can mean that your performance will suffer or you will fall. That happened to me a lot when I first started.

HM: As a lifelong circus performer and gymnast, how did you decide to study biology and global health at Harvard? Did you take a break from circus, or did you continue to practice while pursuing your studies?

NM: A lot of people at Harvard have multiple interests, and I was always interested in biology—in fact, my plan is still to go to graduate school one day. When I went to Harvard, I knew right away that I wanted to be a scientist—I don’t see why all of your life interests need to be related. I then took Societies of the World 24 with [Lee professor of public health] Sue Goldie and fell in love with global health. My first three years at Harvard, I took a break from performing and training because my studies were so challenging. My senior year was really when I decided I wanted to get back into circus—I started doing corporate events in Boston and eventually landed with a company in New York City. From there I went to École Leotard, where I was training for up to eight hours a day, working on my act, because I knew I wanted to get to the next level and just be a better performer.

HM: What’s a typical day like when you are performing? How do you train?

NM: The training for hand balancing is really tough, so I’ll usually do some strength and conditioning on my own, as well as some stretching and technique work for about one to three hours a day. Then we’ll have one to two hours of group training, mainly working on acrobatic techniques, and then on top of that we’ll have a one-hour warm-up before the show, and then we’ll do the show, which is about two to three hours. So it really takes up the entire day.

HM: What would you describe your role in Pippin?

NM: What is great about Pippin is that the acrobats are not just doing tricks—we are actually part of the ensemble. I’m pretty much in every scene of the show. I’m acting, singing, I play the king’s servant, and I even get to play the accordion, all in addition to doing acrobatics. I have a hand-balancing act I do with another hand balancer that is really challenging and fun. Unlike Cirque du Soleil, where you just do your act and then you are done, in Pippin I get to really do a little bit of everything.

For more on Maffey, visit his website: www.nicomaffey.com

Read more articles by: Laura Levis

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