TRAINING is gruelling, performing can be frightening, but for the gymnasts, acrobats and athletes of Cirque du Soleil the rewards of being part of one of the most magical troupes in the world are worth the pain, as their upcoming glasgow show will demonstrate
The Nikaia stadium in Nice is cold without the heat of thousands of bodies to warm it. Crisp shafts of light, heavy with dust, appear to hold up the undulating ceiling until one of them is punctured by a sinuous body rocketing skywards as if propelled from a cannon. Tonight that body will be intricately painted, wrapped in a custom-made costume befitting the elegance with which it moves through the air. For now, however, Russian former gymnast Alexander Dobrynin wears a hoodie and a pair of tracksuit bottoms which ripple violently with every bounce, flip and spin.
I’m watching the rehearsal for Alegria, one of Cirque du Soleil’s longest-running and most popular shows. For 18 years it has circled the globe, bringing its unique mix of theatre, music, dance and circus skills to over 10 million people in cities around the world. Tonight it’s in Nice. Next week it’s Glasgow’s turn.
It’s a little disconcerting to see circus performers flying through the air with the greatest of ease in their civvies. Without the sparkle and polish of costumes and lighting, a score and applause, everything looks that little bit more dangerous, edgier, less practised. Practised it is, of course. The man I’m watching now has been doing this routine for a decade. Like the 54 other artists in the troupe, he performs it in ten cities over the course of ten weeks before everyone goes home for a two-week break, then reconvenes to start the whole process again.
Running away with the circus makes for an interesting life. The men and women who travel the world with Alegria (and indeed, with any of the 22 Cirque du Soleil shows currently circling the globe) live out of suitcases. They move from hotel room to hotel room, and spend the two days off they are given each week exploring around 40 cities a year.
“I come from Barnsley so it’s really not hard to be away from home,” says 24-year-old Zoe McLean, a retired gymnast who was discovered by Cirque du Soleil scouts three years ago.
She’s quiet, a natural gymnast who wasn’t a natural performer. When I spot her in the show later that evening – flipping and birling with a gang of fellow acrobats on an enormous trampoline – I can’t equate the theatrical extrovert I see on stage with the woman I met earlier.
Like all 1,300 Cirque du Soleil artists, however, after she was recruited she spent five months in Montreal (the company’s home) learning to combine her craft with dance, acting and singing.
“I really, really struggled with it,” she says. “I’m quite an introverted person so I hated all the classes. They were trying to get me up at the front dancing and singing and I was like ‘no, no, no’. But then at some point you realise that you have to if you want to do this job, to stop worrying and get on with it.”
Any Cirque du Soleil show is a mammoth operation. Alegria tours in 22 buses. They travel with four wardrobe staff and their own washing machines, laundering every costume after each performance. Masks are hand-made in Montreal, moulded to an individual artist’s face, while costumes can take weeks to create.
There’s even a full-time staff member solely to deal with the passports and visas of 55 people from 15 countries.
Then there’s the catering. Just as an army marches on its stomach, so too does a troupe of trapeze artists. Backstage, artists big and small, bendy and sturdy are stocking up on big plates of pasta and vegetable juices. Next door, a gym has been laid out to facilitate flexing between rehearsals. Performers sit, most in tracksuits, some in bits and pieces of costume. Some chat, others read or fiddle with their phones.
Front of house, the Power Track group, of which Zoe McLean is a member, is warming up. They ping back and forth on a giant X-shaped trampoline, whooping, high-fiving and congratulating each other. Pop music thumps in the background, an attempt to introduce a little variation for performers accustomed to hearing the same score night after night.
Variation is crucial for people who are spinning, dangling, contorting, swinging and flipping high in the air. Boredom could be lethal, and many artists talk of their attempts to avoid the dreaded “autopilot” at all costs; get complacent and it’s a long way down. The solution is to vary roles and characters in order to keep things interesting.
Twenty-eight-year-old Sebaztian Hunter is a trapeze artist from Melbourne. Like most of the performers in the show, he will also mix things up with stints as a dancer or a character who helps to tell the story of Alegria. “I always try to remember that for each person seeing the show, this is the first time they’ve seen it and it is special,” he says. “I just try to not necessarily be myself until I’m off stage, and I also play other characters in the show. I tend to decide on the day how I would like to perform a character, so you have a bit of improvisation, which always keeps it fun. It’s kind of easy to just let yourself go on autopilot and it’s about finding that way of being aware and finding little reminders, psychologically, when you start to see that your concentration is going.”
For Hunter, who trained in circus skills from the age of 14, the first few months of his time with Cirque du Soleil were fuelled, in part, by fear.
