Until Cirque du Soleil, I was just a normal kid at contortion school,’ I’m told in breezy tones by 15-year-old Mergen Ulziibuyan. This is possibly the most surreal conversation I’ve ever had – made even more so by the fact that she’s right: she may be chatting down a phone line from her dressing room in Taiwan, preparing to pop her feet over her shoulders for an audience of thousands, but, other than that, Mergen does sound kind of normal.
The same goes for Oyen-Erdene Senge (also aged 15), the other half of this teenage double-act, who speaks to me shortly afterwards. ‘Mergen and I are almost like sisters now,’ she says. It’s not surprising: prior to joining Cirque du Soleil, with which they’ve been touring for four-and-a-half years, the best friends studied together for four years at a contortion school in Mongolia. That’s a lot of shared, and literally twisted, history.
Joining the circus is a dream most kids harbour at some stage. The majority get as far as trying (unsuccessfully) to juggle three satsumas before giving up and returning to their pilot/ballerina/pop star ambitions, but there are always exceptions to the rule, and this usually has something to do with mum and dad. ‘My parents didn’t have any connections with the circus, but my mum wanted me to be a contortionist,’ Mergen says. ‘When I was little, she noticed that I was kind of flexible so she tried bending me forwards and backwards and she was like, “Wow!” So at the age of seven, I enrolled in conditioning school.’ This might sound a little odd, but contortion is big business in Mongolia – which may explain why Oyen-Erdene’s mother also encouraged her to develop her flexibility and make a career out of it.
When the girls were 11 years old, representatives from Cirque du Soleil visited their school in search of two contortionists to join Alegría, one of the most flamboyant shows in the world-renowned musical circus’s repertoire. Mergen and Oyen-Erdene were the lucky two, and so they packed up their bags, leaving their family and friends, and went away to join the circus.
I ask Mergen if she misses her parents. ‘No!’ she scoffs – evidently, they’re having far too much fun to be bothered by boring things like homesickness – and of course mobile phones and the internet make keeping in touch easy. ‘I have a guardian – a woman who looks after me,’ she adds, probably sensing my silent, slightly neurotic, concern for her welfare.
Oyen-Erdene explains that part of the 20,000sq m ‘village on wheels’, which travels with the troupe wherever they go, is a school that currently has 10 pupils – seven performers and three artists’ children. She says, ‘We go there in the afternoon. If we have one show, we spend more time at school, if we have two, we do fewer lessons that day. But it’s like a normal school – we’re in ninth grade and we do a Canadian programme.’
Still in my ‘worried parent’ frame of mind, I ask whether the girls get scared when doing the more daring manoeuvres: ‘Well it’s kind of dangerous if we don’t do it right, but I don’t usually feel nervous,’ Oyen-Erdene replies matter-of-factly. Remind me to buy my daughter a karaoke machine when she starts dreaming of a future in contortion...
Interestingly, when I ask the girls separately what the best thing about being in Cirque du Soleil is, they don’t start raving about the costumes, the makeup or even the sheer thrill of performing: it’s the travel that they love. ‘I really like London; it’s clean and everybody speaks English so I don’t have to worry about the language barrier,’ says Mergen. Oyen-Erdene, meanwhile, preferred Brazil for its ‘nature, trees and mountains’ – and both agree that tasting so many cultures is an incredible buzz, and one they would be unlikely to have experienced were it not for their jobs.
As well as Mergen and Oyen-Erdene’s act, Alegría comprises 55 acrobats, singers and clowns modelling some of the most extravagant costumes ever made, and this version of the show, which has been running for 15 years, is said to be darker and more surreal than previous incarnations. Dubai is its final resting place – the show ends for good on April 15 – and Oyen-Erdene says she has no idea what they’ll do next. But whatever happens, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of these two superstars – or their logic-defying rubber limbs.
Alegría is showing at Ibn Battuta Mall’s Big Chapiteau from March 5-April 5. Tickets start from Dhs100. Buy four or more tickets for a Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday performance and get a 20 per cent discount.
Roll up, roll up...
...for some weird and wonderful Alegría facts
• Two of the artists in the current production have been part of the cast since the very beginning, 15 years ago – that means they’ve performed in a whopping 54,000 shows. Bet they’re tired
• The cast’s ages range from 13 to an impressive 67
• Over 10,000kg of ‘snow’ has been used in the ‘storm’ act
• The artists’ costumes have been made from 500 balls of knitting yarn, over a kilometre of braid, 1.4km of lace, 10kg of glitter and 2.3km of silk. In addition, the two singers’ costumes alone use 1,000 buttons and jewels. And we thought it was bad making fairy outfits for our little ones
Get tickets at www.cirquedusoleil.ae or by calling 800 247 78