In High Demand
Sara Kunz has learned to weave narratives from her Big Island childhood into her popular circus street performances all over the world.
Internationally renowned street performer Sara Kunz has jumped through many hoops in her career to get where she is today. Literally.
Twirling multiple hula hoops on her arms and legs simultaneously while balancing atop a 6-foot-high “coconut tree,” Kunz has brought her “Flying Hawaiian Show” to the street-festival circuit in Europe and other worldwide destinations since 2013, when she first embarked on her unusual profession. Currently residing in Boston, she is a member of the prestigious Faneuil Hall Street Performers program, which is comprised of some of the best performance artists in the world. Her entertaining act combines contortion, acrobatics, juggling, comedy, gymnastics and, of course, hula-hooping.
Naturally athletic, Kunz first became hip to the hula hoop in college. Growing up in Captain Cook, the Big Island native graduated from Konawaena High School in 2007, and then studied art and painting at University of Oregon. When a neighbor introduced her to the hula hoop, she was immediately hooked.
“I tried it and really enjoyed it,” says Kunz. “I found tutorials on YouTube and within six months I was completely obsessed. I realized there is such a thing as circus performers, and that this could be my job, which blew my mind. I started training really seriously, along with learning juggling, acrobatics and contortions. I saved my money to go to circus school in Beijing. As soon as I graduated from college in 2012, I flew to Beijing and was there for eight months.”
Unfortunately, her training was interrupted when she incurred a cumulative stress fracture in her spine, and she had to come back home to Hawai‘i to recover. At the time, Kunz thought the injury could be the end of her budding career. What she didn’t count on, however, was even more misfortune.
On her way back to Hawai‘i from China, she took a side trip through Southeast Asia and ended up contracting a life-threatening case of hemorrhagic dengue fever, as well as Hepatitis E. She landed in a hospital in Oregon, barely able to move or talk.
“I really thought I was going to die,” she recalls. “They took a spinal tap close to where my spine was fractured. I was in the worst pain of my life. I didn’t get diagnosed with dengue until after I was released from the hospital. It was a long healing process. After my recovery, I took a job as a math tutor at Konawaena Elementary for about four months.”
Even though she was unable to do 80 percent of the skills she had learned prior to her injury, she decided to apply for a scholarship for circus performing in Prague and work her way back into the game. To her shock, she beat out 80 applicants for the prestigious opportunity. She headed back to Europe and connected with mentors who helped her return to top form.
Her first street shows took place in Estonia. She also got a gig with an American variety show producer in Berlin inside a beautiful old theater. As she perfected her show, she realized that street performing was more fulfilling and lucrative than being indoors.
“As a street performer, I’m in charge of my own schedule and my own show,” she says. “In Europe, there is a deep appreciation for outdoor performance events. They even fly me over there and put me up in hotels. I also do corporate events. I’ve been to a lot of places around the world, including Dubai in 2017. I’m really lucky.”
Kunz, who is working on a new project this winter, will be on tour in Europe again next summer. In Boston, Kunz is on the roster of street performers at Faneuil Hall, which is located in a national park heavily frequented by visitors and tourists. She earns tips and acclaim during her 45-minute show.
“It’s great, I love it. Some people might think we live on the street, but it’s not like that at all. It’s a normal job that pays well. I have my own place in Boston that I rent.”
Kunz’s athletic ability contributes to her success. At Konawaena High, she joined the swim, track and water polo teams, and was one of only two girls on the wrestling team. Throughout her childhood and teen years, she practiced judo at Kona Hongwanji Mission in Kealakekua, and was just one step away from earning her black belt. Her background in judo and jiu-jitsu helped her to become comfortable in front of an audience.
“I had a pretty normal Big Island childhood and always participated in after-school sports,” she says. “The circus influence came about in college, but I remember I wanted to do musical theater at the Aloha Theatre when I was a kid. I had one line in the play, Macbeth. I always wanted to perform but didn’t have that much opportunity for that growing up.”
Kunz gets her sense of humor from her father, Dr. Kevin Kunz, a general practitioner who now specializes in addiction medicine and treatment. Her mother, meanwhile, worked as a public health nurse at Kona Health Center. Both her parents now live in Volcano.
When Kunz realized her international audiences were intrigued by the fact that she’s from Hawai‘i, she began to incorporate elements of home into her show.
“A lot of my jokes are puns and ‘dad’ jokes,” she says. “I climb my own coconut tree and I wear a pineapple helmet. The spirit of the show is about bringing together complete strangers and getting them to share an experience to laugh and feel a little bit of aloha. People get a sense of aloha and joy when I do my job right. That part of Hawai‘i always stays with me.”