Molly Gawler knew she wanted to dance from a young age. She started at six years old in a small studio in her hometown of Belgrade, and stuck with it, later studying dance at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield. Eventually, she found herself touring the world for seven years with the acclaimed dance troupe Pilobolus.
Along the way, she picked up a unique skill: the ability to perform with a “Cyr Wheel,” an acrobatic contraption that is, essentially, a large spinning metal hoop with a dancer inside of it.
The Cyr Wheel is a relatively new invention based on an earlier German sports apparatus known as a “mono wheel.” It was redeveloped as a circus apparatus in 1996 by Daniel Cyr, co-founder of the contemporary circus troupe Cirque Éloize. Gawler said she first became aware of the Cyr Wheel in 2013 while studying at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vermont.
“I fell in love with the Cyr Wheel and studied that intensively for a year [there],” Gawler said. “It’s quite mesmerizing to watch, I think, and I feel like I’m flying.”
The Cyr Wheel measures about as large as Gawler’s armspan, she said. She stands inside the wheel, and the momentum of her own body creates spinning motions that approximate dance movements. Successfully operating the wheel takes a lot of core, shoulder, and leg strength. But Gawler stressed that you also need a well-developed sense of balance.
“When you learn the first basic [movement], called ‘The Waltz,’ it’s almost like learning to ride a bicycle,” she said. “Once you learn how to stand in the wheel and spin and you’re getting yourself going, you kind of never forget.”
She said just as importantly, you need a strong frame of mind. Otherwise, the wheel can take over.
“It’s almost like the wheel takes on a mind of its own,” she said. “It can go really funky really quick. I practice a lot, and fall down a lot, and practice enough so hopefully I don’t do that on stage. It’s certainly a humbling thing and I’m definitely always learning more about it.”
Gawler now lives in Monroe, Maine, where she runs her own dance company, Droplet Dance, and performs in The Gawler Family Band with members of her own family. She said she’s one of the few people in New England performing with the Cyr Wheel. She knows of a few in Vermont and Boston, but no others in Maine. Still, she said, it’s gaining in popularity and that may change.
Recently, she performed a piece in Robinson Ballet’s spring concert at the Gracie Theater. The piece, called “Prime,” was choreographed by Gawler herself with assistance from friends at the circus school. The piece describes an elderly woman’s afternoon of reminiscence. It was inspired by her own grandmother’s story.
“It’s a story about an old woman who remembers being young again, and what that feels like to be in the sunshine just free and spinning and joyous,” she said. “I named the character ‘Lillymoore,’ because she’s a Swedish character and the music is also Swedish. As she’s spinning in the wheel, she goes back to being in her youth, and then she goes back to being old.”
Of course, there’s a twist: “There’s kind of a secret ending,” she said. You’ll have attend one of Gawler’s performances to see it.