Simply put, Andrea Jones-Rooy, or Prof. JR is literally extra-ordinary. She’s a professional circus performer, trapeze dancer, synchronized swimmer, stand-up comedian, and not to forget, professor of international politics here at NYU Shanghai. For the student body at NYU Shanghai, Professor Jones-Rooy is nothing short of an icon. On Century Avenue had the privilege to sit down with her on a beautiful Spring morning to talk about her life after Cirque le Soir, performing in front of students, stand-up comedy, and the long awaited Integrated Social Sciences Major.

How crazy was your schedule when you were working at Cirque?
Andrea Jones-Rooy: It was crazy. The nice thing was that I worked at Cirque only, three or four days a week. On Wednesdays, I was usually done by midnight. Normally, I would get there at 7, and then we had makeup and rehearsals and all that and then the shows would start at 11. Basically, in the middle of the week, it was constantly NYU all the time, with an improv rehearsal. And then, Wednesday night, it’s a quiet night at Cirque. Then, Friday and Saturday it’s hectic. I’m up much later but I can sleep much later. I used to joke that I sleep on Wednesdays and Saturdays – during the day.

Performing in Shanghai, there’s a likelihood that you’re going to come across NYU Shanghai students. In light of that, is it uncomfortable or awkward to run into students when performing?
AJR: It’s super weird, obviously. It’s happened enough that I’m sort of over it. At first, when I started at Cirque – about a month after NYU Shanghai started – I was like I won’t tell anyone about it. But after awhile, I was like, who cares. People will eventually find out and if NYU wants to fire me then let’s see. Students come every now and again. They don’t come that often but it definitely made me feel more weird at first. I think it’s important that students and faculty both realize that we’re people too. Especially, here with the drinking age, you’re more likely to run into students at bars. Everyone is allowed to have their own life and as long everything is still professional at school, it’s fine. There’s nothing that I can do about it – I can never block students from coming. I’ve always decided to be open about it – it’s weird when my students come and it’s weird when my colleagues come. With students, I then have to teach in front of a class and with faculty, I have to consistently sound like I know what I’m talking about. We’re all going to have to figure out a way to deal with it. Yesterday, I met with Joanna [Waley-Cohen] and she said “I’m so sorry that Cirque Le Soir closed down.” She’s been very supportive. Apparently, she and Jeff went to dinner right next to where Cirque is and they saw the sign and they were like “oh this must be where Andrea performed”. For me, I often waited thinking that NYU might tell me to stop, because I would be spending too much time or that it was inappropriate – but they’ve been very nice. When I was at Carnegie Mellon actually, they were a lot stricter about it – and I wasn’t even performing then, I was just doing it for fun. They told me to be more professional. But NYU has been very supportive of it. They all know that it’s something that is important to me, and as long as it does not interfere with my job, it’s fine. If anything, I’m working harder at this job. 

What was the craziest stunt they had you do at Cirque?
AJR: It was exactly a year ago, because it was at the Irish Ball. Basically, I was a human statute and had to walk around. But that was outside of Cirque. Inside of Cirque, I did like learning the bed of nails. That was kind of cool. There’s something called sideshow, where people hurt themselves and all that. I got to Cirque doing aerial, and then later, I started to do fire and bed of nails. And people asked what the trick was, but there is no trick. It just hurts a lot. You have to deal with the pain. The way I learned, was that a performer from England came to Shanghai, and he was teaching me how to do it. He told me that the trick was, that it’s just pain. It’s going to hurt at first, but then it’s going to stop hurting. If you remember that, it’s not that difficult. And then, when you’re performing, it doesn’t hurt because there’s the adrenaline of performing. So, if I rehearse, I’ll never go on the bed of nails, because it hurts. But then when you’re performing, you don’t even feel it. And then you come off and you’re bleeding – it’s horrible. But it’s cool, because there’s a psychological element to it. Now, I miss doing that stuff.

Aka Niau (1)

How would you describe a typical weekend to weekday transition between both of your jobs?
AJR: I was very depressed for a long time, and it was around Chinese New Year, so I went back to the States. It took a long time to figure out what I was doing. It’s been hard, and I allowed myself to be sad. With my Cirque friends, I’m trying to figure out new places to perform and we’ve found a couple that are in the works. I’ve been training on my own, but I want to keep doing it. I do miss performing though. But I’m lucky because I’ve also been involved in comedy here, since the beginning. So I was always busy – comedy twice a week and Cirque twice a week – and now, I’ve just added two more days of comedy. I do five minutes of open mic, so it’s not the same, but I’m here and do have to figure out where I’m going to go next. 

