Behind the magic of Cirque

By Amy Shanks

Cirque du Soleil's Quidam still conjures up cleverness after over 20 years touring the world, discovers Amy Shanks
Cirque de Soleil. Photo / Matt Beard
Cirque de Soleil. Photo / Matt Beard

As lights dim on stage, the hum of anticipation is almost audible, broken only by bursts of laughter as an expressive clown appears - larger than life in a purple suit.

With one comically exaggerated movement, he has an entire arena wrapped around his finger.

"I heard it's incredible," a bespectacled woman nearby begins - her words cut short with a collective shhh. One minute in and nobody wants to miss a thing.

Laughter is followed by shock and awe as the acrobatics begin, but one constant remains throughout - an overwhelming sense of excitement.

Cirque du Soleil is as much a feeling as an experience - there cannot be one without the other.

Quidam is one of the famed Canadian company's longest running shows, having toured the world for more than 20 years, and yet not a drop of its magic has been lost.

This is a production untarnished by time, transporting audiences on a journey, where they are whisked away to some other place - a different space and time.

It is dizzying, mind boggling and if you're lucky enough to see it twice, nothing about it will be the same.

Not because there are good nights and bad, experienced performers make sure of that, it's simply impossible to absorb the entire spectacle in one go.

That feeling of wonderment is exactly what creator Franco Dragone intended - an escape from reality.

Cirque de Soliel. Photo / Matt Beard
Cirque de Soliel. Photo / Matt Beard

At its core the production is a commentary on the foibles of human nature - our ability to walk through life, not really taking it all in.

A busy street on which people shuffled past in a blur was the initial inspiration for Quidam.

In a world where technology reigns, the message is more relevant than ever before says artistic director Marjon Van Grunsven.

"[Dragone] realised people don't contact each other, they just pass by," she says. "He was frustrated, we live in a world where people do not communicate with each other, and that only gets worse."

The tale is told through Zoe, a wide-eyed child whose life has lost all meaning. Her parents are distant and apathetic and ignore her pleas to be noticed.

Seeking to fill the void she slips inside an imaginary world, where nothing is impossible.

"Zoe creates a place where everything is connected," Van Grunsven says. "In the middle of the story all of the creatures lose their soul, they aren't linked in any way, but at the end they all come together."

While scenes blend in a dream-like sequence, the reality of keeping such an extraordinary production in motion is enormous.

Three hundred pairs of shoes are repainted after every show, 20 wigs are washed and restyled, costumes laundered and hung in individual dressing rooms.

There are 2500 outfits, every single one handmade for the wearer in minute detail, right down to changes in skin tone from summer to winter.

There's enough to fill a semi-truck, and the collective wardrobe is worth an estimated US $2.5 million (NZ $3.8 million).

The set itself takes a whopping 12 hours to set up and with the help of an extra 80 to 100 stage hands can be packed away in just three.

Managing the logistics of moving 45 cast and 45 crew, hailing from 25 different countries, isn't easy.

Hotels close to the venue, catering options to cover everyone's needs and transport all have to be considered.

It makes you realise that behind this vibrant, energetic beast, swirling with imaginary beings there's a cast of real people with real bruises, scrapes, pulled muscles, sore feet and callused hands.

But no matter what, the show must go on, meaning every night, sometimes more than 10 days in a row they give their absolute most.

What the audience sees is perfection, because the performers won't allow themselves to deliver any less.

It's not uncommon to find them scrutinising every move in front of a television set backstage, which rolls footage of the previous show.

"Everything happens, but if it happens you don't need to show it, maybe you repeat the trick - we do everything possible to ensure it's not a big deal," says Andrii Lytvak. "The next night it's a clean slate."

The Ukraine native, who is part of the famous Banquine scene, represented his country in sports acrobatics before joining Quidam.

Having a background in a competitive field helped with acuracy, balcance and of course mindset.

If performers do put a foot wrong, there's nothing to catch them - no nets, no soft landing pads, nothing but their own strength and skill.

So they practice, and work out to stay fit - many of them multiple

times a day, for Andrii daily gym sessions and group training's have become the norm.

"For me personally I like to be the best I can be and have fun," he says.

"My motivation is that people are paying money, they want to see the show - every audience is different, some have already seen it, for some it's totally new so you have to give it everything."

Preparation behind the scenes is totally removed from the high energy, high intensity of the stage, no one is rushing around, it's surprisingly calm and collected.

"For us it all starts when we step out there, back here it has to be relaxed," Andrii says.

Outside Cirque, the performers have lovers and lives, friends, and family -- but out on the road the next stop is home and those they share a stage with become everything.

There is no doubt it will be a tearful goodbye when they part ways after Quidam wraps in Christchurch on February 26.

