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Gamma Phi Circus alum soars in Cirque du Soleil Vegas show

Christopher Ries on trapeze

Christopher Ries ’10, right, performs with friend Emille Morales ’08 during a Gamma Phi Circus show at Redbird Arena.

Have you ever been to one of Cirque du Soleil’s big shows in Las Vegas, where performers soar through the air, climb across giant, moving walls, or land other impossibly precise stunts?

For Christopher Ries ’10, that’s now just another day at the office. A really, really fun office.

The Gamma Phi Circus alum is one of the newest performers in KÀ by Cirque du Soleil, live at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The acrobat’s three main acts during the show require him to jump off a big, rocking boat into an offstage net; navigate a 360-degree rotating stage-turned-wall; and climb four stories of the theater. Ries’ wild, animalistic character covers him head-to-toe with a body suit, mask, and makeup.

“It’s very difficult to spot me,” Ries said with a laugh.

Christopher Ries

Illinois State grad Christopher Ries. (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

It’s a dream gig for Ries, who joined in December. Cirque is the ultimate goal for many young acrobats and circus performers, he said, and the skills he learned training for Gamma Phi’s big Spring Shows each year set the stage for what he’s become as a professional acrobat in Las Vegas.

“Illinois State was a great building block to get where I am today,” Ries told STATEside. “I was really lucky. I had some really talented people with me at ISU, and we pushed the limit a lot.”

The La Grange Park native was a diver and gymnast in high school, and he was looking for an athletic or acrobatic outlet in college too. His mother, an Illinois State alumna, told him about Gamma Phi, the oldest collegiate circus in the U.S.

Ries joined the Gamma Phi family and performed in lots of acts, including favorites such as the flying trapeze, Russian swing, and teeterboard. The physics teacher education major routinely put in 25 hours of practice every week—a regimen that built a unique camaraderie among the student performers.

“Circus was pretty much one of my degrees. I feel like I double majored,” Ries said.

KÀ by Cirque du Soleil scene

The “Storm” sequence from KÀ by Cirque du Soleil, one of Ries’ big scenes in the show. (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil/Eric Jamison)

By his sophomore and junior years, Ries started to think his acrobatics might lead to a professional career in the circus—maybe even with Cirque du Soleil. Ries first flew into the Cirque universe as a fill-in trapeze artist before getting a tryout at last year. He joined the show December 10 and performs 10 times per week at MGM Grand alongside close to 80 other artists from all over the world.

The best part of the job? “It’s just fun. That’s downright it.”

Gamma Phi’s alumni network runs deep in Vegas. In fact, Jason Hubbard ’07, M.S. ’09, who Ries performed with at Gamma Phi, now works as a rigger at . The show’s head coach is Al Light, a former Gamma Phi director. Another friend, Emille Morales ’08, works down the Strip on another Cirque show.

Ries finds time to stay connected to Gamma Phi, even returning to visit in January. He said he was very lucky to have the opportunity to develop his acrobatic skills in college alongside other talented performers.

“Everybody was just working together to build toward the one big show at the end of the year,” he said.

The Gamma Phi Circus Spring Shows, a big part of Illinois State’s Sibling Weekend, are set for April 11–12 at Redbird Arena. Tickets are available at the Braden Box Office, all Ticketmaster outlets, on Ticketmaster.com, by phone at (800) 745-3000, or at the door of Redbird Arena on show days.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.

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