What do Heidi Klum, Seth Rogan, the Sultan of Brunei, and the Playboy Bunnies all have in common? They all did Flying trapeze at Hollywood Aerial Arts! Founder of the studio, Ray Pierce, is a go-to man for circus production in Hollywood and has worked with all of these celebrities and more. But Ray himself is a star of the circus world. Magician, rigger, flying trapezes performer, cinematographer, director, stunt man, actor, his resume goes on and on. But it’s not only the culmination of a lifetime in show business that makes Ray successful. He radiates energy and a genuine passion for aerial arts, so much so that a movie, The Trap, was made based on his life, and Channing Tatum played his role.
The day Ray discovered the Flying Trapeze is one he will never forget. “It was the coolest thing I had ever done. It changed my life. I loved the passion behind it, I loved the way it felt, and I loved the experience and the learning process.” After that first fly, Ray was hooked, eventually building his own rig. When people started asking him to teach he just said, “That’s stupid, nobody is going to want to do flying trapeze!” This was, after all, years before Cirque du Soleil had brought circus arts to the general public. But when Ray took a chance and founded Hollywood Aerial Arts, entertainers jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this creative, performing arts community in Los Angeles.
“So fifteen of twenty years ago, we started. And it was really a place for my fellow entertainers and performers to hang out. Because when you are on the road everyday is stimulating and exciting. Then you come back home and you sit in your room with nothing to do. So I said, I wish I had a place were all of the performers could hang out, be creative, and work out ideas. Forming the studio was a great way to do that. The payback was that they taught and inspired the next generation. So we taught and at the same time we got all of these cool toys to play with. It was amazing.”
Hollywood Aerial Arts grew and got a lot of attention during the process. The LA times did a full article on the school, the news started to do pieces on them, television shows started coming, all the dating shows in the world wanted to have a flying trapeze episode. As Ray explained, “This was way before anything was out. This was the cutting edge of what was to be this market. So it just grew organically. We didn’t advertise; it was just word of mouth. People were saying ‘this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life’ and it just started building.”
Besides being the foundation for what is one of the largest aerial communities in the country, Hollywood Aerial Arts is distinct because in addition to teaching, Ray and performers produce and package shows internationally.
“I directed the opening to the Rose Parade with Leann Rimes. I’ve directed and produced shows for theme parks around the world. We produce a huge show for the LA county fair each year; the largest county fair in the world. We don’t have one show, we produce custom events, and one may have 20-30 aerialists and another may have 2. There is no standard. Every show we do we try and breathe life into. We try to think what does this really want to be? It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past. All that matters is what it wants to be. And that is our process for creation.”
Ray also has the unique ability to transfer aerial arts to the big screen. Because of this experience in show business, he is able to speak the language needed on set and knows what it takes to put the directors vision on camera. “I know everybody’s role and how to get them what they want. And that is where my value comes in. Someone might be really good as a flyer, or circus guy, but they don’t necessarily know how to get the shot. There are tricks to it. So I know how to create the show so that in the magic of the camera, the director gets what he want which may have nothing to do with reality. And that is how we make it work.”
His talents behind the scenes have led him to build relationships with so many talented performers, among them Chelsea Handler (Watch the hilarious video below shot at Hollywood Aerial Arts!) and Heidi Klum. Ray and Heidi work closely together on many projects for Germany’s Next Top Model as well as various commercials. On working with Heidi, Ray explains, “It was really this magical relationship between Heidi and I, an odd relationship because she really is trusting me with her life. And we’ve worked together for so many years that now when I go on set for the show or commercial, it’s like ‘Ray is here, what are we going to do today? It’s going to be something exciting!’ It’s just a great way to work with all these amazing people and have a very odd intimacy. Because you are literally holding onto them with your life, making them look good and then hopefully vanishing into the background. It’s an amazing process.”
But Ray cares as much about teaching his students as he does international supermodels. “Teaching to me is everything. I love being a coach and not just teaching people but being their biggest supporter. Not just encouraging them, but understanding what it takes to crack the code on each particular individual’s growth.” When asked what he considers to be the best advice for aerialists, Ray sees the comparison between aerial arts and traditional craftsman.
“I was very lucky that I grew up in a time of journeyman. A journeyman is a very specific category of a worker, for example plumbers, bricklayers, carpenter, and welders. I love craftspeople. To be a craftsman is a long laborious process. You learn the reason behind each movement, the stuff you’ll only learn by the people who have mastered their careers, not from somebody who taught a course on how to teach you to lay bricks.”
For Ray, learning aerial arts is the equivalent of mastering a craft. Fully understanding the basics, building strength, and finding a knowledgeable mentor is key to a long healthy career.
“As I’ve always said, as an aerial instructor, its not enough to know how to do something, you have to know every way it can fail. So learn your fundamentals and learn from people that really know it. Allow yourself to learn. So many people just want the cotton candy, they want the desert, the tricks. I get it. I love dessert. But my job is to sneak the protein in so you get nutrition. So that your body is at a level where you are able to do this safely and support yourself. I’m looking at all of those things so I can help you go on to have a real career.”
While Ray may stand out to all of us outside of Hollywood for his work with the rich and famous, it is not the actors he knows or the movies he’s made that make him remarkable, it’s his life’s dedication to sharing this strange and awesome art form with those who are drawn to it, all the while making the aerial world a safer place to take some risks.
Check out Ray on the Chelsea Lately Show!