One on One: Masha Nordbye
by AMY DICKERSON on JANUARY 15, 2016
In her line of work, Los Angeles-based photographer Amy Dickerson meets plenty of interesting people. She shares her images and interviews with some of them in an ongoing series for Anthology called “One on One.”
Masha Nordbye: Filmmaker, Author and Trapeze Artist
The words I first heard to describe Masha were by a mutual friend who exclaimed with passion, “She’s a super woman!” Shortly after that, we met and it was confirmed for me: Masha writes, directs, and produces documentaries worldwide (for National Geographic, PBS, and The Discovery Channel, to name a few of her clients). AND she flies the trapeze.
Masha recently returned from a trek she lead for two months in Asia, with expeditions in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. During her travels, she sent me photos—including one of her with an 85-year-old barley farmer and another of her seated happily on a yak—or quick emails from 15,000 feet. She’s always in dreamy locations with friendly local faces that make my wanderlust heart ready to pack.
I knew she had been to many countries by the scope of her projects, and when I met up with her before she left for Asia—where she “flies” (and has for 15 years with famed trainer/stunt performer, Richie Gaona) on the trapeze—I asked her just how many countries? She was getting her gear out of her car for her “tricks” on the trapeze and she said, “111.” While I was wowed by the number, she added with a sigh: “But there’s 192 countries.”
She introduced me to the wonderful people at the Trapeze School that is housed in Richie’s backyard in the San Fernando Valley. A surreal moment with turkeys gobbling next door and a trapeze rig in front of of me with one of the best flyers in the biz coaching and then a famous clown walks in. Not kidding. Watching Masha on this hot day in the valley “fly” was empowering. I asked her what she likes about flying and she talked about the control over mind and body, and then she smiled, “If you do it correctly, you’re weightless.”
For trapeze classes with Richie Gaona visit Richie Gaona Flying Trapeze School in Woodland Hills, CA. They offer classes for beginner and advanced flyers.
How did your work become interesting to you?
Early in my career I worked for ABC Television, and was stationed in Moscow, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Then, I wanted to find a venue where I could combine my love of travel and adventure with storytelling, so I branched out into documentary filmmaking. I’ve now traveled through 111 countries and helped produce several hundred documentaries, which include: documenting the first car race across all of Russia—over 6,000 miles from Murmansk to Vladivostok, rafting across the Altai region of southern Siberia, riding camels with local nomads through Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, sailing with Moken sea gypsies in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago, filming the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, observing polar bears with local Inuit in the Canadian Arctic, living in a Maasai village in Kenya, filming great white sharks in South Africa, scuba diving down to 180 feet in Truk Lagoon, and being one of the first women in history to stand atop the North Pole. I also lead trekking expeditions—over the past several years, these include Marco Polo’s Silk Route, the Stans of Central Asia, Mongolia, Siberia/Lake Baikal, and the Himalayan Kingdoms of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan.
How are your travels and writing connected?
I love exploring and living among other cultures, and also enjoy writing/photographing for magazine articles. I’ve always been interested in Russian history and the arts. While in college, I studied Russian in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and went on to travel throughout the former Soviet Union, filming about 15 documentaries there. I’ve written five books to do with Russia, and my latest is the 785-page travel guide, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and The Golden Ring. I’m very proud to have won a Lowell Thomas Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism.
What got you started in learning to fly on the trapeze?
Years back, I helped produce the National Geographic Special, Inside the Soviet Circus. We traveled around Russia to film the best circus performers, which included one of the most amazing trapeze acts of all time, The Flying Cranes. (I later worked with the U.S. Tour of the Moscow Circus and made sure the Cranes were part of it.) I just loved the trapeze—the feeling of soaring through the air (and it’s also a big plus to be caught by handsome men in spandex)—but I thought the only way one had access to trapeze was through a circus. One day, someone mentioned that stuntman and ex-circus performer, Richie Gaona, had the family’s trapeze rig up in his backyard and was giving lessons. The Flying Gaonas won the prestigious Golden Clown Award at the Monte Carlo Circus Festival and were one of the greatest flying acts in circus history. I was immediately hooked, and have been flying now for over 15 years.
Have you made a documentary on the trapeze?
Several years ago, a trapeze friend, Tom Moore, who is also a Broadway and Film Director, and I decided to produce a feature documentary on trapeze and the Flying Gaonas. The Flight Fantastic presents myth, legend, and legacy of this magical and fascinating world with some of the greatest aerial athletes and artists in circus history, and portrays the golden age of performance in America through this famous family. It had its U.S. premiere this year at the Sarasota, Florida, film festival, and has also shown in other cities as Los Angeles, Manhattan, and San Francisco, with other international screenings. We hope the film will also inspire viewers to take new chances and be open to new possibilities in their own lives.
What does your favorite day look like?
I love to wake up to a magical view of the Himalayas, hike up to a monastery and listen to the chanting of Buddhist monks, and then slowly explore the town or area I’m in. Nothing has let me learn more about myself than by being on the road. By traveling and interacting with other cultures, I’ve gained a further sense of humility, compassion, curiosity, patience, humor and appreciation. It is good to be off-the-grid, re-connect with the rhythms of nature, and loose track of time. One of my most favorite days was just sitting in the middle of the Gobi Desert in utter silence, listening to the wind. When travel becomes too sterile and insular, it defeats the purpose. One has to break out of the routine, shake off the cobwebs, and embrace the unexpected; adventure is an amazing tonic for the spirit!
What have you accomplished that you are most proud of thus far?
I worked for many years with the Save Our Seas Foundation to raise public awareness by making environmental documentaries on all aspects of the oceans. We filmed around the world from Abu Dhabi to Zanzibar to document the plight of coral reefs and the decimation of many types of sea creatures, including sharks, whales, dugongs/manatees and giant manta rays.
What has been your favorite age thus far?
Oh goodness, I don’t really think about my age or of a favorite age. I recently visited an uncle on my Norwegian side who, this year at 89, bowled a perfect 300, golfed a hole-in-one, remarried and bought a new house. I just hope some of the gene pool rubs off on me!
Favorite places to take out-of-town guests?
- Gaona’s Trapeze Workshop
- Hike up Bronson Canyon to the Hollywood Sign and then Happy Hour at Café Figaro
- Huntington Gardens in Pasadena
- A concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Greek Theater, or Disney Hall
- Scuba diving off Catalina or the Channel Islands or water/snow skiing at Lake Arrowhead
What’s on your to-do list?
Last year I was able to check off a big one: I went to western Tibet to climb and circumambulate (at nearly 19,000 feet) the sacred Mt Kailash, a mecca for Buddhists and Hindus. We spent days trekking and camping at altitude with our packs on yaks, and basically eating yak meat, roasted barley tsampa, cup-of-noodle soup and drinking yak butter tea. One kora around the mountain is said to wipe away the sins of a lifetime—and we climbed during the Year of the Horse, supposedly twelve times more potent! As a child, I was also very interested in Astronomy, and fantasized of a Moon trip or becoming the first woman on Mars. But, my biggest dream would take me out of this world through that wormhole like Jodie Foster in the movie Contact!
Words to live by …
As a child, I was motivated by the books of French explorer Alexandra David-Neel and her journeys through Tibet. Of herself, she wrote: “ Ever since I was small, I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passes it by, and set out for the Unknown.” I’m always inspired by the Unknown, to explore new places, learn new things, experience more of the depths and mysteries of life.