Cirque du Soleil: ‘The star of the show is the show – always’

Circus company’s new production, ‘Varekai’, shows some of its street-performer origins

It’s three hours before show time for the circus folk and on the stage of the empty AccorHotels Arena in Paris, a bald man in black clothes is suspended from the ceiling by his ankles.

There are as yet no smiles, no music and no fancy lighting. The man stays inverted for what seems like an impossibly long time, then the rigging whirs and he is hoisted again to the high ceiling grid off the stage, while men in headsets, hoodies and harnesses prowl around. It has all the seriousness of a military operation, except he is in clown make-up and there’s a flashing lightbulb on his helmet.

Cirque du Soleil's Varekai show is performing here tonight, before heading to Dublin in February. Varekai means "wherever" in Romany and this is "an acrobatic tribute to the nomadic soul". Twenty-two trucks bring the massive nouveau cirque to each arena, 25 technicians put together an intricate stage held together by magnets, upon which 50 singers, musicians, acrobats, and jugglers will perform. And right now, everyone is practising something they already perfected years ago.

Rags to riches

Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984 by Quebec's Guy Laliberté, a man who, in his youth, had been a runaway, a busker, and a down-and-out sleeping under a bridge before setting off to wander Europe, where he learned how to breathe fire. Inspired by the 1970s contemporary circus movement that took hold in France and the west coast of America (and shunned the use of animals to focus on storytelling and feats of the human body), Laliberté returned to Quebec aged 20 and grouped together 20 street performers to form the beginnings of his troupe. An epiphany on a Hawaiian beach gave him the name Cirque du Soleil.

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After a breakthrough show in LA in 1987, Cirque became profit-making. The company now has 4,000 employees from 50 countries. Some 160 million spectators have seen the shows around the world. In recent years, a portion of the company has been sold to Dubai real estate investors, and Laliberté has gone on to happily play the role of the eccentric billionaire. In 2009, he entered the international space station on a $35 million (€33.2 million) space tourist ticket.

Risky business

Whimsical acts such as this hold a strange place in entertainment, relying on a sort of childlike wonder from the audience. Not having the gravitas of ballet or opera, Cirque often faces criticism for being a corporate Disney-esque endeavour. We know what to expect before the lights come up but you would have to make a conscious effort to remain unmoved. The spectacle involves risking lives – and indeed, Cirque lost one of its performers, Sarah Guillot-Guyard, to an onstage accident during a performance of their show in Las Vegas in 2013.

Back at the Paris rehearsal, a small slender woman in a tracksuit is now practising her routine. Darina Mishina is from St Petersburg, a handstander who has been preparing for this role since she was four years old. She balances her whole weight on one arm, atop a narrow cane, then contorts her upturned body, and turns slowly like a ballerina in a jewellery box.

Backstage, dozens of white masks are, disconcertingly, lined up on shelves. The musicians have started to play Pachabel's Canon to warm up as we admire the handpainted costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka, who won an Oscar for her work on Bram Stoker's Dracula. The creations will transform the performers into tropical creatures – sequins and chiffon in purples and greens. At a make-up stall, a woman in a butterfly headdress dabs paint on her face.

There are bins of chalk and rolls of tape, huge washing machines and tumble dryers, a gym area. In the wardrobe room, costumes are being repaired by hand. Two huge boxes are labelled “Miscellaneous Crap”. Someone runs by in a headset with a big bunch of roses.

In the canteen, people eat in full make-up. The smoothie maker is in full swing and the cakes remain untouched. A little boy who is the son of one of the acrobats moves happily among the tables.

From the office of the artistic director, Bruno Darmagnac, the many languages of the international cast and crew can be heard in the corridors.

As a Frenchman, Darmagnac is delighted to be on home soil tonight. He has had a career that seems to have come about through a series of "why nots?". He worked as a dancer in cabarets and cruise ships before he began working for the first time with acrobats in a circus in Germany.

“I thought we were the same family – dancers, acrobats, entertaining people – but it’s two different worlds. Dancers, how they measure time is through music; acrobats – only some of them hear.”

At Cirque, he says, it is different. But he has worked with acrobats in the past “and some of them were rrrrrough,” he growls. “So it was very interesting to try to bring them to music, and to make what they are doing, which is difficult and dangerous, more touching and impactful.”

He has been with Cirque for six years now. He changes shows every two years.

“All the shows at Cirque are created to go in a big top and a few years later when they’ve exhausted the market of the big tops, they change it to arenas to visit smaller cities.”

A lot of the acrobats he works with here come from professional athletics. “They say ‘let’s get people who are very specialised in sporting acrobatics and we will teach them all the artistry’. When you finish competition, when you reach the age to stop, you’re not finished. [In Cirque] there is a possibility to travel and you still do what you love.”

Darmagnac is forever mindful that acrobatics is a high-risk endeavour. "When something goes wrong they know what to do – they know all the steps . . . but it is true, they are without a [safety belt], without a mat, and if something happens it can be terrible." On Varekai, there is a very low injury rate.

He recalls the incident of the death in Las Vegas. “Everyone was so traumatised by it. Accidents happen but to die doing your job . . . It’s a big corporate company so there is a lot of procedures and standards. We have every two weeks some training rescues . . . what happens before and after the act is as important as what happens on the stage in front of the audience.”

With 10-15 weeks on the road at a time, much is made in the promotional literature of the idea of Cirque’s “family”. “We are much better than a family,” Darmagnac says. “We are group of adults who decide to put their competence together to make this happen, with money. Yes, sorry but that’s important.”

Still, the show retains some of its street-performer origins. The dangling clown I saw when I first arrived: “this guy is from St Petersburg and he comes from the street. He was a street actor.”

Later, the show itself plays out as a reimagining of the Icarus myth with a happier ending, and a love story. The upside-down clown is now in yellow trousers, the handstander now in sequins. I am more captivated than I’d imagined as bodies swim through the air, apparently weightless. Is it wrong to say that part of what makes it so compelling is the fear that something might go wrong?

If a strong narrative thread is vital to your enjoyment, you’re at the wrong show. But here is a stunning aerial ballet inside a net, great feats of balance and strength. The seriousness of the main performance is broken at intervals by a Lucille Ball/Charlie Chaplin-style set.

Just when the show is almost over, the Russian swings come out. Men in red costume propel themselves from one swing and tumble high through the air before landing precariously on the tip of another. It is hypnotic.

Yet it is clear that there is no big star; no one performer reigns. When I ask Darmagnac about this, he says simply, “The star of the show is the show – always.”

Cirque du Soleil is at the 3 Arena, Dublin, February 8th-12th