Cirque du Soleil is a well known Canadian entertainment company which describes itself as a “dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment” founded in 1984. There have been many shows created and performed since it’s inception with some being touring shows and the others permanent fixtures in Las Vegas. Their amazing artists come from all over the globe and the things they can do physically at every performance just blows you away; such grace and talent. I recently had the pleasure and honor of getting a glimpse into their world that many do not get to see. Thanks to the Yelp community manager, Christina, I and some other Yelpers were given a backstage tour of the show Totem to see some of how it all comes together.
According to it’s website, “TOTEM traces the fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly. The characters evolve on a stage evoking a giant turtle, the symbol of origin for many ancient civilizations. Inspired by many founding myths, TOTEM illustrates, through a visual and acrobatic language, the evolutionary progress of species.” We were greeted by Francis Jalbert (publicist) who took us into their tent and world. These traveling companies are pretty much traveling cities. They have a kitchen, banks of washers and dryers, enough exercise equipment and weights to open a couple of gyms besides the performers (who are housed in different places around whatever city they are performing in) and the many other people who work diligently behind the scenes to make sure everything about the show visually and mechanically is in proper shape and working order. A great deal of work and people go into these shows.
Francis escorted us to the wardrobe department where we saw some of the marvelous costumes and learned how they are individually painted and molded to each performer. We were shown their makeup cabinet (a very large one) and more masks, shoes and headdresses. We then made our way towards the stage area where we got to see how it is operated. The stage has a section that they use to project images of different ecosystems from around the world to coordinate with whatever act is on at the moment, and how a part of it moves like a ramp to let the acts enter and exit with ease from backstage. Everything is made to put up and break down quickly and to let scenes flow smoothly.
As we walked through the rehearsal part of the tent, we were able to watch the Russian pole performers practice launching each other high into the air on poles that, although very long and flexible, weren’t that wide or thick. But they were heavy! I tried to lift one; not a chance. These guys had some serious upper body and leg strength. As the performers come from all over the world (we saw Russian, Chinese and French Canadian performers) some of the groups have one person who interprets for the rest who do not speak English such as with the Chinese unicycle girls; none of them spoke English.
Watching those girls ride on their unicycles was something else. Think about all they have to accomplish for their act; balance on a unicycle, balance bowls on their heads, toss those bowls with one foot while still staying erect on their unicycles and keeping the other bowls on their heads from falling, and then catching them on their heads without using their hands? Amazing athleticism.
Before our tour ended, we had a chance to sit down and talk with two performers from Quebec, Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois, who are the fixed trapeze duo. They play two lovebirds in the show, high in the air, that perform an innocent act of seduction through their movements on the trapeze. Guilhem grew up in Paris, France and started attending circus classes at the tender age of 7. It was when he moved to Montreal, Canada to study at the well renowned National Circus School that he met and was paired up with Sarah. Sarah was always passionate about the arts and sports growing up in Montreal but it wasn’t until her early teens that a friend suggested she was a natural to become a circus artist. While attending her last year of high school, she spent on average 16 hours a week outside of school learning all of the different acrobatic disciplines which led to her auditioning and being accepted into the circus school when she finished high school. The rest as they say is history when the pair were recruited by and joined Cirque in 2012.
From them we learned things like how often they can get back home when on tour (a bit more often when they are performing closer to home on the east coast), how they stay in shape, and little quirky things like routines they always do at rehearsals or before each performance. I won’t tell you the one thing they mentioned but it was funny. For the finale of our tour we were treated to watching our trapeze duo practice. As I watched them their moves seemed so effortless but I know that it takes years of practice in order to make it look that way for them and all of the other performers.
This backstage tour let me look behind the veil of the artistry and mystery that is a Cirque du Soleil show. Even though it showed the real working and everyday side of the show as well as of the performers – adding some reality to the fantasy – it only enhanced my view of all that is Cirque. Do go see one of their shows if you ever get the chance.