Val Russell used to spend weekends flying through the air on a trapeze with founding members of Burning Man, a weeklong festival held annually in the Nevada desert. It led to a life-long love of circus arts.
In 2007, she founded her own performance group, Valeria’s Wings. She coached and performed with the group for 10 years, at one point performing for Harrah’s Casinos in New Orleans and Tunica, Mississippi.
“It speaks to the artist in me,” she said.
Russell, who moved to Durango in June, found her calling shortly after graduating with her master’s degree in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute.
She was 24 when she met the Burning Man founders, who owned a trapeze. Around the same time, she met aerial dancers at a Pilates class.
Teaching Pilates and opening a studio seemed like a logical career choice, but Russell also loved circus arts – so she pursued both.
Years later, when she founded her performance troupe, she named it in honor of her grandmother, Valeria.
“She is the one who pushed me the most to follow an artistic life, when everybody else wanted me to be a lawyer,” she said.
To pursue an artistic life, Russell spent more than 20 years teaching Pilates, yoga and aerial arts.
“When you are an artist, you do a lot of tangoing,” she said of holding down multiple jobs.
Since coming to Durango, she has been on a similar path, establishing Alpine Aerial Acrobatics to teach aerial yoga, as well as introductory skills on the trapeze, aerial silks and lyra, a hoop that hangs from the ceiling. As the business matures, she hopes to establish another performance troupe.
Thrill-seekers find aerial arts naturally appealing: Russell describes it as a sneaky way to get fit.
“You are doing things that you never dreamed you would do,” she said.
No one should shy away from it because of their age or fitness level, she said.
“There is no one that cannot join the circus; it is the net that catches a lot of different personalities,” she said.
While she still considers herself a performer, Russell started thinking of herself more as a coach and producer in 2014, after a shoulder injury. She loves creating apparatuses, themes and choreography.
The year of her injury, she designed equipment for a acrobatic performance she worked on called the “The Great American Backyard,” which was a commentary on how outdoor playtime is disappearing as children spend more and more time on their screens.
The self-described nomad moved from Tennessee to Austin, Texas, before coming to Durango with her daughter Porter Hilgenberg, 12, who is also an aerialist.
Russell earned her undergraduate art degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and had been looking to return to Colorado ever since.
One of the biggest challenges she’s faced since returning is finding a space to train athletes. Right now, she is sharing a space with another business in the Grandview area on U.S. Highway 160, which has limited her ability to grow.
After looking for six months for a new location, she has widened her search to outdoor venues, such as well-built barns.
As her business expands, she hopes to offer more classes to cater to students with greater variety of skill levels, including those who want to pursue circus arts professionally. She also envisions summer camps for kids and workshops that cater to interests unique to the region, such as rock climbing.