We are proud to present a live (if several years old) in-depth exclusive interview with those fabulous ladies of the flying trapeze, the Steben Sisters!
In 2003, when we heard that the Steben Sisters would be appearing for a limited time in our local Seattle production of Teatro Zinzanni (www.zinzanni.org), we knew we had to try and see if we could talk to them. So I got in touch with One Reel Productions (www.onereel.org), the non-profit arts organization that produces Zinzanni. Would the Stebens possibly consent to talk with us? I asked.
Of course any Cirque fan worth their clown nose knows of the Steben (STEH-ben) Sisters. Karyne (kah-REEN) and Sarah Steben, identical twins, wowed audiences as the Duo Trapeze act in Saltimbanco. Their feet to feet and ankle to ankle catches were breathtaking (and can be seen in all their glory on the Saltimbanco DVD). They also amassed a mantle full of awards for their innovative act. From that fame they went on to also be featured in “O”. After leaving Cirque they conquered new vistas, such as appearing as the Siamese twins Alexandria (Karyne) and Caladonia (Sarah) on the spooky HBO series, “Carnivale.” They appeared in movies (“When Night Is Falling”), an Aerosmith Video (“Jaded”) and created an act for Madonna’s “Drowned World” tour. Karyne even has two pregnancy fitness videos (available through www.progressiveparent.com).
Since this interview, the Stebens have stopped performing as both now have children. They were last seen teaching a circus arts class (including a workshop especially for women) at Le Studio, a Santa Monica, CA rehearsal space run by fellow Québecois Nathalie Gaulthiér. (http://www.gaulthierartists.com/) Though they say they may some day return to performing they are enjoying their break from the circus life, residing in LA where they live five minutes apart.
It was a sunny spring Friday when my wife and I parked near Uptown Expresso at the corner of Fourth and Wall Streets in Seattle, just two blocks from the Teatro Zinzanni tent and right across the street from condos in which the Stebens were staying. I had my questions, and gift Aplets and Cotlets all at the ready. In a small conference room off to the side of the shop we set up and waited.
It wasn’t long before a man and woman walked in and I knew it was my One Reel contact with one of the Stebens. Though since they’re identical twins I couldn’t be sure which one. As we shook hands I asked not to be told which Steben she was so I could take a stab at telling them apart. Though I was ready and had carefully studied photos of the duo, I didn’t need to. Upon mentioning that her sister had to deal with “the baby” and would be coming by shortly, we knew instantly that this was Sarah. The cat was out of the bag!
Close-up the twins are adorable and virtually identical (though there are ways to tell them apart
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KJ: I found contradictory information about your history on the websites I looked at. Let’s go through it. You were born in 1974 in Montreal, and you started appearing in your fathers’ TV show, Les Satellipopettes, when you were six?
KJ: And you started gymnastics at age seven?
KJ: And then moved to the trapeze at age ten?
KJ: There are lots of errors out there!
SARAH: I know! People publish without checking with us first. And they make so many mistakes. (Laughs)
KJ: In your trapeze act, your foot-to-foot technique takes everyone’s breath away. How did that become about? Has that technique been around a long time?
KARYNE: We were the second couple in the world to do it. The first were two African guys, the Ayek Brothers. Their teacher was our teacher as well. Actually our teacher was doing it too so I guess it comes from him. He says he tried it in practice but never performed it.
SARAH: He was a contortionist, very tall and impressive.
KARYNE: He was from Africa but lives in England and speaks Dutch.
When we met him he didn’t speak French very well and we didn’t speak English. So it was really funny [trying to communicate].
KJ: Who brought you and your teacher together?
SARAH: Andrew Watson. He wasn’t Artistic Director then, he was an Artistic Coordinator for Saltimbanco. And he wanted to take this project [us] under his wing.
KARYNE: So he asked Guy if he could take us and make an act.
SARAH: [Andrew] was a trapeze artist himself. So he contacted Basil (Soultz), who was his teacher back in London and told him, “I have these girls, they’re identical twin sisters, they have long legs, I think we could do something great with them.” And Basil said, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Let’s do a feet-to-feet number.” Basil had seen this technique in a circus performance when he was young and wanted to create an act like it.
KJ: So Cirque was responsible for creating your act? Cirque found you and put you together with your teacher of the feet-to-feet technique?
SARAH: What we said was, “Let’s give it a try.” And working with our teacher we found new positions and ways to do the movements. We also gave names to the movements.
KARYNE: And we invented several new movements. It was a really nice experience. At first when they asked us to try the feet-to-feet catch…
SARAH: …We tried, for a couple of seconds. But we couldn’t hold it!