What have you been doing since Cirque le Soir has been closed?
AJR: Hopefully we’ll get more shows, for comedy and for circus. But I’ve been doing more comedy. Stand-up is something I’ve always wanted to do, whereas I used to do a lot more improv – I’ve done that for a long time, I did that in New York awhile ago and that was fun. Stand-up is a different beast. I actually started improv because I was scared of stand-up. I wanted to start it last year, but I didn’t have anymore time for hobbies. So, Cirque closing gave me a chance to do a lot more of that. So far, it’s only been a couple weeks, and I’ve been trying to catch up on a lot of work, but I’ve been trying to do more stand-up. I’m also doing a lot more writing – I’m actually writing a book about Cirque – so I’m doing a lot more of that. I’m trying to tell myself that it’s a nice time to figure out what I really want to do. 

How’s the Integrated Social Sciences major coming along? What’s been the most difficult part so far?
AJR: I’m glad you asked. We finished all the paperwork and now, that’s in New York. We sent it there a few weeks ago. So New York has it and from there, the forms go to the relevant departments, which is to say the five that are the social sciences, and they all look at it. Informally, a few people looked at it last semester and said that it looked great. The departments then all look at the proposal and they can give suggestions or show their concerns. There’s a central committee in New York that then has to look at it and make sure that it’s not redundant or something that they already have – which, I’m told, is their main concern. Once all that happens, we have the major. The most stressful thing for me is not being in control of it now. This is the first new major here. We’ve got new minors, but that process is much easier. All the majors that we have are ones that we started with. We’re sort of stalled at the moment because it’s just out of our hands. It’s frustrating. But I think it’s useful to have it here and I know that there is demand for it. If they don’t like it in New York, I’m going to feel like I failed you guys.

Grubby Cho (1)

Moving away from academics, and post-Cirque shenanigans, what’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you in China?
AJR: The superlatives are hard, but I would say the time I was driving home from Cirque last year and there’s two little people and one middle-sized guy – that’s another politically correct thing that we all have problems with – but bottom line is that they’re very good friends of mine. They also don’t speak any English at all and they’re a good way to get me to practice my Chinese. We used to all carpool home, last year, because I lived out by ECNU. Pungen (It’s a name) – the guy who does popcorn at Cirque – he drives, the two little guys sit in the back and I sit in the passenger’s seat. This is one of the first times they drove me home. So, we’re going home at four in the morning and although we take off the makeup at work, there’s still a lot on, and we’re on the Yan’an Elevated Road and they get pulled over by the police. Turns out, it was just an ID check or something, but I didn’t know that. This was pretty early on and my Chinese was still rusty. To me, they look through the window, get all of their ID’s – but still act so professional. It was just so weird, that at four in the morning, a laowai (老外)and three midgets in makeup are driving around. But, they didn’t even bat an eye. They didn’t ask any questions and this made me nervous – plus, any interaction with Chinese police makes me nervous. A lot of things at Cirque were just very surreal. Before Cirque, I almost had a boring life – I like what I do and I like what I study but before I started performing, that was the only thing in my life apart from practicing circus as a hobby. Everyday, something weird would happen.

Rapid response:

What’s your favourite Chinese food?
Sichuan Citizen’s Gong Bao Tofu

Where do you want to travel to (and haven’t been before?)
Tibet.

What’s the wickedest place you’ve been to?
Azerbaijan.

If you weren’t a circus performer or professor, what would you do?
I wanted to be a movie star. Or a writer.

Why didn’t you do either of those things?
I ask myself that everyday.

Aka Niau (2)

Favourite book?
Harriet the Spy.

Who is your celebrity role model?
John Hodgman. He’s a genius.

Biggest China pet peeve?
I’m so torn between pushing people out of the way and spitting.

Describe yourself in two to three words.
Perpetually confused. I can never describe myself. I’m particularly willing to try lots of new things, but I’m not particularly good at any of it. I like doing different things.


This article was written by Alhan Fakhr. Send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Grubby Cho & Aka Niau

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