Cirque du Soleil: The show behind the show

Published 1:40 am Sunday, January 18, 2009

As the houselights fade and the show lights start to come up, audiences begin to get lost immediately in the phenom known as Cirque du Soleil. They watch on the edge of their seats, with bated breathe, the costumes, the music, the lights and the death-defying feats performed by some of the most finely tuned human athletes in the world. But what most do not see is the show behind the show — and just what goes into the making of the magic that is “Saltimbanco,” Cirque’s experimental arena show on tour now in North America.

Today will be the final performance of the Circus in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, before it heads to Hoffman Estates, Ill., and then on to Baton Rouge, La. But it’s the process that goes on behind the scenes, moving this show from arena to arena, that is a true spectacle in and of itself.

“If you don’t feel us, we did a great job,” said Alain Gauthier of Montreal, Canada, who has worked for Cirque on and off since 1990. Gauthier is the Assistant Production Manager whose ultimate responsibility is to make the show work for each new venue.

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He said the technicians don’t get a chance to see the space until they arrive each Sunday night in their new city. Crew members, including lights, sound, carpenters and riggers, move the equipment on 12 trucks, weighing in at 180 tons (56,000 pounds alone will be hung from each new arena ceiling). With careful planning a typical set up of the stage takes anywhere from eight to ten hours, while tear down takes between two and a half to four hours. They will employ approximately 140 locals in each touring city to help with the load ins and load outs.

Working from a set of blueprints of the new destination arena, a plan of attack is already in place to fit the “kit” before the crew even arrives on the scene. The stage set-up is amazingly very simple for something that looks so intricate and complex.

“To build almost everything you see, all you need is a big orange hammer and an allen key,” Gauthier said. It’s basically a “show-in-a-box” where almost everything is finger tight — either tied or pinned together. The “kit” is made for Cirque by a company located in Pennsylvania.

While Cirque employs performers and crew technicians from all over the world, Gauthier said the key to employment with this mega-entertainment corporation is passion.

“All the employees we have are passionate about their work,” he said. “Our problem is not to keep them here, our problem is to have them take a day off.”

Taking that elusive day off, however, would seem almost impossible anyway with such a rigorous schedule. Every Sunday, after the final bows, the circus circles their wagons and relocates. The resident Cirque crew will only get one day off, Monday, before the Tuesday load ins. Alas, Wednesday rolls around again and it’s show time once more.

Artistic Director for “Saltimbanco,” Adam Miller, said that arena show life is tough on everyone, much tougher than Cirque’s big top shows, but the reward is priceless.

“The best thing about the arena tour is that we wouldn’t have been able to come to places like this,” Miller said sitting in the MS Coast Coliseum.

Typically a big top show, which travels with its own 2,600 seat theater, only tours to bigger market cities, such as Las Vegas. “Saltimbanco” toured for more than a decade as a big top show. The arena approach, with a scaled down version of “Saltimbanco,” which has now toured for little more than a year and a half, is able to reach smaller markets and thousands of people who never dreamed they would get to experience an actual Cirque du Soleil show. Miller said he told his artists to remember that, especially when they are tired.

Others that make the performance possible in each new city are the resident wardrobe crew members and physical therapists that have left their lives behind to run away with the circus.

Margarita Choodu of Moscow, Russia, one of the four wardrobe assistants, spoke a little about costume care. “Everything in the show has to be washed everyday,” she said. While some things get washed by hand, such as the more delicate hand painted pieces, others will go into a machine on the delicate cycle. The shoes for the Chinese Poles ensemble troupe must be repainted everyday. The costume department will employ two locals in each tour city to help with everyday upkeep such as steaming, ironing and small repairs.

Cirque shows, arena and big top alike, will always travel with physical therapists for their artists. Vanessa Gurie of South Africa, is currently on tour with “Saltimbanco.” Her main responsibility is preventative medicine – warding off potential injuries for the performers.

“You have to remember we have artists that are very elite, they come from very elite backgrounds,” she said, adding that some of them were even Olympic athletes. “This stuff is almost easy for them.”

Gurie will make sure that each performer follows a physical regimen designed specifically for their role in the show. The core basis of the fitness routines are based in Pilates principles. The artists will also go to Gurie and her coworkers in the rare event an injury does happen.

The performers themselves are responsible for their make-up. Each are given a book with step-by-step instructions on how to apply it for their character. The whole process takes approximately an hour and a half. Specifically for that reason, Cirque employs a caterer to travel with the group. Artists will eat on site on show days.

After today, “Saltimbanco” will pack up their 180 tons of equipment and head for their next destination city… and the show behind the show will begin again, assuring that the next audience will receive the same high quality performance that Mississippi audiences enjoyed throughout this week.

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