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Preview: sword swallower Roderick Russell

At age 26, Roderick Russell already has been a philosophy instructor and a CryoTransport Technician. He also plays classical guitar. But now he makes his living -- a good one -- as a sword swallower, escape artist, certified hypnotist and "mentalist." With his closely cropped dark beard, glossed-back hair, lean build and French-cuffed shirts, he looks more like a Banana Republic model. But then, there's no "typical" look for someone who makes a living by inserting 24-inch-long blades into his esophagus. I met him through his fiancee, Toni-Lee Sangastiano, who has found her own niche painting sideshow banners.

What motivated this Burlington resident to take his first, er, plunge? "I wanted to explore the boundaries of human experience," Russell says. "I wanted to help audiences realize that they could accomplish anything they wanted. Sword swallowing is the Holy Grail of mind over body."

This Thursday at the FlynnSpace, he'll demonstrate even more: how sword swallowing, movement, spoken word, live painting and narrative storytelling can be artistically combined. His work-in-progress, aptly entitled "Experimental," is the result of a N.A.S.A. Grant from the Flynn, given to Vermont artists to help create new work. This is the first to involve life-threatening movements with swords.

Getting to this particular stage took Russell some time, and practice. He began providing visual mind-over-body demonstrations in the philosophy classes he taught at a New Hampshire college. Eventually, he realized he could do the same on stage. He traveled to Italy to study with a sword swallower whom Russell says has reverence for the art, and for his body. "I wanted to enter into the discipline with respect and appreciation, and not with a 'just jam it down there' attitude," he says.

Once he was comfortable with risking his life for an audience -- and with his reasons for doing so -- Russell underwent more than a year's physical preparation, practicing three times a day. The first step, and most persistent problem in sword swallowing, is mastering the gag reflex. "You start by slowly poking and prodding with whatever instrument you're using," Russell explains. He used a sword from the beginning; others employ an unfurled wire coat hanger or a peacock feather.

He also studied physiology and learned, among other things, that the esophagus isn't as straight as, well, a sword. Other life-preserving lessons: "The stomach is much shallower than it appears, and it curves to the left. The epiglottis and trachea were surprisingly difficult obstacles for me to push past," Russell says. "I learned to push the epiglottis closed with my hand, before learning to control it with the tip of a sword. Then I hold my breath for a split second, as the sword glides past the closed epiglottis. Getting past the heart is always a touchy moment. I need to turn the sword a little to the left to get into my stomach."

Before swallowing the sword, Russell licks the blade. "A dry sword is even more difficult to swallow," he says wryly.

Anyone who feels queasy even thinking about this might take a cue from Russell, who must be utterly relaxed to perform such dangerous maneuvers. He used to meditate for a half-hour to quiet his mind and body; now he does so for only a few minutes. Thanks to a year and a half of conditioning, he quickly reaches a self-hypnotic state. "Nothing exists for me but the sword, my body, my esophagus," he claims.

On stage, Russell remains in this state, which is a good thing: "If there are flashing bulbs, I won't react. Nothing can shake me from the task," he says.

Russell moved to Vermont in the spring of 2003, attracted to the state's beauty and quality of life, and in order to pursue a business relationship with well-known, local hypnotist Steve Taubman. The pair had often found themselves performing together, or in separate shows at the same venues. That fall, they co-produced a show called "Trance-Formations," which was also presented at the FlynnSpace. The two are currently working on separate projects, and perform together occasionally. Russell lives with Sangastiano. They met and fell in love at -- where else? -- a sideshow convention three years ago.

Unlike some sword swallowers, Russell takes good care of himself. He's athletic and a vegetarian, and drinks lots of homemade fruit and vegetable juices. He doesn't smoke or drink alcohol. Double lattes might be his only dietary vice. But they don't interfere with his life-threatening career.

Russell calls sword swallowing "the most dangerous feat of human endurance." That's probably why it's lonely at the top of this profession. There are only about 52 sword swallowers -- 47 men and five women -- in the entire world, according to the Antioch, Tennessee-based Sword Swallowers' Association International (SSAI). To be "approved" to participate in SSAI's "Big Swallow," one must use a sword that is at least 15 inches long. The average adult esophagus ranges from 12 to 15 inches in length. Eat your heart out, Linda Lovelace.

