Twenty five years ago, a French-Canadian named Guy Laliberté bravely brought his visionary mix of circus acts and street entertainment to life for the very first time. Cirque du Soleil came into being in Quebec, and, with government funding, encompassed just 66 employees. Today, the company has 18 different productions, thousands of staff and spans nine countries – including, from March 5 for the second time, the UAE.
And Guy? He’s counted on Forbes billionaires’ list as well as Time magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people – yet he still found time to pick out Alegría, one of his most cherished and longest-running Cirque du Soleil productions, to visit Dubai. In short, both Guy and Cirque du Soleil have become true phenomena of modern-day art and entertainment.
But what is it about the circus that manages to bewitch millions of adults and children alike every year? And should it even be called a circus? Isn’t it something more than the images of clowns and trained elephants that the word conjures up?
‘For me, it falls under the umbrella of entertainment, or a spectacle,’ explains Brooke Webb, artistic director of Alegría and therefore boss of both the show’s creative integrity and its day-to-day operations. ‘By its nature, it’s alive. It’s the ultimate life experience, because we’re playing with people’s lives here on stage.’
Anyone who hasn’t enjoyed a Cirque show may think this is an exaggeration. But those who’ve marvelled at their death-defying feats and physical routines will know what she says is true. ‘Every day our team of physios deal with injured artists,’ she reveals. ‘After a while you forget how raw, how dangerous the show is – but it is.’
Before becoming part of the Cirque ‘family’, Australia-born Brooke worked on theatrical productions including The Producers, Grease and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Surely a circus must have been a shock to the system – and the CV?
‘It really was,’ she admits. ‘Theatre by nature is very structured and circus is the exact opposite. But what makes Cirque du Soleil wonderful is that it combines theatre as well.’ The biggest challenge for Brooke was transforming what are essentially athletes into artists for the stage. ‘Our performers often come from Olympic games or sports in which they have to zone out and forget the audience. We’re asking them to do the complete opposite. So we have to teach them a lot of stagecraft and theatrical tricks.’
Come on, spill it – have they ever had to abandon a sequence because it was just beyond human possibility? ‘Not with my show, not with Alegría,’ Brooke responds. ‘In the main office in Montreal they have a development department where they work with a stuntman to see what the body is capable of doing. My show’s already made, although a lot of the artists want to push themselves to that next level, so they’re always trying to incorporate new things.’ And, according to Brooke, each and every performance is different. ‘It might be a subtle difference, of artists changing roles as we do rotations to keep things fresh. Obviously, if there’s an artist that is injured we have a back-up who performs instead.’
A back-up? Does every performer have such a ‘double’ in the wings then? ‘Not every performer,’ she says. ‘We have the invited, or main, acts. Then we have an ensemble, and they’re the workhorses who take on a lot of additional cues. So if one of the invited acts is out then we have their back-up go on.’ And will the show be adapted at all for Dubai? ‘The early shows are always an opportunity for me to hear the audience respond to what is in the show,’ she explains. ‘I know the timing and pace and rhythm of it, so we’ll make a couple of changes to accommodate the audience. Obviously each audience is very different and we want to make sure that they’re always entertained.’
Anyone who was lucky enough to take in Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam when it visited Dubai in 2006 will remember that the plot – the product of a young girl in her own dream world – was hard to follow. This time around we want advance notes.
‘I wouldn’t say there’s a story as such in Alegría,’ Brooke clarifies. ‘Instead there’s a very strong concept about opposites. We have the old school, the old generation. Then we also have the new, the youthful, and the born again coming through.’ Created 15 years ago, Alegría was born into a time when the internet was radical and people – rightfully – thought it would soon run the world. The show expresses how the old establishment gradually embraced the web. But also – ‘it’s a fairytale world, like Alice In Wonderland,’ Brooke adds. ‘With each new act the concept grows.’
And with each act the costumes whirl past in flashes of colour and glitter and sparkle. The wardrobe is another important part of the whole experience.
