'The Flight Fantastic' director on his trapeze documentary: 'It's not just a matter of the thrill, it's a matter of the craft'
Filmmaker Tom Moore explores history of trapeze and its most celebrated family, The Flying Gaonas
Since at least the time of Leonardo da Vinci humans have dreamed of achieving flight.
The Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers made flight by mechanical means a reality, but there are still some who fly unaided -- if only for brief, spectacular moments: those daring and athletic enough to master the flying trapeze.
There's something transcendent about being on the trapeze. You're in the moment. The rest of the world drops away.
The art and craft of trapeze is celebrated in the new documentary The Flight Fantastic, the first nonfiction film from director Tom Moore, acclaimed for his work on Broadway [original production of Grease, Moon Over Buffalo], television [ER, Cheers] and movies ['night, Mother]. The film opens Friday at Laemmle Theaters in the Los Angeles area [screening information here].
"I'd had a big fantasy as a kid about trapeze," Moore told Nonfictionfilm.com. "I just thought it was the most glamorous, fantastic thing. [Trapeze] was always the ultimate act of the circus at that point. They were always the biggest stars."
There have been no bigger stars in trapeze history than the Gaonas, who came to be known as the "First Family of the Air." It's their story that forms the backbone of the documentary. Patriarch Victor Gaona originally started three of his children -- brothers Armando, and Tito and sister Chela -- in a successful trampoline act. They later graduated to the trapeze, becoming a sensation in several circuses first with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. in the early 1960s and ultimately with the Big Apple Circus in the 80s and 90s.
"These are people who aligned themselves with the forces of nature," admires Paul Binder in the film, the Big Apple Circus co-founder and Ringmaster.
The artistry of their performances dazzled audiences and Tito in particular became a huge star known for his charisma, balletic pirouettes and triple somersaults. Sports Illustrated once said, "Tito Gaona may be the finest athlete in the world."
Later, younger brother Richie became an integral part of the family act. "Richie was always the most beautiful of the group," Binder says. "Richie was perfect."
Moore was able to draw from family video archives to illustrate their aerial prowess.
"They are amazing in how they recorded it," he told NFF. "Their training films were on 8mm film and that's some of the best stuff in [The Flight Fantastic] because that 8mm stock is still so beautiful."
While the Gaonas were busy becoming legends in the circus, Moore was occupied with his Broadway and Hollywood career. But at times, he said, his film and TV work left him feeling unfulfilled.
"I felt like I needed a new beginning. So I go for trapeze, because that had been a childhood fantasy, but I had not thought about that in forever. I went to a Club Med... I went and they had a trapeze. And like most people who discover trapeze now in America, well in the world really, that's where it happens."
So I tried it... I knew I had been caught literally and figuratively and when I came back to Los Angeles I didn't know how to continue it but I knew I had to. I really wanted to learn how to fly.
By that point the Gaonas had mostly retired from performing.
"I found out pretty quickly that the best teacher in the world was Richie Gaona... He sometimes taught professionals. He agreed to teach me and I went out and started. And so it was fantastic and I got to fly with him... It was a serendipitous moment in time. I never would have dreamed that [trapeze] would occupy so much of my focus. And I probably made a couple of errors professionally in not doing some [projects] so that I could continue to study trapeze. But we all make our choices and I'll live with it."
It was through Richie that Moore would come to know the whole Gaona family.
"The documentary came out of that," Moore said. "Little by little I got to know them. I always want to make sure I'm not using hyperbole... but there is an incredible warmth to that family. And I know where it comes from. They give credit to this too-- it comes from their mother. She was such an extraordinarily warm human being. Fascinating. She would never watch them fly 'cause it scared her too much. She would only see it later... I really adored her."
Moore said he came to admire what the Gaonas have done in recent years -- founding trapeze schools and putting on camps for young people with severe illnesses.
"It's the second act that makes this movie worth seeing, to me. It's what they done since they left the center ring. It's what they've done since their glory years," he said. "They are just as focused on trying to help someone learn or get their trick. It amazes me."
Moore marveled at the patience they show with enthusiasts like himself.
"Everything in trapeze is based on weightlessness. So you have to reach the point of weightlessness to get caught because you basically fall into the catcher -- you don't plow into him. And if you let go early, you literally plow into him. ... [Richie] never does it like many coaches would be, "For God's sake stay on the bar! You've done this a thousand times. Just do it!" He says [gently], "Stay on the bar." Or maybe, "Just a little longer on the bar." I don't know how he does it. I would go out of my mind. So, they're very special."
The Flight Fantastic delves into the history of trapeze, which goes back to the 1800s. Frenchman Jules Léotard [yes, he of the tights] is credited with creating the flying trapeze.
"Fascinating, isn't it? Especially Léotard. I find as soon as you say Léotard in a conversation -- "You mean that Léotard?" -- all of a sudden you've got their focus. The things that led up to it are amazing and the things that went between Leotard and when it became truly the flying trapeze -- because Léotard was just a bar to bar act -- and then it became a situation where they would leap from a trapeze to a rope. Just all kinds of variations. And they would swing and land. Then they introduced the catcher. It's just step by step how this developed."
You are launching yourself toward God. You have become angelic for a moment.
But what of the future for the trapeze, especially with the circus in decline?
"Ringling has gone out from time to time with no trapeze at all. And that's just unheard of. Now, Ringling has become a shadow of what it used to be and they may have had to do this," Moore told NFF. "I really don't know what its future is. There are very few families that I can think of that are functioning on the level that the Gaonas did. There are individuals... The circus used to be the only game in town. It was the biggest thing when that would arrive."
But through the documentary people can experience trapeze as performed by some of its greatest artists.
"I've seen it in every single screening and it shocked me. People all of a sudden were like kids in a circus. They were looking up at it and they were responding to it as what it is which is bigger than life. It somehow makes people feel better about themselves. That's been thrilling for me."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.