She Flies Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease: Meet St. Louis' own Elliana Grace, Human Cannonball

She Flies Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease: Meet St. Louis' own Elliana Grace, Human Cannonball
Todd Davis
Elliana at nine months old with the St. Louis Arches.

The flight of Elliana Grace the Human Cannonball closes the first act of The Greatest Show on Earth, and it lasts less than a minute, from the moment she slides into the mouth of the cannon to her final bounce into the safety of the oversize air mattress she uses in lieu of a net.

"Do not blink," bellows ringmaster Andre McClain as she disappears, "because this memory of a lifetime will be over in one! fleeting! flash! of glory! Elliana! Are you ready?"

"Yeah!" comes a small voice from the inside of the cannon.

Courtesy Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
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Cover illustration by Tim Lane

"Everyone count down with me!" McClain yells. "In FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! Gooooooo!"

In a flash of fireworks and an explosion of cheers, she pops out of the cannon, a young woman in pink spandex and pink superhero boots, arms outstretched, body held tight and straight as she soars across the ring, up, up toward the ceiling, her long, dark hair streaming out behind her.

Her eyes are wide open and focused on the four-foot-deep air bag on the other side of the circus ring. Her body somehow knows when it has reached the top of its trajectory. She flips, just once — body still straight, arms still outstretched — and falls backward toward the air bag.

The Human Cannonball doesn't usually remember much about each flight, aside from a quick impression of soaring through the air. On the other hand, she has just been shot out of a 24-foot-long air-compression cannon and travels between 75 and 100 feet at a force of 7 g. That's greater force than a roller coaster, greater than a Formula One racecar, greater than the space shuttle. A force powerful enough to have caused some human cannonballs to pass out midflight. This has never happened to Elliana Grace in more than 100 shots since she took the job last October. Still, she's in the air approximately three seconds. How much would you remember?

The Human Cannonball's memory is all in her muscles. As she lies in the cannon, listening to the countdown, she tightens them all — legs, core, neck — until she feels perfectly straight, like an arrow that won't slow down or blow off-course, and she prepares to hold herself that way for the next five seconds, no matter how far or how fast she flies. Not everyone can do it. (Not everyone should try.) But the Human Cannonball has been preparing for this for almost her entire life.

She lands spread-eagled, flat on her back and bounces gently. A group of spotters rushes to meet her and help her clamber out of the air bag. There she is, back on land, arms up, head back, one foot placed carefully behind the other. Ta-da!

And thousands cheer.

In the seats, Jessica Hentoff, the Human Cannonball's mother, finally relaxes. She no longer watches the act through a camera lens, taking photos instead of watching the performance directly, as she did when the Human Cannonball was still in training. Hentoff is a former circus performer herself, a founding member of Big Apple Circus and St. Louis-based Circus Flora, and currently the director of Circus Harmony at the City Museum. She had been teaching her daughter tricks since she was an infant. But this act is slightly different from the high wire or trapeze. It's more...volatile.

"It worries her a little," the Human Cannonball explains, "because she is a mother, and I am getting shot out of a cannon."

The first time Elliana Grace Hentoff-Killian climbed into a cannon, on her first day at work for Ringling Bros., she fell asleep. It wasn't that she felt a particular ease or affinity with the cannon. She was just tired. It had been an intense few weeks since word had reached Hentoff through the tight-knit circus community that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was looking for a new Human Cannonball — did she know anyone who was interested and available for a two-year commitment? As it so happened, Hentoff-Killian had recently returned to St. Louis after a disappointing nine-month stint at École de cirque de Québec, a prestigious circus school in Quebec City, and was working as the lead aerial coach at Circus Harmony.

So Hentoff-Killian flew (in an airplane) to Rochester, Massachusetts, where Ringling Bros. was on tour, to audition.

"The audition was a lot of fun," she says. "Well, fun for me. It was a lot of high falls. They started pretty low, fifteen feet, and then got higher. The last one was 35 or 40 feet. I'd jump into the air bag. They wanted to see if I could land correctly and keep the right body position, and if I took direction well."

There was an interview, too, during which Hentoff-Killian wore a suit and proved she could speak articulately to reporters and the public. She got the job, signed a two-year contract and began training. At twenty years old, she was the youngest Human Cannonball in Ringling Bros. history. (Also, as her mother takes great joy in pointing out, the first Jewish Human Cannonball.)

It wasn't until a few days into her new career, when her trainer told her she was going to take her first shot the next morning, that she became terrified.

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