Cory Sylvester

German Wheel

Cory Sylvester. Photo / Supplied
Cory Sylvester. Photo / Supplied

Cory Sylvester looks down at a delicate rose tattoo on his inner arm and a smile draws across his face.

The muscular American's voice takes a softer tone as he explains the significance. "It's for my wife, [Rosita]," he says.

"She was head of wardrobe for Quidam, that's how we met, but she's moved to another show in the US."

Time apart, constantly moving from place to place, not being able to do simple things like cooking a meal, is tough at times, but Cory wouldn't have it any other way.

It has been a dream since he first sat in the audience during a performance of Quidam in 1996 on his 20th birthday.

Cory knew then that performance was his path, and set about making it happen - quitting his job and training at the local park before sending an application to the National Circus School in Montreal.

Cirque du Soleil was the ultimate goal, and 10 years ago that became a reality.

Since 2006 he has made a living spinning at a heady pace as a human spoke inside a giant German Wheel, and though he makes it look easy -- it's anything but.

There have been "plenty of falls", including one which took him out of the show.

But for Cory every bruise and scrape is just part of the journey.

"A surprising amount of effort goes into making something look effortless," he says.

"You have got to step it up, there's a lot of growth that comes with doing it, the most difficult things are the most rewarding experiences."

Lisa Skinner

Aerial Hoops

Lisa Skinner (far left). Photo / Matt Beard
Lisa Skinner (far left). Photo / Matt Beard

The first thing to note about Lisa Skinner is her strong grip and calloused hands, though I suppose it's not unusual for a former world class gymnast turned Cirque du Soleil star.

The second is her modest nature - she is neither boastful nor arrogant, though she certainly has the grounds to be.

After taking up gymnastics at age 6, Lisa (pictured far left) represented Australia at the Olympic Games in Atlanta as a 15-year-old, and twice more in Sydney and Athens before joining Cirque. "The first Games was nerve-racking, it was only my second international competition, but Sydney was more stressful," she recalls.

Moving to the circus after walking away from the world of gymnastics was a logical next step, though the two disciplines are different in style. "Competition and performing are like chalk and cheese - with performance I have to get myself psyched up, sometimes I'm tired but you just do it.

"I find the crowd always helps me to get into it, whereas with gymnastics you are taught to ignore the crowd," she says.

Lisa started out with another show called Alegria, moving on to become dance captain, before accepting the challenging aerial hoop role with Quidam in 2010.

Though the job is dangerous, the intensity is not something she's daunted by.

"For me it's not the difficulty, it's the risk factor, my hands are my safety net, if anything gives, they are the only thing between me and the floor."

For someone who spends much of the show suspended from a hoop, high above the stage she's remarkably relaxed about it all.

"It's really fun, it's easy for me because I enjoy it, I enjoy the people I work with."

Julie Cameron

Aerial contortion in silks

Julie Cameron. Photo / Gregory Heirman
Julie Cameron. Photo / Gregory Heirman

Petite brunette Julie Cameron is somewhat of a multi-tasker on the Quidam set.

A breathtaking aerial silk act, where she winds herself up, down, in and around a billowing red strip of fabric is just the latest achievement - and an incredible one at that.

In a past life, the Scottish native represented the Czech Republic in the field of sports acrobatics, before earning national and world titles while competing for the Great Britain Senior Acrobatics team.

Due to her tiny frame, Julie was picked up by Cirque as a Banquine flyer in 2007.

She moved to an aerial hoop act four years later and by 2013 she had mastered the difficult skill of silks.

Somewhat of a veteran performer, she has taken the stage with Quidam more than 2500 times.

Meeting Julie is like meeting a rock star - she has thousands of fans and followers on her Instagram account, though you wouldn't pick her walking down the street.

Up close her small stature and slight figure give no indication of the strength she possesses when in the air.

"You have to be able to hold on, that is the basic part.

"It's also really artistically challenging, and I am always challenging myself," she says.

"Something that's harder with this act, because I'm not being thrown around, is that I have to hold myself up, it's really different.

"There's a lot more flexibility needed as well so I have to keep that up, and my strength."

But putting in the hard yards is not something Julie shies away from.

Pre-interview, she's up on the silks doing a demonstration for a group of VIPs and working out a new routine with which to audition for her next Cirque position after Quidam wraps in Christchurch on February 26.

It looks beautiful - elegant, technical and visually stunning - but she's her own worst critic.

"It's not quite ready," she says, with a furrowed brow.

Quidam will be at Auckland's Vector Arena from February 5 to 14 and Horncastle Arena in Christchurch from February 17 to 26. Tickets available through ticketmaster.co.nz

- TimeOut

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