KARYNE: We hid and cried. We were like, “What are you thinking? It’s impossible!” It’s hard enough to catch each other like this (clasps arms) because we’re the same weight. I remember saying to my sister that night, “I don’t want to do this.”
SARAH: The bruising of the skin was the worst. The skin on the top of the foot is so sensitive and thin that it bruised right away. We broke the veins in our feet so many times, so there was this big bump. And they said, “Keep on doing it.”
SARAH: You know you’ve had a successful move when you can feel the pain. If you don’t feel the pain you know you’re falling. (Laughter)
KARYNE: That was at the beginning.
SARAH: And now we have crocodile skin.
KARYNE: Yes, the skin got thicker. Now we don’t feel anything.
KJ: In 1992, when you were 18, you won a Gold Medal at the Cirque du Demain (Circus of Tomorrow) Festival in Paris. When did you join Cirque?
KARYNE: We had already joined Cirque at that time. We hadn’t signed anything, that was kind of the [audition]. They wanted to see how we performed. Cirque du Demain was our first performance.
SARAH: There was one before that in Russia though. Cirque sent us to Russia to make sure we were good performers.
KARYNE: It was quite an experience for us.
SARAH: They sent us to Latvia, and for us it was another world.
KARYNE: It was our first experience of circus. We were in this show – not a festival, it’s called a gala.
SARAH: It was a little bit hard for us because we had this blue silk costume that was shiny with big diamonds and things.
KARYNE: Cirque offered these costumes to us.
SARAH: When we got there everybody was dressed in khaki or long, yellow, dirty, falling apart kind of costumes. We felt really bad. We didn’t want to perform in our costumes.
KJ: So in only your second public performance you won the gold medal?
KARYNE: Yes. And then Cirque said they would sign us for the next tour. But as soon as we started training with Cirque [way before the Paris Gold Medal performance] we had an idea that we were going to be in the next show. But we knew that they wanted to test us and see how good performers we were. How we endure pain, etc.
SARAH: When they accepted us for training they said, “In one year you’ll be the trapeze artists for the next new show.” And that knocked us out in a way, but in another it gave us so much confidence. Because we had to do it, we had to go for the goal they gave us. It gives you so much responsibility, even at 16. You become more adult. It’s like, “They trust us, let’s prove it.”
SARAH: It was nice that they trusted us, so we took on the challenge.
KJ: That’s a heck of an audition. Talk about pressure!
KARYNE: When we arrived in Paris we were sure we were going to win.
Even though we had no idea, we had confidence.
SARAH: But we didn’t know we were going to win the Gold.
KARYNE: Right, but we knew we were going to win the hearts of the people. Because we were trained to give to the walls. Which was hard because when you train in an empty gymnasium the walls don’t give back. As soon as you get in front of the public it’s like, “Whoa! It’s so much easier.”
KJ: So you had two years to develop the act you performed?
KARYNE: One Year. Six months before going to Russia.
KJ: Let’s go through the rest of your history. In 1991 Cirque said they wanted to work with you. In 1992 you won the Gold Medal and joined Saltimbanco. Did you join during the creation process or after the show was touring?
SARAH: We arrived during the creation process, after everybody was hired. We had a number all ready but we had to learn the show and the dancing, the characterizations.
KARYNE: We were the first act chosen for the new show. I mean chosen and trained already. But we were really excited to meet the rest of the [crew]. Everyone was very welcoming, like family. It’s a funny fact, but we’re re-uniting with Andrea Conway, who was with us at the beginning of Saltimbanco, when we move to Teatro Zinzanni in San
Francisco. We haven’t seen her for 8 years.
KJ: In 1994 you won a Gold Ring Award at the First International Festival of Circus in Geneva, Italy when you were 20. And in 1995 you took a Silver Crown at the Festival de Cirque de Monte Carlo. Were you still with Saltimbanco then?
KJ: You were with Saltimbanco for the North American Tour but didn’t appear in the Japan tour. Then you toured with Saltimbanco again for the European Tour?
SARAH: First we did the North American Tour of Saltimbanco. Then they asked everybody if they wanted to go to Japan. We battled between yes and no, to go or not to go. At that time the biggest concern in our minds was that we were still teenagers that had been with our circus family for so long. We needed to go it alone, get away from our family for awhile. So we didn’t go to Japan. We took classes, we also went and performed in the Tigerpalast cabaret in Frankfurt, Germany. We really wanted to see the world, just the two of us. But in the back of our minds we knew we’d return to Cirque one day. So when they asked us to do the European Tour it was very interesting so we said yes.
