For Two Circus Performers, Love Takes Flight on and Off the Ground

For circus performers, it takes a lot to stand out at a festival. But when Ryan Shinji Murray heard about how Juanita Cardenas arrived at the Montreal Complètement Cirque festival in 2015, he was intrigued.

“I heard that a couple people had ridden their bikes from Brooklyn to Montreal and I thought, I need to hang out with these people,” recalled Mr. Murray, 35, a performer who had been touring then as an acrobat with Cirque du Soleil.

Mr. Murray, who is to perform in Cirque du Soleil’s “Festa,” next month in Andorra, had dropped out of New York University in 2007 to pursue gymnastics and acrobatics, ultimately landing at the global circus company.

Juanita Cardenas, 38, a multidisciplinary artist and performer from Bogotá, Colombia, was among the crew that had biked to the circus festival from New York. Mx. Cardenas, who uses a gender-neutral courtesy title and she/her pronouns, graduated from the Cooper Union in 2008 with a degree in art, and then studied circus arts in Buenos Aires.

While living in New York, she had previously crossed paths with Mr. Murray while performing at venues like the Muse and House of Yes — but the two knew each other only casually.

However, something clicked when they connected in Montreal. One night, after eating the famous poutine at La Banquise, Mr. Murray unexpectedly kissed Mx. Cardenas.

“It was a nice surprise,” she said. “Because in regular life, he’s a very shy and polite, sweet being.” They enjoyed several more passionate days together in Montreal, but neither expected their romance to lead anywhere.

“I didn’t think he wanted a girlfriend on tour,” Mx. Cardenas said. “That’s not fun.”

Since Mr. Murray’s touring duties as an acrobat in Cirque du Soleil took him around the globe, the two gradually fell out of touch. Then, just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, their touring schedules overlapped in Australia.

Mx. Cardenas was in a relationship with someone else at the time, but she and Mr. Murray were still thrilled to reconnect. “It was special but not flirty,” she recalled.

Eventually, Mr. Murray, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., returned to his home in the Washington metropolitan area, and Mx. Cardenas returned to Brooklyn. But the two kept in close contact in the months that followed.

“We supported each other a lot during some dark and scary times,” he said, referring to both the Covid lockdown and Mx. Cardenas’s breakup with her boyfriend.

[Click here to binge read this week’s featured couples.]

After a year of intense long-distance communication and the rollout of the Covid vaccines, Mx. Cardenas convinced Mr. Murray to visit her in Brooklyn. In May 2021, he rode his bicycle for 19 hours straight from Washington to Mx. Cardenas’s apartment in Bed-Stuy, where he took a shower and immediately fell asleep.

“Then, we woke up together, and it was wonderful,” Mx. Cardenas said.

Mr. Murray agreed. “After a year and a half of not touching another person — who was not family — it was pretty crazy,” he said.

There was no formal proposal, but a mutual decision to marry that followed many long and deep conversations about their future together.

The two were married on June 4 in an afternoon ceremony at the Slipper Room, a performing arts theater on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Their friend James Habacker, a Universal Life Church minister who owns the venue, led the ceremony. When the couple first told Mr. Habacker that they wanted to rent his club, he offered his officiant duties as a bonus.

Around 100 guests attended the ceremony, including burlesque stars from New York like Julie Atlas Muz, Mat Fraser, Dirty Martini and Bambi the Mermaid.

The Slipper Room routinely hosts whimsical and bold burlesque and circus performances. So, Mx. Cardenas’s and Mr. Murray’s theatrical wedding was a natural fit. “We built it like a show that you would see at the Slipper Room — but with us as the featured acts,” Mr. Murray said.

The ceremony began with Mr. Murray building a stack of chairs, while singing “Love on Top” by Beyoncé. The next act, performed by the couple, featured costumes designed by Mx. Cardenas. She wore a floral dress, and he was outfitted to look like a rotisserie chicken. “It was about nourishment and lust,” Mx. Cardenas explained.

After the couple recited their vows in matching costumes shaped like giant hands (also made by the bride), they were hoisted into the air via an aerial hoop to exchange their rings.

“That was the one thing we didn’t do a dress rehearsal for,” said Mr. Murray, adding that their hand costumes weren’t ready in time for a run-through. Luckily, the guest list included many aerialists and acrobats who helped them get safely situated.

For their final act, the couple donned custom handmade Western-style outfits, and Mr. Murray performed lasso tricks that ended with the two of them tied in a knot. Shortly after, the wedding party and guests had to clear out to accommodate another show. An impromptu after-party at Arlene’s Grocery, a live music venue, went late into the night.

Amid the theatrics, the couple had forgotten to order a marriage license. So Mr. Habacker ended up signing the marriage license the following Wednesday, on June 7, between previews of the couple’s latest collaboration, “Day of the Dead Live!” which will open Oct. 19 at Brooklyn Art Haus. The show’s pianist, Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, served as the witness.

The couple spent their wedding night at the Sixty LES Hotel in New York, and they are now planning a honeymoon traveling from Barcelona, Spain, to Genoa, Italy. Naturally, they will be riding their bicycles.

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