“Most people don’t get to see all the work this takes,” says Courter. “‘The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried,’ as the saying goes.” Courtesy The Flying Royals

Neal Courter’s gravity-defying career first found footing in Baton Rouge

When Neal Courter began training as a gymnast at age 7, he didn’t imagine scuba lessons or acting classes being part of the deal. Then again, he didn’t imagine becoming an NCAA All-American athlete on vault, either, or a five-time champion of the Eastern College Athletic Conference. He certainly wouldn’t have predicted that he’d be named a finalist for the 2017 College Gymnastics Association Nissen-Emery Award—known to laypeople as the “Heisman Trophy of gymnastics.” 

And yet there he was, nearly two decades after it all began, 80 feet above the audience in the Wynn Las Vegas’ theater-in-the-round, in full costume and waterproof stage makeup, preparing to free-fall with pinpoint precision into a small, spotlight-illuminated pool. Between Courter’s other stunts, including solo corde lisse—aka aerial rope—acrobatics suspended from a giant bell, spiraling flips through the air, and tumbling routines transitioning between water and stage, this was almost the easy part of Le Rêve, an aquatic acrobatics show that featured more than 6,000 performances and several Olympic athletes. 

Exploring the artistic possibilities of gymnastics constitutes an average day in the life for Courter, who has gone from teaching himself back handsprings in his parents’ bedroom to building a career as a gymnast, aerialist and acrobat in some of the most famous shows in the United States. After training 15 to 20 hours a week at C.G.’s Gymnastics on Florida Boulevard and landing his first big break as a “Tumble Monkey” in the Festival of the Lion King show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, he began expanding his resume to include self-choreographed aerial pole routines, Chinese pole routines for the short film Wasteland, and his most recent stint as a trapeze artist with The Flying Royals, whose 360-degree rigging makes for some of the most unique trapeze stunts in the world.

Courter combined athleticism, artistry, acting and swimming for his acrobatic performances in Le Rêve. Courtesy Le Rêve

“In these shows, you’re no longer just an athlete. You’re an artist,” says Courter, who performed in Le Rêve for two years before its close in 2020. “From the moment you step on stage to the moment you step off, you’re a character. You’re not yourself anymore, which makes it easier to embody the choreography. I think doing the high-flying stunts has only helped with that mental space—it makes you feel invincible.”

Of course, no one can learn to leave the bounds of earth without experiencing a few bumps and bruises along the way. Courter doesn’t mistake the irony: without experiencing a particularly low period in life, he may never have gained access to the highest of heights.

Following his graduation from Episcopal High School in 2012, Courter headed to the College of William & Mary in Virginia, where he studied chemistry and French. The life of a student athlete proved difficult, though. 

Courtesy Neal Courter

“I was struggling in college with depression,” says Courter. “As a student athlete, you have a lot of expectations for yourself, and you don’t want to let yourself or anyone else down. But my teammates, my parents, my friends, my coaches—not only did they help guide me through my gymnastics journey, but they were great mentors in my personal life as well. So I decided to take a semester off.”

The decision also coincided with an ACL tear sustained during competition, but Courter wasn’t about to sit on the bench. Shortly after returning to Baton Rouge, a friend recommended that he visit the aerial silks studio used by Nick Erickson’s physical theatre program at LSU. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

“It lit a fire under me,” Courter says. “I could not stay out of that studio the whole time I was at LSU. It just accelerated the drive I had for being in the air.”

Later, as his graduation from William & Mary approached, Courter’s opportunities for career growth and creative expression began to multiply, both in live shows and as a coach for other aspiring athletes and acrobats. He began trapeze training at the Las Vegas Circus Center in February 2021, performing in his first show with The Flying Royals in California a year later.

Courtesy Tribe Athletics

“The world was upside down, so I guess I wanted to be upside down, too,” he says. 

Not to mention sideways and frontways and every way in between. There’s a reason gold medalists Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin once filmed their shocked reactions to Courter’s skills in the gym, where no flip, trick, or tuck seemed off limits.

“The first time I did a trapeze stunt without a harness was very scary, and honestly, every time I get up there, there’s a little part of me that tells myself how dangerous this is,” he says. “You learn to rely on your training, though. Acting in Le Rêve wasn’t something I was altogether comfortable with at first, but every time I went on stage, I got better at it. It’s the same with trapeze. It’s all about timing and repetition and finding out what works.”

A life spent on the fly can never stand still for long, however. Starting this April, Courter will begin his new role in Michael Jackson ONE, Cirque du Soleil’s resident show at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay, where eagle-eyed audience members can spot him in the synchronized group tumbling act to “Smooth Criminal.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the endless support I’ve received from my family, my friends, my coaches, my teammates and my coworkers,” he says. “The community here in Vegas is highly interwoven, and very resilient. I’m just really excited about where this will take me.”