KARYNE: A funny fact – You [Sarah] had in mind you were going to be back with Cirque, but I was done. I was done three times with Cirque du Soleil. Three times I thought, “Let’s move on, I’m ready for something else.” And then they would call and tell us their plans. And we’d say, “Oh, that sounds cool,” so we wanted to go back.
KJ: In 1998 you moved from Saltimbanco to “O”. How did you get involved in “O”?
SARAH: During the Saltimbanco European Tour, they talked about taking the show back to Japan and China. There was a big hard tour proposed that nobody really wanted to do. And for our feet-to-feet technique that would be scary to do in Japan because the humidity level is very high. And that’s hard for us, no matter how much rosin you use, it slides. So for half our number we’d have to be really cautious, especially during the swinging part where we had no net. We would have been really nervous. It was too much for me to think I could drop her in Japan. So as we’re talking about this, Gilles Ste-Croix came to us and said, “Girls, how about a water show in Las Vegas?” Of course Las Vegas was not attractive, this was in 1996. But we said, “Let’s do it, let’s go for it.” So at the end of the European tour we went home.
KARYNE: We knew we had a year. Half a year to relax and half a year
SARAH: But in the relaxing time we still trained and prepared for “O”, to build a new number and characters. We did some other things during that time, too.
KJ: So you were brought in twice during the creation process, both for Saltimbanco and “O”. What’s the creation process like?
KARYNE: But fun.
KJ: Have you seen Cirque Du Soleil: Fire Within? (Both nod yes.) It sounds like there are a lot of parallels between your experience and that of the aerial strap Atherton twins. Would you say what you experienced was similar to the process Fire Within documents?
SARAH: That’s exactly how it is. Even worse.
KARYNE: Harder. Mentally hard. You give everything, and keep giving and giving. Then at the end of the day they say they’re scrapping everything and we’ll start fresh tomorrow. Or they change the apparatus. And you know all your effort is wasted, you just want to die.
SARAH: But it’s nice because you learn about yourself. If somebody asked me to go through another creation process I’d jump right in.
KARYNE: But I wouldn’t do it right now because of my child.
SARAH: You put in 12-hour days, even more. It’s a big commitment. But with a director like Franco Dragone you also have to trust and put everything in his hands and he directs you. During that six-month creation process he calls the circus tent a Cathedral and he wants you to be respectful, as if you were in a church.
KARYNE: Because it could be a big mess if no one listens or respects, or if you don’t do what someone asks.
SARAH: I think he’s one of the hardest directors. He’s demanding, but in a good way.
KARYNE: It’s fun, he makes it fun.
KJ: Fans tend to think that Dragone directs the most interesting Cirque productions. They seem to spark the imagination more, are more open to interpretation, compared to later shows like Dralion and Varekai. But, for example, I like Varekai with its storyline.
KARYNE: That gives the story directly to the people. But with Franco, he makes it so you can take whatever you want out of it. It touches everyone differently, everyone sees it differently.
KJ: You were with “O” for two years, then you went away and came back for awhile some time in the Fall of 2002?
KARYNE: That was the other time I never thought I’d be back with Cirque.
SARAH: Karyne had just had her baby. Two months afterward we got a call. We had always told them if they had problems they could call us, and they did. The girls who were replacing us…
KARYNE: …Those girls [The Alimova Sisters] are so sweet. They’re so good, they learned the act in six months. They had never done trapeze before. And they’re close to 30, and both have children. It’s amazing…
SARAH: …They had a hard time because one of them had a shoulder problem. And the replacement wasn’t doing too well, she had had surgery. They had to cover 10 shows a week, which is hard.
KJ: So they called you and asked if you could sub for them?
SARAH: We did four shows a week.
KARYNE: They gave us a week to think about it. But after a day we called back and accepted. So we had a week to train, train, train.
SARAH: Karyne had had her baby, but it was a very fit pregnancy. In fact she has a pregnancy fitness video [available at www.progressiveparent.com.] So she was very much in shape from doing that.
KJ: (To Karyne) When was your daughter born?
KARYNE: August 9th, 2002. Azia Rose. (AH-zee-uh)
KJ: You were with Cirque du Soleil during its formative years, when the company was small and just starting to becoming successful. Fans are very interested, what’s Guy Laliberte like?
KARYNE: He’s passionate, kind of crazy…
SARAH: …Very creative. A very hard worker, a workaholic. He used to be very close to the artists. Back then he would take us out to the beach in San Francisco to fly kites with him.
