Stepping Into the Light

“Stepping Into the Light”
By: Wayne Leung – Ottawa, Ontario (Canada)

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After reading Keith’s account of being picked from the audience at La Nouba to participate in the bike jump stunt (in last month’s issue of Fascination!) I felt compelled to write about a couple of my own experiences “up close and personal” with Cirque du Soleil.

Cirque director Franco Dragone once wrote a speech for Alegría the Film, one that was probably based on a speech he himself had given to cast members, “We do the show for the people in the dark, they need us. You know, life is very tough. Life is very hard, it’s very cruel. When you step over that line into the light you have a certain responsibility to the people in the dark. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to take all your pain and bury it inside your costume. For twenty-two hours you can be just like them . . but for two hours every night, you’re not allowed to let life in.”

The purpose behind Dragone’s speech is to motivate the cast members to create a magical universe for the show, an alternate reality that will allow the audience to escape from the woes of everyday life. But what if it were possible for a regular audience member, one of the “people in the dark,” to step over that line from the dark into the light and enter Cirque’s magical universe, if only for a few fleeting moments? Indeed, a few lucky individuals have the opportunity to do just that.

For me, it all began a little over a year ago; I was in Las Vegas on assignment for Fascination!, covering the premiere of Zumanity. Immediately after the show I ran into the college-aged girl who was selected to go up on stage to participate in the group orgy scene. She was still on cloud nine after the show. She was aflutter, busily calling all of her friends and excitedly telling them about her romp in Zumanity’s “Garden of Delights.” I remember thinking she was so lucky, that it must have been such an amazing experience to participate in a Cirque du Soleil show.

The night after the premiere my friend Matt and I attended a performance of Mystère at the Treasure Island Resort. As the show began Bébé Francois, a giant, diapered baby character emerged and began bouncing a massive red ball. Eventually, he faced us and bounced the ball in our direction. The big red ball landed square in Matt’s lap. Matt caught it and looked at me with a confused “what do I do?” look. “Throw the ball back to him” I instructed, knowing full-well what the consequences would be. Matt, a shy guy who’s wary of the spotlight, nervously got up, rolled the ball back to Bébé Francois and quickly sat down to avoid further audience scrutiny. Bébé Francois caught the red ball but rolled it right back to Matt. It landed in the little gutter between the stage and the protective railing, again right in front of my friend. The baby gazed forlornly at Matt who was then reluctantly coaxed to get up and return the big red ball a second time. I watched excitedly as Bébé approached and, with arms reaching out to Matt uttered the word, “Papa!” The audience laughed, spotlights trained on Matt and the baby. Matt stood frozen in the spotlight with a mortified look of terror on his face. This was an absolute riot for me and I was laughing hysterically. Bébé Francois reached for his new-found “Papa”, and eventually Matt reached back only to have Bébé squirt him with water. The baby retreated and Matt sat back down, wet and red-faced from embarrassment. I was still laughing as the show began. Matt was breathing heavily, relieved that his reluctant 15-minutes of fame were finally over.

Little did he know that Bébé Francois would be back during the transitional sequence after the Bungee act when Bébé emerged driving a golf cart through the thoroughfare between the lower and upper-tier seats. He stopped at the top of our section and I saw Matt nervously diverting his gaze. The audience was already laughing it up. The baby cried “Papa!” and waved at Matt to come up and join him in the golf cart. “Come on, go up there!” I commanded. He got up, climbed the stairs and got into the cart only to be sped away out of the auditorium into the backstage area. The audience applauded; the archangel characters emerged on stage and began setting up for the Fast-Track/Trampoline and Korean Plank number. As they were about to begin the act the golf cart rolled onto the stage with Bébé Francois and Matt, now also dressed like a baby! The audience was eating it up; they laughed and applauded as the car drove off stage. Moments later the cart re-emerged, only now it had apparently broken down and poor Matt was left to push the golf cart across the stage while Bébé
Francois laughed intently.

A little later, while the act was in full-swing, Matt was discretely ushered back to his seat. He was giddy with delight and we quietly commented on how awesome the experience was. The usher returned a few moments later with a souvenir photo of Matt on board the cart with Bébé.

