In the heart of the heart of the circus
Behind the scenes at Cirque du Soleil International Headquarters
by Roberto Friedman
Last summer Out There was among a small group of journalists invited to tour the Cirque du Soleil International Headquarters in Montreal, Quebec, the hub of artistic, administrative and media efforts for Cirque productions worldwide. We were given a crash course in all things Cirque and the chance to see the Montreal production of their new show Totem, written and directed by Robert Lepage, coming to San Francisco for a run under the Grand Chapiteau set up at AT&T Park, beginning on Fri., Oct. 28.
During three days in Montreal, we had access to training studios, workshops, and behind-the-scenes operations on a campus that includes living quarters and a circus school, built in 1997 on land transformed from a city dumping ground. All around us, circus artists, athletes and their coaches bustled about, some with translators working between them. It was something like sitting in at the United Nations, except everybody was young, fit, and very into what they were doing.
Along with a TV crew and some new media, Out There was able to chat with Cirque employees from all facets of production, from Totem artistic director Melanie Lalande to make-up artist Eve Monnier, who told us that Cirque's official makeup supplier, like that of so many drag queens, is MAC. We toured the sprawling Cirque offices, which include a library full of art books and an atelier de fabrication chaussures containing 3,000 prototypes for performance and clown shoes, such as a pair of toe shoes on heels. Studios for chapeaux, masks, and wigs were hives of activity. Cirque counts close to 400 employees in the costume department alone, and thousands of costume items per show, all of them custom-made.
In a large, gymnasium-like training studio, we met Marceline Goldstein, an acrobatic talent scout in the casting department. She travels to circus and sports auditions around the world to find athletes and acrobats who fit character roles in their shows – at last count, 23 separate productions – drawing from over 40 nationalities. Mongolia is apparently a hotbed of contortionists, while South Korea produces great martial artists. Brazil is known as fertile training ground for talent, with its great performative culture. Goldstein looks for control, passion and character in potential artists, as well as the ability to expose emotions on stage, and work as a team. She says Cirque candidates need to have the "spirit of circus" in them.
In the HQ cafeteria we talked with Yves Sheriff , an artistic talent scout in the casting department who specializes in finding the clowns for Cirque shows. He emphasized that clown performances are physically demanding, and "among all of the artists, clowns are maniacs of precision." Sheriff has a life background in street theater, but has also studied visual art and philosophy. "I studied laughing – it goes very deep into symbols of civilization. Why do we laugh, and how does it work?"
Clowns take inhibitions and make them exhibitions, Sheriff said. "It's a very particular way to see life." We discussed Italian traditions of comic mime, some of which Out There saw in play at the Montreal production of Totem that night. Sheriff told us that when his daughter was asked at school what her father does for a living, she replied, "He's looking for clowns all the time!"
Back in the training studio that afternoon, reporters and our handlers were overstimulated as we watched hard-bodied athletes practice their arts on the tightrope, the Russian bar, and the trampoline. When a publicist returned to the scene after a short break, many of the athletes, having whipped off their shirts, were glistening in sweat from their physical exertions. San Francisco publicist: "I go away for five minutes, and look what happens!"
Aaron Charbonneau, a 23-year-old athlete/artist in specific training for Corteo, has known he's wanted to work with Cirque du Soleil since he saw his first Cirque show, Quidam, when he was 12. Patiently he explained the routines we'd watched him rehearse on the Korean plank and the high bar. He showed us his bespoke burgundy vest, cut in Renaissance Italian style, apropos for the Corteo mileau.
Then we chatted with Shandien LaRance , a Native American hoop dancer in training who was first taught the Hopi dances by her brother when she was four. Later we got to see brother Nakotah Raymond LaRance perform the ritualistic hoop dance in Totem, confirming that talent and technique do run in the family.
Acrobatic coach Emanuel Jacquinot , a gymnast with the French national team for eight years, took a short break from coaching to meet us. His job is to train the athletes, taking what they know in skills and transforming them into circus performers. "We take their acrobatic skills, combine them with dance, acting, and movement, and use them on an apparatus."
The next day backstage (back-tent?) at Totem under the Grand Chapiteau, set up on the Quays of the Old Port of Montreal, we met more of the artistic team beginning with Totem artistic director Melanie Lalande. Originally a dancer-choreographer from Virginia, Lalande told us that the experience of putting on the show in the circus' hometown is deepened by the fact that Montreal audiences are Cirque connoisseurs. She called Totem a story of human evolution, and said the native-peoples factor in the piece is a way of giving reverence to their earth-based beliefs. "After all, the planet is not necessarily infinite."
The backstage area of the Cirque tents is an assortment of multipurpose spaces where performers warm up, cool down, put on makeup, kibitz. Totem head of props Jean-Sebastien Gagnon showed us his wares and video footage of the more elaborate pieces, such as a transparent, juggler-sized cone. It's entirely custom-made, designed to be dismantled and shipped to road shows.
"Just let me put on a shirt." Coming off a stretch and workout was Totem star Joe Putignano, contortionist, gymnast, aerialist and "crystal man" – so-called because of the bodysuit of mirrors, like a disco ball, he wears in performance. We watched a video of Putignano lowered from the rafters of the Big Top, sparkling in his suit of mirrors, performing incredible maneuvers while dangling from wires. Did we know his back story? he asked. Not that long ago, he was a desperate addict, strung out and living the low life in a NYC shelter. The story of Putignano's recovery and rebirth as a Cirque performer, currently in production as a documentary film, can be seen in clips on YouTube.
Our sojourn in Montreal reached its exciting climax when we attended a Totem performance under the Grand Chapiteau. We saw Putignano descend from the heavens to perform aerial poetry, and we marveled at all the feats of derring-do that followed. Adventure, expertise, dazzling athleticism and artistry, all coming soon to a Big Top near you.
Tickets are available online at cirquedusoleil.com/totem or by phone: 1 (800) 450-1480.