Cirque du Soleil: behind the scenes at the circus that brought back magic

Lisa Fitterman

A Look behind the scenes as the world-famous Cirque du Soleil.

The Scene

The big-top tent is dark and quiet. The audience is fixed on Viktor Kee, who plays the halfman, half-reptile Cali in a Cirque du Soleil production called Amaluna. He balances on the rim of a giant water bowl, his tail flicking menacingly. Then the balls start to come: one, two, three, four, five of them arcing through the air, faster, faster. He catches and juggles them easily, almost casually. Then the last one—a white streak shot through with a licking flame—is on fire.

“Doesn’t it burn?” a little boy asks in a stage whisper, staring at the ring of fire in front of Kee’s body. 

I want to lean over and point to Kee’s right forearm. Under his make-up it is unnaturally shiny and hairless from burns he suffered while practicing several hours almost every day for 18 months before Amaluna debuted in spring 2012. Through trial, error and scar tissue, through countless tests of trajectories, speed and the optimal amount of lighting fluid so the balls burn for just 15 seconds, it’s testament to the work required to create a production that must look effortless.

 

Magic in mind

“Magic” was what buskers Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix had in mind when they founded Cirque du Soleil in 1984. The two French Canadians wanted to put on a show like no other, the opposite of a circus with dancing elephants and a ringmaster.

By the mid-1990s, the company was a success, with shows that highlighted the human body in all its twisting, leaping glory. Today from its Montreal headquarters its shows employ about 5,000 people from nearly 50 countries and generates close to $1 billion a year. Some shows, such as “O” in Las Vegas, are permanent fixtures. Others are performed in smaller arenas around the world, where they are mounted and dismantled. Then there are the blockbuster shows such as Amaluna, which set up on huge vacant lots under a striped blue-and-yellow big top that can be seen from afar.

 

Behind the scenes

But what goes on behind the scenes? What does it take to stage such a production? The answer is lots of people doing lots of jobs, big and small. As Kee, the mischievous star juggler, tells me: “We fool the eye and we fool the soul. The more simple it is, the more you shouldn’t trust it.”

Amaluna began in 2009 as a broad idea—a phrase, really, upon which to build a show. “I want an homage to women,” Guy Laliberté told Fernand Rainville, who would become “director of creation”, the Cirque’s version of a producer.

Fernand knew whom he wanted to write and direct the show. Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, had a CV that included the Broadway revival of the 1960s musical Hair and a mash-up of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and a 20th-century disco called The Donkey Show. Petite, dark and decisive, she understood the importance of spectacle and story. And with two daughters of her own, she would bring a perspective that men could not.

“I’d always dreamed of doing a show in a tent,” Diane tells me. “It’s about communicating with the audience in a more intimate way.”

 

First Glimpse

When she flew to Montreal, her first glimpse of the Cirque’s international headquarters was a bit jarring. Located in a working-class neighbourhood, it’s a concrete-and-glass complex that from a distance could be a spaceship crash-landed in a barren field.

Inside, she found a self-sufficient village—a cafeteria, three training rooms, ateliers for shoes, wigs and costumes, rolls of cotton being dyed and cut, cobblers, athletes and offices. And Guy Laliberté, slim with a poker player’s gaze and the confidence of one who once breathed fire for a living, was the controlling eye at the heart of it all. As he ushered her into the complex, he got right down to business.

 

A planet run by women

“I’ve always wondered where the planet would be if it was run by women,” he said.

“Me too,” she replied.

The remark stayed with her: a planet run by women. She didn’t want to do the circus version of a Busby Berkeley musical, where females were often objects of fantasy in elaborate costumes, with legs that went on forever. Diane wanted to build a great show that happened to revolve around women, with a strong story to carry it all.

It took a year for the storyboard to form—not in words or scripts, but in drawings, tableaus and characters pasted up on a wall. Diane drew from Shakespeare’s Tempest and the trials of love in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, and she tossed in Greek myth and Norse legend for good measure: mothers, daughters, goddesses, flying Valkyries and fierce Amazons.

 

Shakespeare's Isle

Shakespeare’s isle became Amaluna, a name that combines the word for “mother” in various languages with the Latin term for “moon”. Instead of Prospero, the island’s ruler was Prospera, who invites female creatures to celebrate as her daughter Miranda comes of age. A conjured storm, stranded sailors and Cali, based on the Tempest’s Caliban, a twisted, bitter son of witch and demon, all contribute to a tale where love wins out in the end.

As she wrote, Diane also spent hours at Cirque headquarters watching hundreds of audition tapes over YouTube and Skype. Some, like Kee and Iuliia Mykhailova, who plays Miranda, were already part of the Cirque’s formal roster of talent, either working for another show or waiting to be called upon. Others had never worked for the company before.

She saw women shot out of cannons, women juggling machetes, twins who took turns balancing on each other’s head, broad-shouldered gymnasts who reminded her of warriors. And so it slowly came together—a play, a ballet, a circus and theatrical event all rolled into one. Performers worked for six months to a year with Fernand, Diane, choreographers and trainers, trying, discarding and perfecting what the director describes as a “story beyond language”.

Iuliia Mykhailova
Iuliia Mykhailova, who plays Miranda, rehearses what she will later perform on the rim of a giant bowl

 

The Cirque du Soleil big top

From a distance, the blue and-yellow Cirque du Soleil big top is silhouetted against a late-morning sky in Atlanta, Georgia, with storm clouds hovering at its edge. This will be one of the last stops for Amaluna before it moves on to Europe, beginning in Madrid this month. It’s infernally hot and muggy. Flies are everywhere.

