Saltimbanco: Power of balance

By Jacqueline Smith

Jacqueline Smith reports from behind the scenes of Cirque's Saltimbanco.

'I would say you would need to practise each element of an act 1000 times, so you would need to practise each act one million times to get it right.' says Zibi, acrobat. Photo / Supplied
'I would say you would need to practise each element of an act 1000 times, so you would need to practise each act one million times to get it right.' says Zibi, acrobat. Photo / Supplied

Thank goodness for the harness. And for the five strapping lads holding the mattress.

Alexa, 20, a former Canadian representative gymnast who is now the youngest acrobat in the Saltimbanco troupe, is learning to turn backflips that land on a horizontal bar held by two three-man-high human totem poles. She will round the trick off with another backflip on to the mat below.

Sitting in the front row during a rehearsal, just a few hours before thousands fill Brisbane Entertainment Centre, is enough to give your nerves a right battering.

Saltimbanco has been running for 19 years, and was the first show to leave Cirque du Soleil's home of Montreal. It travelled for 14 years under the traditional Grand Chapiteau (big top) and evolved into an arena show in 2007, so it could play in cities where the tent couldn't go.

The arena show takes 10 hours, rather than the Big Top's 10 days to assemble and three hours, rather than another 10 days, to pack down.

A greater number of people can pack an arena, and tickets are slightly cheaper.

But for the acrobats, there is no difference, other than the fact that they have fewer days to adjust to each city. The arena ceilings are just as high and the stunts just as perilous.

Alexa backflips off the Russian swing, narrowly misses her target and tumbles into her harness. One day, she will perform this stunt in front of thousands of people, but Fanny, 25, will do it tonight. She's the even smaller, elastic-looking girl standing left of stage, miming into an invisible microphone, learning her lines ahead of presenting duty tonight: "use of cellphones and cameras will make the acrobats fall and die" (or words to that effect).

Meanwhile, a new set of performers in gym gear, some of whom have started painting their faces ahead of the show, are whooping as they backflip over an acrobat who is planking above three broad-shouldered men stacked toes-to-shoulders on top of one another. These practice sessions raise the bar to ensure no performer is too confident. Cockiness just causes accidents.

The death-defying Russian swing is Polish acrobat Zibi's speciality, but he doesn't feel the need to rehearse this afternoon. Tonight will be his "millionth-and-something" attempt, so he's helping the newer members of the troupe to practise instead.

"I would say you would need to practise each element of an act 1000 times, so you would need to practise each act one million times to get it right," he says with a stern nod.

Zibi ran off to join Saltimbanco at the ripe age of 32 after nearly 20 years competing internationally in tumbling events. Now 47, he is the oldest - and some would say wisest - acrobat. He has performed the same show for 15 years, or about 4580 times. He remembers every single city and every single show. Tours in San Paulo and Tokyo top his list because they conveniently coincided with the Formula 1 circuit, he says.

Zibi plays Oiseau (Bird), a weightless baroque character with a feathered head piece. His costume has been replaced more times than he can remember - each performer goes through several spandex onesies per year - and every night he paints the same arched eyebrows, red lips and surprised expression lines on to his chalky white face.

It's a strange life, swinging from the rafters everywhere from Shanghai to South Africa - and next month, for the first time, New Zealand - but he can't really imagine doing anything else. The 95 members of the Saltimbanco crew are his family, though every year several of the acrobats are refreshed, either because they have had enough or aren't performing anymore.

Zibi says staying at the top of his game is all about focus. Just as every performer is in charge of their own "conditioning" (ensuring they look good in Spandex) each has their own way of getting in the zone before a show. Zibi prepares his mind by swimming and reading. Before this particular show he is found eating three bowls of ravioli then browsing the internet. Yes, the food is an operation in itself, replenished by on-site caterers. Menus in each city are vetted in Montreal to see that they comply with the performers' nutritional needs. Tonight there's kangaroo lasagne, beetroot risotto, salads, panna cotta for dessert. It's as colourful and decadent as the wardrobe department down the corridor, where half a dozen ladies are poring over last-minute costume repairs.

Each head piece represents about 80 hours' work - they are created to individual performers' head moulds - and the costume department holds spare stocks of even the tiniest components, should slithering up and down the poles cause Spandex to tear or a sequin to come loose.

Tanya Jacobs, who is head of costume, and lives in Queenstown when she is not on tour, says it is her team's fastidious attention to detail that turns the performance into a spectacle. The wardrobe department travels with 50 road cases containing 2500 costumes, 250 pairs of shoes and 80 different buttons.

With no backdrops, the show relies on the live band and vibrant costuming to create a warped, imagined city that becomes more wild and baroque as the show progresses. The Italian word "saltimbanco" translates as "to jump on a bench" and refers to traditional Bohemian street performers. This rambunctious show serves as a tribute. The house troupe of 30 acrobats evolves from a swarm of fluorescent worms to a pack of raucous, cheeky characters with unique costumes and personalities. Unlike other Cirque shows, this allows for improvisation, and Jacobs says their costumes serve as inspiration.

Unlike Jacobs, artistic director Neelanthi Vadivel takes a bird's-eye view of the show, ensuring the magic and energy reaches the very back row.

The level of acrobatics is improving every day, she says, and are the quirks the performers bring to their act.

While Vadivel is constantly tweaking each act, the show is essentially the same one audiences saw 19 years ago.

"There is an existing concept and structure that I have to respect. I have to make sure that the integrity of that concept is maintained, through 19 years of mutations and modifications and new cast members. But at the same time it can't remain a museum piece. It's always moving," she says.

"So many people say 'I remember Saltimbanco, that was the first show I ever saw'. So it's very important, I don't just step in and make big sweeping changes. They have to be subtle changes that challenge artists who perform the show nine times a week. They want to know they are always being encouraged to try new things."

I see what she means when I hear the cackle of clowns in the audience as the lights come up - like all Cirque shows, this is big on audience participation. Between all the playful cheek and spontaneity, it's a gasp a minute as a slippery trio of contortionists writhe about like tangled seaweed, buff little nuggets in lederhosen balance atop one another's heads and German twins hang from each other's feet while swooping over audience's heads on the trapeze. Much as you don't want the performers to fail, it's the odd jagged edge in the sleek production, like when the juggler momentarily loses his nine balls, that brings the fantasy into a nail-biting reality for a second.

Behind the facepaint are real people, with real families, and this is their real job. They are incredible, but they are not invincible. For the millionth-and-something time, Zibi lands the Russian swing stunt. No harness. Thank goodness.

LOWDOWN

What: Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanco
When and where: Vector Arena, August 25 until September 4

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