When the Discovery Health Channel wanted to do a program on sword swallowers, it chose Russell, a passionate and articulate practitioner of the art. (The program aired in January and May 2005.) Because of my interest in sideshows, Russell invited me along on the trip last fall to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for the filming.

We arrived on a Friday morning at the Wyoming Valley Hospital and were escorted to the second-floor radiology lab. The sign on the door said "X-Ray 1. In Use." Radiologist Dr. Patrick DeGennaro was to be the "impartial witness." Hospital staff cleared the small room to make as much space as possible for the film crew and key personnel: a supervisor of radiology, the in-charge tech radiologist, a gastroenterologist and Dr. D, as hospital colleagues called him.

As a 22-inch sword slowly descended through Russell's esophagus, Dr. D anxiously tracked its progress on a fluoroscope machine. "The sword is going through the cervical esophagus," he narrated in a neutral voice. "Now it's in the esophagus proper ... It's just gone by the aorta ... The tip is in the lower esophagus ... It's almost to the stomach. This is very dangerous."

When Russell pulled the sword out in one fluid movement, Dr. D's "Well done" was tinged with relief. A physician with four decades of experience, he'd seen images of people who had swallowed keys, coins, dental plates and even a pen -- but until then, never a sword.

Four other doctors and hospital staff, as well as two reporters from the local ABC affiliate, joined us in the small room. Everyone wanted to see the sword swallower perform. One doctor said, "This is a circus." Close. It would be more accurate to call it a sideshow.

Dr. D commented that Russell's sword could have gone a lot deeper if he had wanted it to. As if on cue, Russell stepped out from behind the fluoroscope and, with a flourish, pulled an even longer sword from his case. He asked Dr. D to let him know when he'd gone far enough. Then he repeated his unnerving action.

This time Russell withdrew the sword only after it had reached the edge of his stomach. Then Dr. D turned to the camera and summed up. "We followed the sword down to his stomach," he intoned solemnly. "This is no trick. It's very real."

Russell's audiences are not usually so clinical. Performing last September at the Mount Snow Brewers' festival, he brandished a lit torch and walked through the crowd to get people interested. When he'd attracted an audience of about 100, he "ate" a little fire just to warm things up.

Then Russell chatted with the crowd. Though he's repeated some version of this patter dozens of times, it sounded casual and fresh. "We're going to be playing a number of dangerous games, games that put me at personal risk," he told the audience. "This risk requires me to be able to read and influence everyone here in order to be safe and successful."

While talking, he studied the audience's reaction. Most of his acts are interactive, and he picks people from the crowd to assist him. By the time he was ready to swallow the sword, the crowd was riveted. He tilted his head back and inserted the sword into his mouth. Some of the onlookers put their hands to their lips, staring in disbelief; others averted their eyes. The sword descended; the crowd gasped. And when Russell finally pulled the sword out, they cheered wildly.

"My most important duty as a performer is to entertain," Russell says. "I want people to leave my performances happy, mesmerized and thinking that they too are capable of anything they set their minds to."

He'll get another chance to entertain, and bend minds, this week at the Flynn. For Russell, sword swallowing is not a stunt; nor is fire eating, or escape art, or even his mastery with cards, he says. Whether he's performing at a college or a corporate show, a festival or theater, he emphasizes "the power of the human mind, body and spirit." Declares Russell, "There's an overwhelming intellectual, almost spiritual, aspect to what I do."

Though he enjoys performing in any venue, Russell says he particularly loves the Flynn. For his 2003 show, he combined sword swallowing and t'ai chi. He also choreographed the piece to Taiko drumming, and developed the lighting concept. At that performance, Russell finally got the audience response he says he'd been seeking. "I'd been performing various sword-swallowing routines for years and had always received hoots and hollers," he says. "But this was a response of heartfelt appreciation."

The Flynn's performing-arts grant has enabled Russell to create a series of multi-media vignettes. He will surely be the world's first sword swallower to include in his performance a tango routine, a commentary on the role of the media in society, and storytelling. Given some of his influences -- the Shen Wei Dance Troupe, Laurie Anderson, Momix and Philip Glass -- his work-in-progress promises to go down pleasurably.

"What I hope to get from the grant work," Russell says, "is not in any sense a finished product, but a chance to explore where the process of creation within that framework leads me. It's a chance to take a risk."

From a sword swallower, you'd expect nothing less.

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Gail Rosenberg

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