As I approach the service gate, a group of black-clad locals wait to begin a day of training in jobs such as concession sales, cleaning and ushering people to their seats. Staff members hurry by, speaking into crackling headsets, their clothes for the evening slung over their arms in wardrobe bags.

With eight hours to go before the dress rehearsal begins in front of a live audience, everything has to be as perfect as possible.

“It’s our big moment,” says production manager Byron Shaw, a laconic and goateed Australian. “Afterwards, we step back into the wings.”

 

Preparing for the big day

Two weeks ago, this was a vacant lot. Amaluna’s convoy of 65 trucks and trailers arrived eight days ago to a site that resembled a colour-coded map, thanks to a crew from Montreal that spent five days preparing for the set-up. They laid tarmac where needed and used spray paint to mark the exact centre of the Big Top and where each of the 1,200 stakes that support the tent lines had to be hammered four feet into the ground.

Since then, the tent and its 11 entrance tunnels, with a combined weight over 11,523 pounds, have been up for about a week. It took 80 people in hard hats and safety vests to hoist its eight canvas sections, which are treated to withstand most elements. They braced themselves, two to each standard pole and four to each doorway version, as they pushed and heaved until the poles stood straight as soldiers.

The stage has been built and an ornate glass bowl—a central feature of the show that stands 5.5 feet tall, is 7.2 feet in diameter and weighs nearly 5,500 pounds when filled with water—has been wheeled onto it.

Now, packing crates wait to be carted away. Trailers and trucks are lined up against a wire fence at the back, out of the public’s sight. Freshly installed blue picket fences mark off private areas. A rectangular shaped box has VIP TOILET stenciled on it in bold yellow. In the mess tent—really a trailer equipped with floors that fold out, ovens, stoves and everything else needed to produce up to 250 meals a day six days a week—members of the set-up crew from Montreal chatter in French as they play cards during a coffee break.

 

Spot check

It’s time to ensure that everything is working. The six generators that travel with the show and power everything on the site? Check.

The “grid” from which three acrobatic winches are suspended, allowing the Valkyries to fly more than 50 feet above the audience? Check.

Handicapped access, emergency exits and public toilets? Check, check and check again.

I sit in a darkened Big Top as a fire inspector intently watches Kee perform the fireball act. Michael Knight, the head of props, quietly tells me that in the beginning the balls were filled with polenta or semolina and covered with two layers of Kevlar and glue, which leaked in and got the filling wet.

“Setting them on fire cooked the filling into rock-solid chunks,” he says. “Now we use ashtray sand and cover it with two layers of Kevlar.”

 

Wardrobe

In the wardrobe section of a separate tent, department head Larry Edwards brushes out a blonde wig with hard, fast strokes that betray a childhood spent grooming horses in Australia. The result looks soft and flowing, hair fit for the Moon Goddess, though in reality it’s so stiff it doesn’t move even when the Goddess performs on a hoop high above the audience.

Surrounded by nearly 1,800 costume pieces—including Cali’s lizard tail, which moves with the help of a fishing line—Edwards, 49, is in his element. He confides that having been a primary school teacher helps him greatly here. Then Raphael Cruz wanders in. Dark, slight and wiry, the new understudy for Romeo, he’s working on a role that requires him to climb a bendy pole with his hands, then wrap his legs around the top and plummet, catching himself just before he bashes his head.

“I’m bleeding,” Cruz, says, turning around. The back of his white denim costume jacket is stained with red from a fall. “I don’t know what to do!”

“Stop bleeding,” Edwards replies, deadpan.

Then he has Cruz take off the jacket and promises to see what he can do, stain-wise. “Don’t worry,” he says. “That’s my job.”

Vicktor Kee
To do the impossible, VIcktor Kee, who plays, Cali, practises everyday

 

Warming up

In practice, Iuliia Mykhailova—Amaluna’s Miranda—limbers up, her back arched into a perfect C as she pulls one leg straight up behind her, holds, then lowers it and pulls up the other. Then she crouches down, places her forearms on the floor, slowly raises her body while curving her legs over her head and holds the position, all fluid bones and muscle; the position is similar to one she holds on the lip of the giant bowl before diving in to continue the act under water.

Afterwards, in a bathrobe with her dark hair pulled back and her forearms encased in ice to prevent injury, Mykhailova seems younger than her 29 years. This role is hard, harder than anything she has done since she began training back home in the Ukraine when she was ten. She spent eight months in Montreal developing it through trial and error, long days of learning how to perform in water, blocking out scenes and modulating her voice to speak Miranda’s few lines.

Artists pose for a photograph during the unveiling of Amaluna in Montreal in 2012
Artists pose for a photograph during the unveiling of Amaluna in Montreal in 2012

 

Transformation

It’s an hour and a half before the lights go down for the dress rehearsal. Kee sits in front of a mirror and starts to draw in his brow, the first of 25 steps in a routine that includes applying make-up to the back of his head and his body. In the beginning, it took him two and a half hours to transform himself. Now it takes only 90 minutes—the result, like everything else here, of trial, error and trying again.

This is the circus in all its sweaty, dusty, gritty glory: long hours, offices that can be packed up into one suitcase, emergency drills and practice, practice, practice. The goal is to create something that makes people catch their breath. Something that will spur children to tell their parents: “I want to run away to join the circus.” Something magic.