Cool Jobs: Irina Cotfas, Aerial Artist

Spunk, brawn, wit, and a good heaping of showmanship aptly describe Irina Cotfas. 

All good traits to have for someone who earns a living as an aerial artist. 

That’s right: Irina executes amazing tricks of gravity defiance on the trapeze, lyra (aerial hoop), silks, and hammock (sling). Way cool, definitively flashy, and insanely demanding of the body. Hard to believe she wanted to be a lawyer when she was growing up. 

Irina, who lives in Ferndale, pulls together a living through performance and teaching. A group that she founded, Weird Sisters Circus, performs around three times a month at venues ranging from nightclubs, to corporate functions, to festivals and art fairs. She also teaches at Agora Arts in Ferndale. 

And, yes, not surprisingly, whether stretched out in the splits or hanging upside down, she loves it every bit of it. 

Metromode was itching to ask Irina a few questions about her work, so here we go. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How do you describe your profession to someone who has no idea what you do? 
I usually make mention of Cirque du Soleil and ask them if they’ve seen the people flying on fabric, and most everyone recognizes the reference.
How hard is it to make a living as an aerial artist? 
Detroit makes it a lot easier than many other large U.S. cities. For me, the character of Detroit right now is very much DIY and grassroots. The people of Detroit really take ownership and pride when it comes to making this city better in a way that I think larger, more touristy cities where people go to feel anonymous lack. I think that’s why artists have a great chance at exposure and professional growth here. Detroiters celebrate each other because we have a clear sense of community. Detroit is a small town disguised as a big city. I am so lucky for all of the opportunities I’ve had here, teaching and performing. 

What are the challenges and benefits to having the focus of your work here in southeast Michigan? 
It’s hard to be a student. I have to travel to find teachers. It’s easy to get gigs because while there is some competition, the market has not yet been flooded because there are very few master level aerialists here.

Aerial arts are popular right now. How will you sustain your business past the trend? 
While aerial for fitness has indeed become a trend, circus is an ancient art form. So whether bored yoga moms from Birmingham show up to my class or not, I will continue to pursue this art for my personal wellness because it offers a sense of accomplishment and expression unlike any other artistic discipline. I am literally transforming my body while I embody my art. I find this to be incredibly powerful. I am literally defying gravity.  Aerial dance will fascinate people for generations. 

How do you create performance routines? What’s the mental and physical process like? 
Unless I am doing duo or trio work, I usually improvise my act. I select music I think will work for the event and work with several routines I am comfortable with and let myself feel the music and connect with my audience as I move. The energy of the audience plays the biggest role in the quality and character of my act. 

What was your weirdest performance ever? 
I once performed dressed in a nun outfit, which was actually a disguise. Later in the act, I tore off the habit to reveal my true identity as a clown. Then I proceeded to wrestle a couple ministers inside of a real wrestling ring as the conclusion of my piece. That was probably the weirdest and most hilarious performance ever. 

Is Ferndale a good home base for your work? Why or why not? 
I love Ferndale. While it is technically a suburb of Detroit, Ferndale still very much has its own unique history and character as a city, which for the most part attracts and celebrates small business and creatives. Ferndale has great potential to bridge any leftover cultural gaps between Detroit and suburbia due its location right smack in the middle of the divide. 

Is it difficult making a living being an aerial artist? 
No. While I am sore literally every day, and I’m doing something that’s more physically demanding that most professions, it’s what I love to do. So it’s easy to get up and motivated to go to work. I very rarely use the word “work” to describe my day. I am not rich by any means. I live incredibly modestly. Though even when I worked in corporate America and made more money than most of the world’s population, I still found myself not too big on spending. I like to live as sustainably as possible and the added bonus is I don’t feel the need to make a ton of money to live comfortably. 

Melinda Clynes, who goes downside-up on occasion herself, is a freelance writer in metro Detroit. She’s a regular contributor to MetromodeModel D, and ModeShift, and is editor of the weekly publication, Michigan Nightlight

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography