Cover Story: Empire of the Sun

Cirque Du Soleil Performers Work Hard At The Circus Life Yet Make It Look So Easy

Aug 23, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Geoff Raker

Cirque du Soleil challenges your imagination like no circus ever has.

If joining a traveling circus sounds like just a frivolous flight of fancy, Cirque du Soleil might have you thinking again.

Transporting a thriving international village on a multi-stop tour is no small feat. A Grand Chapiteau (big top), hundreds of unique costumes (with custom-dyed matching shoes for each), a kitchen (and chefs), a school, fitness facility, physiotherapists and more — it all seems so, well, impractical.

Given today's focus on cutting corners and taking shortcuts to get a job done faster, Cirque seems out of step with reality. Yet here under the big top, that impractical fantasy world is alive and real.

But is the lifestyle as idyllic as it seems?

Cirque du Soleil (French for Circus of the Sun) keeps selected circus traditions alive while innovating thrilling live performance and giving new meaning to the term "multi-disciplinary." For astounding technical quality and high aesthetic values, Cirque stands in a class of its own. The sky's the limit as the organization constantly reinvents itself.

I recently saw Quidam (Latin for "anonymous passerby," pronounced "kee-dom") in Philadelphia's downtown Avenue of the Arts district.

The production has moved to Cincinnati for Cirque's first-ever visit here, with Quidam opening Thursday night.

More than a throwback to a bygone era, the majestic bright blue and yellow big top tents majestically preside over hoards of people gathering in anticipation. The ambiance has a more relaxed carnival feel that I expected.

Inside the Grand Chapiteau, the close and cozy — I'd even say crowded — seating creates an intimate feel, enhanced by how near spectators seem to the stage. How they fit approximately 2,500 seats inside is itself a wonder, as is the air conditioning under the tent.

The setting helps create a state of mind for the audience, says Cirque du Soleil Artistic Scout Yves Sheriff.

"We invite the public to spend an hour and a half, two hours with us, to just to open their imaginations to something that's a bit closer to the feeling of childhood," he says. "(We want to recreate) the feeling of when your imagination is completely open when you're a kid."

Being there
Speaking via telephone from the company's Montréal headquarters — where, curiously, there's a vegetable garden that provides ingredients for their chefs — Sheriff proffered insights into Cirque's recruitment methods.

Performers might apply a number of ways, but the process is far from simple. With around 950 artists performing in shows all over the world, it becomes necessary to continually be ready to replace roles and prepare for new productions.

Sheriff says that beyond traditional casting agency contacts, Cirque places marketing publicity in selected territories around the world, including at certain festivals where unique performers are likely to be found. He notes that Cirque's Web site has proven an especially helpful resource.

"Let's say you are a clown, you are in Kiev, and you want to know, 'Hey, I've heard about Cirque du Soleil. How does it work?'," Sheriff says. "If you go on (our) site, you will be able to find some info in Russian to know how to apply."

Cirque performers have "very active parts," he says — meaning they return to the stage in a variety of character roles that require some acting, clowning or other skills, enhancing the show's collaborative, multi-disciplinary spirit.

"You're not just asked to perform your own act and 'Bye-bye,' " Sheriff says.

Similarly, he says, Cirque isn't a fly-by-night endeavor for the performers.

"It takes time for someone who joins Cirque to understand well his role," Sheriff says. "He cannot just say, 'Oh, I'll join Cirque du Soleil for three months.' It's almost impossible, because the personage is very well builted (sic) and there's a lot of aspects around everyone onstage. ... I think, personally, it takes at least six months before you say, 'OK, now I understand what I'm doing.' "

Although he speaks with pride of Cirque's casting methods, Sheriff catches himself referring to the procedures as "complicated," for which he quickly substitutes "sophisticated." Perhaps it's his Québecois English, but considering the organization's buttoned-up nature and a certain Canadian persnicketiness, I'd say both "complicated" and "sophisticated" apply.

In acrobatic acts and in life, timing is everything. It ended up being a tough time for me to go to Philadelphia to preview Quidam: Cirque's touring publicist was on vacation, which per strict policy precluded my doing on-site interviews in person. After briefly wondering whether the performers really were media-shy or perhaps comparable to thoroughbreds, I acknowledged that they are special, highly-skilled creatures at the pinnacle of their art — not to mention Cirque's stock in trade.

Watching their amazing feats, it's easy to understand why minimizing distractions becomes crucial, as is the organization's unwavering requirement for perfect precision on technical levels. The show's execution certainly appeared flawless.

Not surprisingly, many of Cirque's high-caliber performers come from the competitive arena of gymnastics, where "perfect 10" perfection is the goal. Yet here the diehard individual sporting spirit is relinquished in favor of the entire show winning.

"The star is the show, as we like to say," Sheriff says. "That also makes it kind of nice because inside the team there will not be a competition. Everyone is treated equally. So everyone will say, 'OK, I'm joining this show because I want to push with my act as far as possible so the show will still be the star and still be great.'

"Let's take an average example: You are a gymnast, you are 24 years old, you got beat in the last Olympic trials, and then your career is maybe slowing down a lot, so you will maybe not compete or go to the next Olympics. What do you do?"

Sheriff explains how Cirque du Soleil can offer them a career extension. They'll train for six months or more in their discipline, but they must also learn additional artistic elements — clowning, theatrical arts, etc. — to round out their stage presence.

When performers know that the show is already a success, they want to bring their best to the role they take over, to follow the tough act carved out by the original performer.

"For an artist this is great," Sheriff says, "because he knows that he has to really push himself for the show to be perfect."

Dancing and spinning
Quidam artist and dancer Philippa Hayball affirms that joining Cirque du Soleil not only extended her dance career but enabled her to jump into aerial hoop training. Before joining Cirque in Japan seven years ago, the Sydney, Australia native, 34, had extensive experience with various ballet companies and had performed in a touring production of Phantom of the Opera.

"I had thought that (Phantom) would be the end of my dance career," she says in a telephone interview, "but this has certainly given me another 10 years of using my body for what I had trained for when I was young."

Hayball stays busy throughout the show, too, as do most performers. In her lively "Target" persona she dances, does front walkovers and frequently appears, disappears and reappears in an ephemeral, sprite-like role.

Another of her featured talents is a dynamic and daring aerial hoop performance. Incredibly, she's been doing it for only the year and a half she's been with Quidam.

"I learned it in one month while I was still working in the show here," Hayball says. "They needed a replacement immediately, and I absolutely love it. I feel really lucky to be able to go from being so grounded with dance and everything to being able to now be doing aerial."

As if that's not enough to keep her occupied, she's also the tour's Pilates coach.

Besides possessing originality, broad artistic vocabulary and strong stage presence, Cirque performers are expected to push their limits — a concept Sheriff says some relish more than others.

"It's a balance, because I don't think you'll evolve and grow if you don't push yourself, if I don't push myself," Hayball explains. "I know that that's what's inspiring to me, especially doing aerial hoops now. Never had I dreamed before that I would do aerials, so now doing aerials, I want to push the envelope all the time to get it looking better — spinning faster or doing different positions that are beautiful or just impressive.

"I work out every single day. That's my life, trying to maintain a very high physical level so that my body is not shocked when it comes into trying to push myself in the different positions or it can't just be expected to grasp something if it's not prepared."

At my suggestion that she must not be afraid of heights, she clarifies her view.

"You know, we spin around a lot and fly," she says, "and, to be honest, you're thinking about so many things that the height is not really ... where your focus is."

Ballet dancers are used to spinning, though it hardly compares to the dizzying, blurring speeds hoop performers achieve.

"Once you get the hoop moving in a certain way, if you want to go that way then it's awesome," Hayball explains. "It's just when it's going the opposite to the way that you want to go, then it creates kind of that push-and-pull action (in directional rotation). It can work with you or against you. (She laughs.) Hopefully you're getting it working with you."

Yes, but about the dizziness?

"Actually, the faster you spin, the less dizzy you are because you're sucked into the center," she says. "The slower you go, you feel the spinning more and you're not really tight inside the center. So, if you picture the tornado or whatever, everything's flying on the outside that gets picked up, but in the center it's completely still."

I'll take her word for it.

Circus culture: myth or reality?
At Cirque du Soleil, any discussion of circus culture must include multi-culturalism.

"Imagine all the performers coming from Russia, China, Mongolia and Europe, France, Japan," Sheriff says. "We'll be able to welcome them to a more general culture that we like to call here the 'circus culture,' which includes a lot of other cultures."

When asked about the more romantic concept of a circus culture, Sheriff laughs good-naturedly.

"First of all, it still exists!" he says.

He gives an example of a young girl age 12-14 with a good singing voice and a good profile who dreams of joining a Cirque touring show, who might play Zoe in Quidam (a role they must replace every couple of years because the girl literally outgrows it).

"Her dream is going to come true because, even if there is a lot of discipline, it's also part of the dream to wake up and do your homework, to continue school, continue to train, do your own makeup, perform sometimes two shows the same day," Sheriff says. "This is the spirit of circus, and eating (with) everyone backstage with our specific fare with our own cooks, meeting someone else from another culture. That's why we have these beautiful stories of someone who arrives here with one discipline and then during touring or staying on the show they will learn another discipline."

Hayball claims she wasn't sure exactly what to expect when she joined Cirque.

"Coming from a ballet world, you just think everything is gonna be work-work-work," she says. "Which is what it is, and I do meet many people that are like, 'Well, that must be so exciting and so fantastic and everything,' and it is, it really is, but on the flip side it's work. ... It's a job, but every night to get applause for your job is, I guess, different from a 9-to-5 job."

Describing how the traveling circus culture differs from that of a permanent production, Hayball says, "It's like we carry our own bubble from show to show, from city to city and country to country. Because when we're on site ... we're in the same tent and we're in the same family (with) the same people every day. It's only once that you step off the site that you realize that you're in a different country or a different city.

"It is pretty stressful. Everything has to be organized, and to pack up your life every few weeks is a lot."

Her voice softens a bit when asked how traveling with Cirque impacts her life.

"Well, especially on tour I think it's ... yes, we're traveling with a family, but it's very lonely," Hayball confides. "I mean, you can't really leave somebody behind to ask them to wait for you for the next six or seven years, because we're going internationally, very far away and, unless they come with you, you really only have the people around you that you're traveling with."

Energy and superstition
Despite the workload and the all-consuming nature of Cirque, Hayball still adores her role in Quidam.

"Actually, I'm really lucky," she says. "For my character, I still love it. And I know the amount of energy that you need to put into a character like mine for the audience really to feel that same magic world that I'm portraying.

"So for me, when I'm onstage, yes, it's still exciting. I still find new moves. I still find new places to catch the audience by surprise. ... If that's not what you're giving every show, you're losing out and the audience is losing out if you don't put that energy that needs to be there."

Speaking of energy, in the close quarters of the audience I sensed an almost magical, palpable tension hanging in the air — yet I didn't feel my emotions were being artificially manipulated. There was a consummate live performance energy, taut as a tightrope, harnessed in that Grand Chapiteau.

Perhaps it emerged as the spectators involuntarily inhaled then exhaled as acrobats launched and landed in seemingly impossible ways. Or perhaps it was an extension of the bond between a live female vocalist and the aerial contortionist moving to her music while suspended in silk swaths.

This wasn't just my imagination. Sheriff confirms that the singer and the acrobat have a strong interconnection in the aforementioned act.

"Sometimes they say, 'Hey, I really liked how you sang tonight, I really felt the connection with my act' and vice versa, 'I sang because I really was inspired by your act,' " he says. "So this kind of momentum onstage, we like when it works, when the public is saying, 'Wow, it was really great.' Sometimes they don't realize it, but it's great because the actor onstage was very well supported by the live music and this makes the show really alive."

Emphasizing how Quidam's live music heightens the show's overall impact, he says it would be "completely different" if the music and sound effects were recorded.

"It would be just mechanical," Sheriff says.

Following the thread of keeping things real and human, Hayball admits she gets nervous, giggling as she reveals that she has little sayings she says before going into the hoop.

"Backstage is almost as choreographed as onstage," she explains. "We have little hand signals or little ways that we give a high-five to say 'Good show' and things like that. And definitely working with Russians and Ukrainians who are very, very superstitious, so you always, always do the same thing that you do.

"With the backstage manager, I have a little hand thing that we do before the show. It just gives you that security. I don't know, it's very strange."

Strange, beautiful, imaginary, real. In Cirque du Soleil fashion, it's what works.

QUIDAM, presented by Cirque du Soleil in the Grand Chapiteau at Main Street and Mehring Way in a Banks parking lot downtown, opens Thursday and continues through Sept. 17.