When third-grader BJ (Brian John) Erdmann came home from a Springville Elementary School play and announced that he was going to be a dancer when he grew up, his mother was skeptical.
“We laughed,” Gail Erdmann recalled recently. “But we always kind of said, ‘Do whatever you want to do.’ ”
Fast forward 20 years and that’s exactly what BJ is doing today ... although well above the stage floor.
Tonight, he will be one of the featured aerialists on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” (11:35 p.m. NBC), performing with the internationally renowned circus troupe Cavalia.
The Montreal-based company, which includes Cirque du Soleil pioneers in its ranks, will perform a piece from its latest show, Odysseo, billed as a theatrical experience that combines “equestrian arts, awe-inspiring acrobatics and high-tech theatrical effects.” Its shows have been seen by some 3.5 million people across North America and Europe since 2003.
Erdmann, 30, will perform with fellow aerialist Chelsea Teel and both will remain on stage, mostly airborne, for a full 3½ minutes while other performers shift on and off stage.
The show normally is performed with a cast of 45 artists and 67 horses, but for Leno’s studio performance it will feature a much smaller entourage of horses, riders, acrobats and musicians. It will be the first time in the troupe’s history that its horses will perform in a television studio.
Growing up on a farm in the Town of Collins, where his parents John and Gail still live, Erdmann and his younger brother Dan enjoyed participating in the Springville-Griffith High School musicals, where his father helped build sets and his mother sewed costumes.
In 2001, his senior year of high school, Erdmann’s performance as Riff in the Springville-Griffith’s rendition of West Side Story earned him a Kenny Award, sponsored by Gibraltar Steel and Shea’s Performing Arts Center. It is the Western New York version of the Oscars. Erdmann attended Fredonia State College and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting and a minor in dance, then trained as an aerialist in New York City before moving to Montreal to study performing with “straps” and “silks” under a Russian trainer.
Erdmann soon took to stages around the country, including the Snowbird Winter Aerial Arts Festival in Miami, Cirque le Masque in Aspen and Cirque de la Vie in Houston, until landing with Cavalia, where he performs seven shows a week and trains several hours a day, four to six days a week.
“Home is on the road now; it’s a gypsy life,” said the 5-foot-9, 150-pound Erdmann.
His mother said she doesn’t worry watching her son dangle 25 to 30 feet in the air even though she has seen his rigging malfunction once.
“I know something could happen, but the way they train, I trust that he knows what he’s doing. I don’t think he would do it if it wasn’t safe,” Gail said.
But she is intrigued about tonight’s performance.
“I’m curious to see how they’re going to do it,” she said. “Usually they perform in a tent, one of the largest in the world. It will be interesting to see the show carried out in a studio.”