What do you do backstage at Cirque du Soleil's touring circus show Kooza?

You play checkers. You carefully apply your make-up using instructions on a piece of A4 paper pinned next to a mirror. You kiss your kids. You practise and practise and practise, even though you're not performing that night. You check the big whiteboard that tells you who's doing what and when.

You put on your game face.

On the crowd side of the giant fabric structure, with its intricate motifs depicting the veins of leaves and its sails that open and close like a flower, separating front stage from back, it's all right there — contortionists twisting across the stage floor, clowns and elaborately-costumed dancers barrelling through the audience, acrobats tumbling through the air.

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The contortionists are a crowd favourite at Cirque du Soleil's Kooza. Photo / Supplied
The contortionists are a crowd favourite at Cirque du Soleil's Kooza. Photo / Supplied

On the other side, it's a different kind of show.

Here, the 50 artists involved in the show that writer and director David Shiner describes as being about "human connection" make their own connections as they gather and get ready to perform a show which has been seen by more than 7.5 million since its 2007 debut.

Kooza opens for a limited season at Auckland's Alexandra Park on February 15.

For the travelling artists, who come from countries as diverse as North Korea, Colombia, Australia and Russia, out the back is as much a part of their workspace as that stage under the 11.8 metre high Big Top, where they will soon dazzle so many.

Costumes are done by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt, but Kooza's performers are taught how to do their own make-up. Supplied photo / Matt Beard
Costumes are done by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt, but Kooza's performers are taught how to do their own make-up. Supplied photo / Matt Beard

The show-opening House Troupe, who must rely on the strength of each other as they build a human pyramid, propel their bodies through the air and make daring dives from above, share a round of high fives before bursting onto stage.

Behind them, below a TV beaming out a live feed of the performance, members of the Teeter board team are bonding over a game of checkers — a scoreboard neatly records progress between appearances on stage.

ROTORUA DAILY POST
14 Jan, 2019 2:00pm
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The space is also open to family members who travel with the show — Wheel of Death performer Jimmy Ibarra, whose astonishing skills on the 725-kilogram rotating monstrosity leave the crowd gasping in terror, is playing with the son of a castmate.

The baby boy will then get a kiss from his dad, later seen somersaulting through the air with metal stilts strapped to his legs.

The Teeterboard team - including one on stilts - in action during Cirque du Soleil's Kooza. Costumes by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt. Supplied photo / Matt Beard
The Teeterboard team - including one on stilts - in action during Cirque du Soleil's Kooza. Costumes by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt. Supplied photo / Matt Beard

Dressing rooms, wardrobe, a physio room and practice space completes the backstage area.

Even as the show is under way, performers continue their training — tight-rope walkers practice their strength and balance a few feet off the ground, before repeating the same feats almost eight metres up minutes later.

And even though her performance is complete, the woman who just wowed the crowd with her versatility on the aerial straps is now practising backstage, as is a unicyclist not yet performing again following an injury.

Nearby, the contortionists stretch on mats and Ghislain Ramage, whose Roue Cyr act sees him spin around the stage inside a ring, is checking the humidity levels — too much moisture in the air can affect his ability to grip the 18kg apparatus.

The quiet strength of the balancing chairs comes after a period of frenetic action in Cirque du Soleil's Kooza. Costumes by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt. Supplied photo / Matt Beard
The quiet strength of the balancing chairs comes after a period of frenetic action in Cirque du Soleil's Kooza. Costumes by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt. Supplied photo / Matt Beard

There's plenty going on, but the artists don't even represent half of the 115-strong team that keeps the action moving on stage and off.

Others are busy organising visas for a cast and crew from almost two dozen countries, feeding hundreds daily from the on-site kitchen and making sure the 1080 costumes, hats and shoes used in each show are clean, hole-free and safe — a loose piece of costume can be deadly for those working at height.

Technical director Kristina Henry, backstage with a headset over her ears, is one of those people helping — in her case, quite literally — to hold it all together.

The American's team of 22 look after everything technical inside the Big Top, with tasks ranging from carpentry to automation to managing props, sound and lighting.

Tension has to be just right in the set up for the high wire act in Cirque du Soleil's Kooza. Costumes by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt. Photo / Matt Beard
Tension has to be just right in the set up for the high wire act in Cirque du Soleil's Kooza. Costumes by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt. Photo / Matt Beard
Cirque du Soleil's Kooza technical director Kristina Henry. Photo / Supplied
Cirque du Soleil's Kooza technical director Kristina Henry. Photo / Supplied

Perfection takes time, but that's ok. It's what Cirque du Soleil is all about.

"The costumes, every individual jewel and threading is done in the perfect way, and it's the same with this. We take five, sometimes six, days just to set this up. Then the lighting team will work overnight to do a full focus, we get the artists in and we make everything perfect."

Ongoing maintenance keeps her team busy through each show's run. Some equipment is subject to weekly inspections, others — such as the high wire and the Wheel of Death — daily.

Both need a precise amount of tension, and both are supported by the Big Top, but only one is visually spectacular.

"It is, isn't it?, Henry says, when someone admires the wheel for its beauty.

"We call it the Ferrari, and it's similar in cost."

Cirque du Soleil Kooza's Wheel of Death sets audience members' hearts racing. Costumes by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt. Supplied photo / Matt Beard
Cirque du Soleil Kooza's Wheel of Death sets audience members' hearts racing. Costumes by Marie-Chantelle Vaillancourt. Supplied photo / Matt Beard

On her headset, the 38-year-old can hear everything that goes on, but she is also able to tune out much of it — until something goes wrong in the cue set, which involves instructions generally every three to five seconds.

It's the artists who get the cheers, but Henry and her team — the whole Kooza team really — know they can claim some of that applause.

Because backstage goes beyond what happens on performance night.

"I always like to say, behind every great act is a great technician. Because it wouldn't be there without all of us."