Meridian Star

July 20, 2013

High wire act a family affair for the Nocks

MARY PEREZ, The Sun Herald
Associated Press

BILOXI, Miss. — It isn't your usual family business — or your typical family — yet it works for Bello Nock, who calls his family's life together "the ultimate reality show."

He tells his daughter to keep her head up and take it one step at a time, as fathers everywhere are known to do. But his daughter, Annaliese, is 16 feet above the stage walking a thin wire. At 17, she has a ready laugh and the flexibility to drop into a full splits, then gracefully rise and resume her wire walk.

For the third year, the family Nock is summering at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi. They are performing eight shows a week of DreamCast Entertainment's Funambula through Aug. 11.

Recently, the family was reminded of the nature of their business when Annaliese slipped from the high wire during a performance and fractured two ribs.

"You don't have to walk high wires to realize that life can be dangerous," said Bello.

It doesn't matter what walk of life you choose, he said. "It's as easy to slip down the stairs."

The doctors gave her permission to resume walking the wire when she feels up to it, her father said.

The Southern hospitality his family receives in Biloxi really came through that night and reinforced their decision to return, he said.

"You get to a point in your professional career when you can choose where you want to work next," he said. "We choose Biloxi, Mississippi."

For those who missed Bello's return in June, he swung on a trapeze and dangled by one foot beneath a helicopter flown over Biloxi in a stunt he calls the "Bellocopter." The pilot of the helicopter? His brother Eugene Nock.

"We bring families together and might as well have our family together, too," Bello Nock said.

Last year, he made his entrance into Biloxi walking a high wire across the top of the Beau Rivage to promote his show, which combines the daring of circus acrobatics and the comedy of a clown. Bello is the ringleader, the daredevil and the comic, whose flair for humor earned him the title of "America's Best Clown" from Time magazine.

"Bello created an entire new genre of entertainment," said his wife, Jennifer Nock. Being in the seventh generation of a legacy that started with Switzerland's Circus Nock gave him the opportunity and the genes to be good. He took the performance to a higher level.

"Being funny makes it that much harder," she said.

That higher level extends to his strawberry blond hair that stands 8 inches straight up -- or down -- depending on the stunt. Like a red nose, it's the first thing people notice when they meet him, but becomes just another quirky character trait as the show goes on.

Now 44, he started performing when he was 3.

"I remember the first day. Everybody remembers their first time," he said.

His daughter was 3 when she started gymnastics, and became the eighth generation of the family to choose the circus when she made her debut at age 11.

"I definitely remember that," Annaliese said.

Performers who'd watched her grow up while her father starred in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus were in the front row and she could see them as she executed her hand balancing and contortion act.

"I was shaking the whole time," she said.

Annaliese said she always knew she would follow her father to the circus. Her time in the spotlight faded when she was 14 and injured her arm.

"That basically ended it all. Just like that, it was gone," she said.

It wasn't over, just redirected. Annaliese took to the high wire with determination, her mother said.

The Nocks have three children, all of whom are involved in the business. Son Alex is spending his summer vacation from college working backstage at Funambula. Their oldest daughter, Amariah, a preschool teacher, is at the Nocks' "funny farm" in Florida, taking care of the pig and the poodles. When Bello performed on Broadway with their "adopted son," Zach Fricke, Amariah was the stage manager and "just fearless," her mother said.

"It means a lot that they chose this profession," Bello said. It means even more during the 22 hours they aren't on stage, he said.

Fricke joined the family — and the show — about a year ago when Bello recognized his talent.

"He's like our fourth child," Jennifer said.

During practice, Fricke uses his natural skills and Bello's coaching to perfect his routine with Annaliese on the high wire, moving into a headstand on the wire.

It's even harder than it looks to perform on the wire apparatus Bello designed for the show, Bello said.

Nik Wallenda, who recently highwire-walked over the Grand Canyon, came to see them twice in Biloxi and told Bello, "I don't think I can even make it across that wire."

The sway-pole act created by Bello's late father, Eugene, is still part of the show and Bello built a contraption that resembles a carnival ride with circular mouse runs at each end of a long arm.

"There are not stores where you can say, 'build me a wheel of death,'" Bello said.

His mother, Aurelia, also a circus performer, will visit Biloxi this summer and watch her family carry on the business, Bello said.

Bello's wife doesn't come from a circus background, but it is her life now and what they talk about over dinner. She's known Bello since third grade, when she lived at a Wisconsin resort area and his family enrolled him in school for a few weeks at the end of each year when they arrived to perform. They've been married for 25 years.

"My job is kind of like wrangling cats," Jennifer said. She home-schooled the kids while the family traveled with the circus.

Now, between applying for working visas and preparing to ship the equipment for upcoming trips to Australia, Japan, Russia, China and Holland, she tosses laundry into the dryer backstage.

Being in Biloxi for the summer gives the Nocks a chance to stay in one place for a while and connect with other families, she said.

Misha Matorin, Funambula creator and producer, said the circus is an international family and he is one of the lucky few able to transition from being a performer to a producer. His father was the director of the Moscow Circus. His wife, Delia, an actress, and their daughter, Milla, 13, often travel with him to exotic places.

Matorin said he and Bello were at the International Circus Festival when he jokingly told Nock, "Forget Monte Carlo. Let's go to Mississippi." They did, and for this third-year run are working with a family of 27 artists.

Bello said his family business is all about entertaining families.

"Four generations can come here, sit and ooh and ahh," he said.

There aren't many other places or families that can make that claim, he said.