‘Everything is handmade and tailored for the artists,’ Brooke reveals. ‘Each outfit takes around three to four months to create, so when we’re ordering new ones we have to be really organised.’
And we mustn’t forget what Brooke calls one of the show’s strongest parts – the Grammy-award nominated soundtrack.
‘I would describe it as worldly,’ she says, when pressed. ‘Worldly music, with a lot of rhythm. It’s got this heartbeat that you want to listen to – that you can’t help but follow.’
In fact, Brooke talks about a ‘life force’ that she believes defines Cirque du Soleil’s power, especially in Alegría – which is Spanish for ‘jubiliation’. It’s this joy of life that runs through the performers and the audience.
‘If I watch a performance after a bad day, I always walk out feeling like I’ve escaped,’ she says. ‘I have that little skip back in my step. It restores me.’ Perhaps, it’s in this restorative power, to make us enjoy life a little more, that Cirque du Soleil’s wonder really lies.
How much do you have to train?
I’ve always been training. I started at nine years old and would practise every day for eight hours. Now it’s usually one or two hours a day, depending on how many shows we are doing.
Do all of the acts do the same training?
No, we all do specific training. I do a lot of physical work but not with weights, just with push ups and obviously many, many handstands. I don’t do that much cardio.
Do you have a special diet?
Not really, I eat whatever I want. Because I use so many calories working out, I don’t really think about my diet.
Is there anything you don’t eat?
Of course I don’t eat McDonald’s and stuff like that. We normally have an in-house kitchen and they feed us really well. We have chicken, potatoes, fruit, whatever is available.
What is your act exactly?
I do hand balancing, balancing on hands, on the one hand and two hands and make different shapes with my body. I show the strength of the human body, I guess.
Do you get nervous before performing?
You’d think, doing so many shows, we’d get used to it, but we still have to concentrate. I think every artist still gets a little nervous.
Have you had many injuries?
No, not many. Just little ones. We have physios with us and they take care of us. If there is a small injury they try to help us as soon as possible so it doesn’t get worse.
If you get injured during a performance do you carry on?
If I feel that I can still continue my act, then, yes, I will finish my act. But if I feel something really bad has happened, of course I stop. On stage you often don’t feel pain, then after you come off you’re like, ‘Ow! That hurt!’
What do you do before a show?
I do a lot of stretching to warm up the body. I need to warm up every single muscle in my body. My muscles remember my act, but I have to refresh them too.
Do you have any lucky rituals before acts?
We usually shake hands and wish each other a good show. Some people do special things, like dance, scream or sing a song.
What do you do on your day off?
Sometimes we play soccer together. We’re allowed to play, but we still have to be very, very careful.
An De Win
Tell us about your role in the performance.
I do powertrack [acrobatics on trampolines] and I do some cues. Cues are characters that are in the background during an act to help guide you through the show. I am a nymph, an old bird and an angel.
How do you keep fit for the show?
Training depends on how many shows we have. If there are 10 shows a week, we don’t have much time or energy to do much more. If it’s eight shows we work out more. We might have two or three powertrack trainings per week. It’s not much compared to competition sport, but doing shows is pretty intense. We have to keep ourselves as healthy as possible, so we do cardio training as well.
What’s the most memorable show you’ve put on so far and why?
The show after a friend of mine, another performer, died. I dedicated the show to him. Having other things on your mind doesn’t work well, but that show I felt very connected to him and still in character.
Has anything ever gone completely wrong?
Just once, during a jump. I got a wrong bounce from someone that jumped too close to me, so I lost all control. I fell on my back. It was embarrassing, but also a lot of fun when everybody made fun of me afterwards. A lot of small things go wrong, but the trick is being able to hide them from the public. We’re just humans too.
March 5-April 5, Ibn Battuta, Dhs240-Dhs1,000 adults. See www.cirquedusoleil.ae