After the show Matt excitedly described his backstage adventure. He briefly chatted with Francois Dupuis (Bébé) before being instructed by a stage hand for his quick costume change. He said it was strange to see cast members lounging backstage out of character, that it was very surreal. He described the exhilaration of being on stage in the spotlight surrounded by performers. He was so excited that he called his friends and family back home to tell them that he had just “starred” in a Cirque du Soleil show.

Later that night, we stopped at a bar called Tabu at the MGM Grand while we were club-hopping around town. Some complete strangers waved at us and started saying “Papa! It’s Papa.” It seemed that Matt’s encounter with the Cirque had turned him into a celebrity. I was immensely jealous.

Almost exactly a year later the two of us were watching Alegría in Toronto. I had the good fortune of securing seats front and center. The show experience is very intense from that perspective. We were able to observe every detail in the costumes and make-up, the performances were so close that we felt a part of them. I remember feeling the wind created by the trapeze artists as they flew directly above my head, feeling the heat of the fire knives as the artist lit them right in front of me, and feeling the full fury of the snowstorm. Alegría, being a touring show, has a much more intimate stage set-up than Mystère, and sitting in the front row actually puts you within arms reach of the performers at times. Being up close allows for more interaction with the characters on stage; the Old Birds nod at you, Fleur will give you a scowl, the Nymphs smile and wink at you. The experience draws you into the performance that much more.

For some mysterious reason, my friend and I have some unexplained magnetism that attracts big red balls at Cirque du Soleil shows. During one of the clown numbers in the first act, one clown (Vladimir Olshansky) was trying to keep a big red ball away from the other clown (Bouchon). Vladimir kicked the ball into the crowd and audience members volleyed it about until I inadvertently punted the ball back on stage. Vladimir approached me with mock annoyance and I looked back with a guilty smile. My smile failed to appease the clown, who then proceeded to come down the stairs, grab me by the collarbone and mock-strangled me. I played along by miming exaggerated gagging motions and flailed my head back and forth to the laughter of the audience. I had a good laugh and was content that I finally had an opportunity to interact with a character during a Cirque du Soleil show. Little did I know that my encounter with the clown was not to be my only character interaction of the evening.

Upon returning from intermission the house lights dimmed, the Old Bird characters grabbed the lanterns and paraded around the scene, and the White Singer (Joan Bluteau) waded into the crowd while singing her song and flirting with the men in the audience. She made her way down the aisle toward me and stopped to flirt with the guy across from me. “Oh surely, he’s the one she’ll pick,” I thought. But then she turned around, gazed down at me and extended her hand. My heart jumped, it was racing a mile a minute. I took her hand and rose from my seat. The Angel characters stood in a circle around centre-stage and Joan lead me through the opening they formed while still singing.

I could hear her un-amplified voice as we made our way to the middle of the ring of Angels. Actually being on the Alegría stage surrounded by the characters was such a surreal experience, standing in the bright spotlights it felt as if I had stepped into a movie. I clasped Joan’s outstretched hand and put my arm around her waist, she put her arm on my shoulder and we began to dance. I’ll never forget the image of gazing into her smiling face as we spun around in a circle while listening to the sounds of the music and the crowd applauding in the background. It was a sublime and magical moment.

Before I knew it I heard M. Fleur behind me muttering the command for the Strong Man to take me away. All of the sudden I felt this strong arm reach around my waist and pull me up and away from the singer. The audience roared with laughter and I displayed a look of surprised incredulity on my face. The Strong Man proceeded to carry me around the stage and shook me like a rag doll. He spun me around for one last look at the singer who was still singing to me. I played along reaching back towards her, which elicited laughter and applause from the crowd. I hadn’t been picked up and carried like that since I was a small child, and the experience was very disorienting. I had no idea where I was relative to the scene, the spotlights so bright that the audience was enveloped in a large swath of black. Eventually the Strong Man plopped me down at the edge of the stage and I reclaimed my seat. I was on a high for the rest of the night. I had a huge grin on my face for the remainder of the show, which grew larger when Joan smiled and winked at me while singing Alegría during the show’s finale.

As a spectator, being given the opportunity to step from the dark into the light of Cirque du Soleil’s stage is an exhilarating experience. I hold a special place in my heart for Alegría and my magical encounters with the characters of that show.