Miguel Vazquez at the age of 16 accomplished a feat no trapeze artist had successfully pulled off despite 100 years worth of attempts. As he flew through the air, he performed a quadruple somersault, turning over four times in the sky as he flew away from a swinging bar and into his brother Juan’s waiting arms. The first time he successfully pulled off the trick in practice, it made headlines around the country. When he performed the stunt during a 1982 Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus show in front of a live audience (not to mention a video camera Feld Entertainment set up to prove the deed indeed could be done), it earned a mention on the NBC Nightly News.
“It was fun,” Vazquez says. “After what we accomplished, a quadruple after all those months of dedication and practice, my memories of that are a lot of fun.”
More than 30 years later, Vazquez once again will be celebrated, this time in the Philip Weyland-directed documentary The Last Great Circus Flyer, which premiers at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival.
From the time his family immigrated from Mexico, Vazquez wanted to perform with the Ringling Bros. circus, and in 1980, he joined the company before he was old enough to drive. He was on his first tour in 1981, where he and his brother Juan spent countless hours trying to achieve a trick no one had ever done before.
“Before we did the quad, the best flyers in the world had attempted it and failed,” he recalls. “They figured this trick would not be possible. When we really did it, we did the impossible.”
The achievement surprised many an experienced trapeze artist, but Vazquez notes his youth had advantages the veterans could not regain, namely a body unbeaten by years of high-demand physical performance. “It was fairly demanding,” he says. Vazquez figures he peaked physically around age 24, and the quad still took a toll on his energy. He would perform the trick thousands of times between 1982 and 1994, when he and his brother boasted around an 85 percent success rate on attempts. Then Vazquez decided his own body could no longer achieve the quad show after show, and he took the stunt out of the act.
Today, Vazquez works as a rigging tech and flyman operator for Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas; Juan works across town at Le Reve, another famed circus show. But the team’s accomplishment remains a major milestone in the circus arts. Juan has a niece now involved in the circus, and who knows, maybe Miguel’s sons will want a chance in the spotlight one day.
And Miguel? Does he miss the stage? “Sometimes you reminisce,” he says. “Other times, you are glad you are not there anymore. You get mixed feelings.” He and his brother still fly themselves sometimes in Juan’s backyard, but no serious tricks.
His successes were honored last year with induction into the Circus Ring of Fame, which included a ceremony in Sarasota. His plaque now sits alongside the greats in St. Armands Circle. “Growing up in Sarasota, I remember when I was 11 and going to that circle and just hanging out, never really thinking my name would be there,” he says. It’s a humbling thing, to see yourself exalted in your own lifetime.
The same disbelief set in when he heard Weyland’s name for the film, The Last Great Circus Flyer. But he heard Weyland’s explanation. The circus arts don’t garner the same international attention they used to. While Vazquez never enjoyed the fame of circus stars in the early 20th century, he figures today someone could do six somersaults in the air and never get a mention on the news. “Now there are not even as many flying trapeze artists anymore,” he says.
He looks forward to coming to Sarasota for the film. His parents still live in Sarasota, as do brothers, sisters and uncles. The screening may be a success on Vazquez extended family alone.
The Last Great Circus Flyer will premier at the Regal Hollywood 20 in Sarasota on Friday, April 17, at 3pm. Weyland, Vazquez and other subjects in the film will be in attendance. A second showing of the film will screen Saturday April 18, at 9:15pm.