Cirque du Soleil: Could you be a performer?

I think it’s safe to say I’ll never be a circus performer. I got to watch Cirque du Soleil performers practice their acts this week, and over and over again my mouth just hung open in amazement. How on earth do they do those flips or catch someone flying in mid-air while standing on the shoulders of a performer who’s standing on the shoulders of another performer? The stamina, the strength, the courage it must take.

Practice, practice

Cirque du Soleil is in Portland, Maine for the very first time. I was delighted to have the opportunity to watch a rehearsal, take a peak backstage, and do some interviews.

Did you know?
Performer’s shoes are freshly painted before every show.

So, what does it take to be worthy of wearing these brightly colored shoes? Nicola Willis performs in three acts — Chinese Poles, Russian Swing, and Bungees. As do most of the performers, she comes from a gymnastics background. She says her strongest physical asset is that she’s a powerful tumbler. In the picture below, she’s practicing on the Russian Swing. She’s wearing the yellow tank top. When it’s her turn, Nicola will leap from the swing and be catapulted nearly 40 feet into the air.

She started training to be a gymnast as a child. At the age of 16 she moved to a national training center where she lived until she was 19. She was in the 2004 Olympics and competed in world and national championships. She received a gymnastics scholarship to the University of Florida, where she graduated with a degree in health and behavioral science. Because she knew she wasn’t ready to settle down, Nicola sent a video and her resume to Cirque du Soleil. Soon after, off she went to Cirque headquarters in Montreal to learn how to be a performer.

“You learn acting and dance and all the things you don’t really have in gymnastics,” she explained to me. “The hardest part is learning, but it becomes easier. You just train, and we do a lot of shows. The more you do it the easier it becomes.”

Neelanthi Vadivel is the artistic director for Saltimbanco, the Cirque du Soleil show that is performing in Portland. She says different acts require different skills, but all of the performers have to be high level athletes and very adept at what they do. And none of them can be afraid of heights.

Neelanthi with performers

The Russian Swing is considered the most dangerous act in the show. If you’re one of the flyers, like Nicola, you need to be light and have good “twitch muscles,” says Neelanthi. “Twitch means you have very quick reflexes and are able to do nice, fast, explosive movements.”

Courtesy Cirque du Soleil

The person at the other end of the swing needs to be heavier and have extremely strong legs and very good coordination in order to launch the flyer. And the person at the bottom of the stack of the performers who catch flyers — called a porter — must be extremely strong and able to sustain a heavy impact on his shoulders. “Portering is a very specific technique,” Neelanthi explains. “They often come from a more traditional circus background, maybe a circus or acrobatics school.”

If I could be in the circus, I’d want to be a trapeze artist. Unfortunately, I’d need really, really fast reflexes to catch the trapeze and I’d have to be extremely strong. There’s also that issue about fear of heights.

Courtesy Cirque du Soleil

Bungees is Nicola’s favorite act. She and three other performers are tied to the bungees swing, then they drop and “fly in the air in ways that defy gravity.” Neelanthi says Bungees requires “upper body strength and endurance because the performers are constantly pulling on the heavy bungees to propel themselves through the air. It also requires nice body tones and lines to hold the positions and have the visual impact.”

Courtesy Cirque du Soleil

One act that doesn’t require twitch muscles is Hand-to-Hand. The two performers are gymnasts, but they don’t need to make any quick movements. They simply need to have extreme strength in order to hold each other out at arms length, “defying gravity, basically,” says Neelanthi.

Courtesy Cirque du Soleil

Did I use the word simply? There is nothing simple about what any of these performers do. Fitness at its extreme. If you think you could do it, don’t waste a moment. Follow Nicola’s lead and send off your video and resume. And if not, follow mine. The circus is in town. Go see the show!