No regrets

Former Gym Dog Sierra Sapunar performs with Cirque du Soleil

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Former Gym Dog Sierra Sapunar (ABJ '05) stars in Cirque du Soleil's "Viva Elvis" at the Aria in Las Vegas. She wears this showgirl costume during the finale, which features the songs "Viva Las Vegas" and "Hound Dog." Aaron Felske/Costume by Stefano Canulli/Cirque du Soleil

Five nights a week, Sierra Sapunar puts on makeup for a solid hour. She applies false eyelashes and layers bright colors, creating highlights and contours. The result is “intense.”

“It’s more makeup than I ever thought I’d have to wear,” Sapunar (ABJ ’05) says. “Ever.”

But the makeup is part of the job when you’re starring in “Viva Elvis,” a Cirque du Soleil show that pays tribute to the life and music of Elvis Presley.

Ten years ago Sapunar had no idea she’d be joining the circus. She’d spent her childhood training to become an Olympic gymnast, leaving her California home for a gym in Cincinnati at the age of 13. But a broken elbow caused her to miss the Olympic trials in 2000, so Sapunar started looking at colleges.

“Georgia was the place that I felt the most comfortable with,” she says. “It was just a this-is-where-I-belong feeling.”

As a Gym Dog, Sapunar helped UGA win four SEC championships and earn four top-three finishes at the NCAA championships while also earning All-American honors for herself. And in addition to getting a degree in telecommunications, she rediscovered her passion for being in front of audiences.

“After missing the Olympic team and all that heartbreak, college brought the love back in me for gymnastics and performing,” she says. “And I think that’s just what kind of spurred me to keep going.”

After graduation she worked in circus production, meeting performers that she later visited in Las Vegas. During her trip she auditioned for “Folies Bergere” and was hired on the spot. Sapunar spent two and a half years with the show, housed at the Tropicana, performing in classic showgirl style and honing her aerial skills on the side. She applied to Cirque du Soleil but waited more than two years before they called.

“It was like a dream come true,” she says. “The Olympics of the circus—that’s what I call Cirque.”

Sapunar headed to Cirque headquarters in Montreal to train for the new show. The regimen included acting, singing, clowning and percussion classes and lasted eight hours a day, five days a week—later increasing to 10 hours a day, six days a week.

“It was insane,” she says.

Tapped for two pieces, Sapunar was presented with a huge metal structure for bar work, which she hadn’t done in years. The “Return to Sender” set resembles a barracks and references Presley’s Army stint, with Sapunar and others flying from bar to bar.

“I never thought I’d be swinging high bar at 28 years old,” she says. “It’s like crazy.”

Her second piece, choreographed to the song “It’s Now or Never,” started as a stationary Chinese pole but evolved into a new apparatus, a “spin pole” that bends in the middle and swings around in circles.

“It’s come so, so far in the beauty of it and the synchronicity of the number, and it’s something that the world’s never seen,” she says. “The world has seen high bar before. The world has never seen this unusual pole that leans to the side with girls dangling off of it.”

Sapunar is proud of her role in producing a new show.

“In spin pole, me and my partner were an integral part of creating the choreography,” she says. “That’s very special.”

“Viva Elvis” opened in February at the Aria in Las Vegas and has since completed more than 200 shows. Drummer and UGA grad Christopher “Kit” Chatham (BMus ’00) also stars in “Viva Elvis,” and former Gym Dog Ashley Kupets (BFA ’08) is on temporary contract with the show.

Once the show hit its stride—two shows a day, five or six days a week, reaching 476 performances a year—Sapunar began training as a backup performer on aerial hoop, where she sustained her only serious injury, a concussion that caused her to miss three shows. But the potential for injury is a small price to pay for the rewards of performing.

“You get to be silly,” she says. “Your creative side gets to come out more. You get to express yourself in different ways.”

And performing for Cirque audiences has made up for missing the Olympics.

“It wasn’t meant to be, you know?” she says. “That’s why I’m excited that I get to keep performing. Maybe if I had made that Olympic team I wouldn’t have been as hungry to keep on going. Everything worked out for the best.”