“I’ve got to the point now where I’m not nervous before every show, where I feel calm before I step on the stage,” he says. “It took a year to get to that point and the first three months were very intimidating. It was a big step for me to step onto the Cirque du Soleil stage and do the show because I had been working towards that goal for ten years. You always question whether you’re good enough and whether you can be strong enough for a show of this calibre. It wasn’t about the people watching but about my own sense of security, of being comfortable and trying to be perfect, really.”
Perfection is something of a theme with Cirque du Soleil. So slick and polished are its shows that audiences have come to expect it. One hundred million people have seen a performance since the company’s inception in 1984, but trips, mistakes and falls are rarely witnessed. Performers train and practise constantly and complacency is the enemy.
However, fingers can get burned – quite literally – even in a perfect performance. Micah Maruo, 27, from Honolulu has been performing the traditional fire-knife dance since he was 13 and he’s used to getting singed. He was first approached by Cirque du Soleil when he was 16 but only joined the Alegria troupe three years ago.
Today he’s fresh from rehearsal, the sweat from the heat and the exertion still sitting on his skin. His fingers are blackened and the soles of his feet toughened and scarred from balancing the flaming knives on them while he lies on his back. The hair on his arms has been completely burned off, leaving behind a scattering of black stubble.
“Every day we burn ourselves,” he says. “There’s no trick to it and there’s nothing protecting us. It’s just our skin. It gets a little bit calloused and rough but most of it is mental. It’s mind over matter, you have to be strong in your mind to just let a one-metre-high flame go into your mouth. If you play with fire you do get burned.”
Maruo began his career by performing for tourists in Hawaii before joining the Lion King show at Disneyland in Hong Kong. However, it was joining Cirque du Soleil, he says, which allowed him to become a “complete artist”.
“To recreate our routine on stage with the music and lighting, it’s more theatrical than the traditional fire-knife dance,” he says. “I feel like that was my goal in life, to reach this type of performance. In this show, the stage represents the kingdom of Alegria and when I go on stage, when we burn the floor, for me that represents purifying this kingdom, burning away any negativity and promoting positive life and energy.”
Two weeks ago, a new singer joined the tour and, says artistic director Bruno Darmagnac, the other artists are rallying around her to show her the ropes when it comes to life on the road. These involve tips on packing efficiently (zipped bags within bags is the key, apparently) and how to cope with finding yourself in a different hotel room every week.
“Everybody chose this life,” he says. “And everybody knows what it involves. One aspect of the job is to be on stage and to perform but another aspect, which is nearly as important, is to live together. It’s not perfect but it works really well. We work for ten weeks, visiting one city per week and then everybody goes home for two weeks. So it’s kind of a rhythm and you are able to touch base quite often with your family and friends.”
Darmagnac is just one of the many members of Cirque du Soleil whom you’ll never see on stage. Nearly four in every five employees (of which there are 5,000 around the world) work behind the scenes, on everything from catering to public relations. Those who travel with Alegria joke that they’d love to see a map plotting the flight paths of all the staff and performers at the beginning of their two-week break, mushrooming out across the globe from whichever city they last performed in.
For some, it’s not a lifestyle they can sustain for a long time. Others – like “Flying Man” Alexander Dobrynin, who has been performing for over a decade – don’t tire of it. Oleg Juruc, 24, from Moldova, performed in Las Vegas before joining Alegria two years ago. He is a Russian Bar porter, supporting a bar just four inches wide on his shoulder while other artists flip and jump on it; it’s his job to make sure he catches them. He has a wife and child who live in Las Vegas.
“It’s not easy but they travel with me in the show most of the time,” he says. “They like seeing new places and my wife is happy that I’m doing what I love to do. They’re going to meet me in Manchester next. Anyway, I don’t have time to feel lonely, because in the morning I practise, then do the show, then I’m tired and go to sleep. And we’re all like family here anyway.”
Like all athletes, circus performers know that they probably won’t still be somersaulting on stage in their sixties, and Sebaztian Hunter has already started thinking about how his career will continue after he hangs up his Lycra for good. For the past five years he’s been studying for a masters in arts and culture management, paid for by Cirque du Soleil. He’s bought a home in Melbourne in an attempt to put down some roots, and one day he hopes to become an artistic director. For other performers, running away with the circus allows them to extend a career they thought would end in their teens. Zoe McLean was a gymnast from the age of four but retired at 18. Her favourite thing about performing is, she says, “still being able to do gymnastics”, six years after she thought her career was over. While all this must come to an end for her one day, for now she seems pretty content, as do the rest of the performers and backstage staff, to be part of the greatest show on earth.
• Alegria plays at the SECC in Glasgow from 11-15 April. For tickets tel: 0844 856 0202 or visit www.livenation.co.uk