By Dominique Jando
Isabella Nock (1946-2015) was one of the great swinging-trapeze artists of the Post-WW2 era; she starred in Europe’s major circuses in the 1970-80s, and was a featured act with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States, where she and her father, the clown Pio Nock, performed for six consecutive seasons. Her heel catches on her swinging trapeze bar, barefooted and scantily clad in a sparkling bikini, made her act memorable wherever she worked.
The Nock FamilyPius (Pio) Nock (1921-1998) and his wife, born Alexandra Bühlmann. The Nocks are Switzerland's oldest circus family, whose heritage could be traced back to the 18th century; like the Knies, the Nocks (and the Bühlmanns) were originally itinerant rope-dancers, who performed on village squares and fairgrounds, their ropes strung between church spires or above the open-air stage of their traveling "arenas."
Although Circus Nock is well established today as Switzerland’s second largest circus, the Nock family is mostly known abroad, and notably in the United States, through members of the family not involved with it: The Nerveless Nocks and their swaypoleA high, flexible vertical pole (originally made of a single piece of wood, and today of fiberglass) atop of which an acrobat performs various balancing tricks. act (who also performed with Ringling Bros.); the two star clowns of the family, Pio Nock and Bello Nock; and of course, Isabella Nock—the most glamorous member of the family, who was billed with Ringling Bros. as "Europe’s Golden Goddess of the Swinging Trapeze."
Before WWII, Pio Nock performed a high wireA tight, heavy metallic cable placed high above the ground, on which wire walkers do crossings and various acrobatic exercises. Not to be confused with a tight wire. act with his father, Pius, Sr., and five of his seven siblings, Charles, Edith, Erika, Eugen, and Lotti. Eventually, Eugen, Charles, and their sister Elizabeth (and her husband, Joseph Bauer) went their own way and created their swaypoleA high, flexible vertical pole (originally made of a single piece of wood, and today of fiberglass) atop of which an acrobat performs various balancing tricks. act, The Nerveless Nocks; Pio, who already worked as a clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., developed a high-wire comedy act with his sister Erika, which he later performed above a cage filled with lions—kept under the watchful eye of his brother in law, Moritz Bühlmann. Isabella’s mother, Alexandra, eventually joined the act, and in 1964, Isabella replaced her mother. Like many circus girls, she had started as a contortionist, and she was now developing her swinging trapeze act.
The Golden Goddess of the Swinging TrapezeMax van Ebdem, Grock’s former partner, his high-wire act with Isabella and her brother, Pius (1948-2002), Moritz Bühlmann’s lions, and in time, Isabella’s own trapeze act, the Nocks offered an attractive package, and they had no trouble finding work in Europe’s major circuses. In 1962-64, they were with Circus Franz Althoff (then Germany’s largest circus), during which time the family participated in the filming of Henry Hathaway’s Circus World (1964), which starred John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, and Claudia Cardinale, and featured Franz Althoff’s circus and performers.
In 1966, Isabella married Mario Cortes, who replaced Max van Embden as her father’s partner. Finally, in 1968, she debuted her trapeze act at Circus Knie in Switzerland, where the family had been contracted for that circus’s Jubilee season. Her act was an immediate sensation. She had specialized in a field that was far from crowded: Performing a swinging trapeze act without any safety was not something that everybody could, or would, do; Winnie Colleano had been one of the few before WWII, and Miss Mara was the reigning star of the specialty; the rest could be counted on the five fingers of one hand!
The following year (1969), the Pio Nock Family was contracted by Ringling Bros. to perform their acts in The Greatest Show On Earth, where they stayed for six years. During that long engagement, both Pio and Isabella fell from their apparatuses—and Isabella was seriously injured. She went back on her trapeze nonetheless, and in the winter of 1975, she was performing in Madrid for Arturo Castilla’s Festival Mundial del Circo, where she was awarded the "Oscar Mundial del Circo." That same year, she participated in the 2nd International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, where she won the Prix de la Dame du Cirque, awarded to the best female performer in the Festival.
The family finally split in 1989. By then, Isabella’s daughter, Nina (b.August 14, 1978), had already joined the high-wire act. (Isabella and Mario Cortes had also a son, Sascha, born June 14, 1967.) Isabella continued to present her daring swinging trapeze act until 1992, when the family reunited and performed for the last time together at Circus Nock, a fitting return to their sources. Pio Nock died in the middle of a performance in 1998; Isabella passed away seven years later, on September 13, 2015, at age sixty-nine. A great performer had gone, but luckily, the Nock dynasty has remained active and still produces outstanding performers…
- Video: Isabella Nock, swinging trapeze act (c.1990)