High Flyer

Former Husky gymnast Kelly McDonald follows a dream, finds a career with Cirque du Soleil

Some kids dream of running off to join the circus.

The notion didn’t hit Kelly McDonald (BA 2007) until after she graduated from business school.

But today, as her classmates from Foster are a decade into management careers, McDonald is a principal aerial acrobat in Luzia, the latest traveling spectacle of the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil.

Actually, “spectacle” is an understatement. Luzia is aptly billed a “waking dream of Mexico.” It’s a sumptuous visual feast, a fantasia enacted by superhuman feats of strength and grace, daring and beauty.

“Cirque du Soleil searches the world over to find performers who will amaze a modern audience,” says McDonald. “I’m amazed to live and work among these people.”

They’d say the same about her. McDonald’s original feature, Adagio, is an ethereal, aerial dance sequence that appears unbound by the laws of physics (or good judgement, to be honest). Three burly porters propel her body into a flight of impossible power, danger and elegance. The effect is mesmerizing. Utterly breathtaking.

Up in the air

Such transcendent artistry and athleticism is the obvious evolution of a great gymnast. McDonald got into the sport at age 5 at Seattle Gymnastics Academy and advanced to captain Husky Gymnastics, where she closed her career as MVG with 25 individual titles and a spot on the Pac-10 All-Academic team.

The latter accolade recognized her dedicated studies in marketing and international business at the Foster School. She chose business for its career flexibility. “It’s broad enough that you can use it as a base for a lot of career paths,” she says.

After completing her athletic eligibility, McDonald took a fifth year to study abroad in Grenada, Spain. She had just returned and was interviewing for marketing jobs when she was invited to audition for an aerial acrobatics show called Le Reve in Las Vegas.

“When I was offered the position, I thought I’d do this for one year and then get a real job,” she recalls. “But I totally fell in love with it.”

Big time, big top

McDonald performed with Le Reve for eight years, eventually emerging in the leadership role of captain. On the side, she also began developing a new act with a fellow performer.

When Cirque du Soleil, the epitome of modern circus arts, became interested, she and her co-creator moved to its headquarters in Montreal and joined in the show’s development.

Now, two years into Luzia’s globetrotting  run, McDonald is as jazzed as ever to go to work every day under the Grand Chapiteau (big top), wherever it takes her (it’s in Los Angeles now). She loves to travel and experience new places. And she’s inspired by living and working among a company that hails from 15 different nations.

She also appreciates the continuing education it affords. In addition to Adagio, McDonald features in a high-altitude pole dance and understudies on trapeze. And for her part in the ensemble of this immersive community, she also has studied acting, dance and voice.

Her Spanish comes in pretty handy, too.

There’s no business like…

Like any professional athlete or dancer who makes her living on exceptional physical abilities, McDonald knows her performing career cannot last forever. “My body feels as strong as ever right now, and I still have plenty of passion for performing,” she says. “But you have to be smart when you do a job like this.”

McDonald getting carried away in Luzia.

Fortunately, McDonald has experienced every element of this creative, collaborative enterprise, from art direction to casting to training to business management. And she finds it all fascinating.

“There are a lot of different paths and I get to learn about and contribute to all of them,” she says. “It’s helping me decide which route I might pursue when I’ve taken my final bow.”

That day may still be a ways off, but McDonald has already co-produced—with boyfriend Felipe Saray, a Luzia musician—a spinoff showcase of Saray’s native Colombia in music, dance, circus and theater. Besame Colombia premiered last fall in Bogata to raves.

So there may be another dream job after her dream job.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.