On a warm summer evening when many people would be content sitting on the patio with a long, cool drink taking in the garden or chatting with neighbors, you can find Riverside couple Samuel Sion and Sylvia Friedman 20 feet in the air on a trapeze.
It’s cooler in the evenings, especially of late, and the couple – known professionally as Duo Rose – need to stay sharp. At some point, the show will go on and they’ll need to be at their acrobatic, swinging, contorting best.
Samuel and Sylvia are circus performers — known internationally for an act that Sheri Flanders of the Chicago Reader described last summer as “a death-defying sexy aerial dance – some of the best work you’ll see outside of Cirque du Soleil” – sidelined like almost all performing artists by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hired for the first time on staff with the Circus Roncalli, the largest circus in Europe, the Duo Rose were all set for the tour’s opening night in Germany, only to hear the bad news.
“It got closed down opening night on March 13,” said Sion, who grew up on Longcommon Road in the shadow of downtown Riverside, graduating from Riverside-Brookfield High School in 2007.
“We had gone through all our rehearsals,” he said. “We had done our dress rehearsal and then opening night, they sat us all down out in the ring and they said, ‘We have to close the show because of COVID.'”
For the next two months, Circus Roncalli housed the couple in Dusseldorf, where the company has a theater, allowing them to keep training. But, when reopening dates kept getting pushed back, they finally sent everyone home on May 10.
Now, the circus is aiming for a mid-September open.
“But, there’s still no guarantee,” Sion said.
For now, Samuel and Sylvia practice the act and work on tricks on the rig they’ve set up in the backyard of the Sion family home on Longcommon Road. The rig was in the side yard for a while, since there’s a bit more space, but apparently some complaints banished it to the rear.
Shaded by mature trees and invisible from the street, it serves pretty much as a private outdoor training space.
Sion started training seriously to be a trapeze artist when he was 14, but he was introduced to it much earlier, at age 7, because his mother, Elizabeth Sion, was a member of the Triton Troupers, a circus that since 1972 has performed shows at that community college in River Grove.
Climbing ropes while his mom worked out, he later started doing gymnastics and decided to give trapeze a whirl on the suggestion, oddly enough, of his dentist.
“I had just quit gymnastics and she told me that she flies trapeze every Wednesday night up at the Broadway Armory in Chicago,” Sion said.
Sion started training there with the Flying Gaonas, “and I just was hooked,” he said. He would later study sports acrobatics and a circus act called “Russian bar” with Nourbol Meirmanov, a veteran of the Moscow State Circus and the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Sion and Friedman have been a trapeze duo since 2007, the year he graduated from RBHS. Friedman, two years younger, was still a student at Evanston Township High School. They met through Friedman’s contortion teacher, Oyunchimeg “Oyuna” Yadamjev, who was based in Skokie.
Not your typical contortionist at 5-foot-8, Friedman said she was always rather flexible, and was drawn toward contortionism because she wanted a specialty. She hadn’t done any gymnastics or dynamic trapeze work prior to partnering with Sion.
“I knew how to pose, but I didn’t really know how to throw myself,” she said.
In 2007, Sion was teaching at a youth summer camp in Highland Park. That summer he stayed at the home of a friend, who happened to be Yadamjev’s son. One day, Yadamjev was running late and she asked Sion to warm up the next student who came in for a lesson. That was Sylvia.
The two started dating a month later and they have been performing ever since. They married in 2012 and now have a 2-year-old son, Lukas, who accompanies them on tour and is backstage at most shows.
“In his experience, that’s his whole life,” Friedman said. “We just change where we are every couple of months. … He gets to meet a lot of people and hear a lot of different languages, which is great.”
Duo Rose got its first professional gig in 2008, working a wedding at the Rialto Theater in Joliet, where their intimate, rather romantic act was a hit.
“It plays really well at a wedding,” Friedman said. “It’s my favorite private gig, because the audience is so ready to feel it. They’re just ready to be happy and to feel the love.”
Performing at competitive festivals internationally got them in front of circus casting agents. That’s where they were booked for their first festival in Switzerland. In 2010, they became the first American circus act to perform in Cuba since 1959, and in 2013 they landed their first tour with Circus Roncalli.
Because they do much of their work in Europe, the couple settled in Kassel, Germany, a centrally located spot with a handy training space for about five years.
Last year, Duo Rose was a featured act in the show “Love, Chaos and Dinner” at the Teatro ZinZanni, an immersive, variety dinner show performed inside a Belgian Spiegeltent (or mirror tent) set up in a vast ballroom on the 14th floor of the Cambria Hotel in downtown Chicago.
“It’s one of our favorite shows to work,” said Sion. Duo Rose is scheduled to make a return appearance there in 2021.
For now, though, Duo Rose is on the sidelines, working out and selling custom made circus equipment, like custom-made trapeze bars – Sion taught himself welding and built the rig the couple trains on – through their website duorose.com.