KARYNE: He was like a big brother…
SARAH: …But the bigger and bigger the company got the less and less people could reach him.
KARYNE: Also he has no time.
KARYNE: He’s omnipresent. But people don’t know him.
SARAH: But we got to know him.
KJ: It’s sounds like he’s an ethereal figure. This person who just appears every once in awhile, like in Fire Within.
SARAH: Yeah. But we were there at the beginning. We went to Monte Carlo with him.
KARYNE: We know his mom and dad, they’re from our town.
SARAH: But you know, Guy started on the streets. He left school…
KARYNE: …He’s open minded. But now I think he’s so big and rich. He’s not the same person, I guess.
KJ: There’s a new book out, an unauthorized autobiography of Cirque du Soleil (“Dans les coulisses du Cirque du Soleil” by Jean Beaunoyer, Quebec Amerique, 2004, ISBN: 2-7644-0242-2 (French)). It talks a lot about the early years.
SARAH: We’d like to write a book about us, our stories.
KARYNE: But we’ll wait until we’re 80.
SARAH: Then we’ll have lots of stories to tell! (Laughter)
KJ: Do you feel Cirque compensates fairly?
KARYNE: You do make a fair amount of money for a young person. Especially if you come from Russia or China. When we started we were 16 and making more money than anybody else we knew. But it doesn’t last forever. There isn’t enough money on the side toward retirement, like sports like hockey have.
SARAH: It’s a production similar to a Broadway show but isn’t compensated like Broadway. Yet it’s a circus. If you compare it to other circuses, like those in Europe, Cirque pays well.
KJ: What I hear from the artists perspective is, Cirque is the top. If you want to work for anybody in the circus world you want to work for Cirque du Soleil. Because of the type of product they produce. Where you’re able to showcase your talent…
SARAH: …And it looks good on your resume, too.
KARYNE: Circus is really nice for athletes because after your career is over there’s not much you can do. To have this kind of opportunity is just amazing for any athlete. Someone who doesn’t even think about what they’re going to do after their competitive career is over. Except maybe teaching or doing something completely different.
KJ: Being independent contractors, how many jobs do you do a year?
SARAH: At least two a month. Sometimes more than that, say 5 a month. For us it’s a big vacation.
KARYNE: It’s like, “Oh, you’re getting fat!” (Laughter)
SARAH: It’s much easier. You can do less for more money.
SARAH: Yes, that’s what’s fun. You have more time to do other things, like research.
KJ: There was an episode of Solstrum that involved twins, fans were wondering why you weren’t there?
SARAH: That was when we were filming the first season of Carnivale.
KARYNE: We were ready to do it, the contract was all done. But then the filming schedule for Carnivale changed and we couldn’t commit.
SARAH: We were sad about that.
KARYNE: We read the script and it looked like fun. And the girl (director) that was doing it was really fun.
KJ: In Teatro Zinzanni, what characters do you play?
SARAH: It’s fun because we play a surprise kind of character. At first we’re just one flower girl.
KARYNE: The flower girl is being invited to celebrate the birthday party of El Vez who’s one of the main characters in the show. He kind of falls in love with the girl and she is kind of innocent. But something happens and we fool the public. I don’t want to let out the secret though. (Smiles)
KJ: The concept of Teatro Zinzanni is very intimate. There’s lots of interplay between the characters and the audience. That’s different from being in a circus ring. How does that work for you?
SARAH: The biggest reason I wanted to do Zinzanni was the intimacy. When we were in Saltimbanco we were on top of the public a lot, swinging. We could see their facial expressions. And that was very intimate in a way with the tent, the sound and everything. When we got to “O” we started to suffer from the “fourth wall.” We weren’t out over the audience and it was a completely different experience. We missed the intimacy so much we thought we’d try something like Zinzanni.
KARYNE: In “O” I kind of felt far away from the people, it was less intimate.
SARAH: That’s one thing we find that’s special – when you’re up there [on the trapeze] whatever relationship you have with your sister everybody sees. In “O” I was with her but I couldn’t tell if everyone was connecting with what was happening. But here at Zinzanni everybody can see what’s happening. It’s good, it’s a nice sharing feeling. We love to share, that’s why we do trapeze. What we’d like everyone to take away from our performance is: Love each other no matter what. Whether you’re brothers, sisters, lovers, or partners…
KARYNE: …Trust. Help. When they’re down pick them up, ’cause next time you’ll be down and they’ll pick you up.
SARAH: Use each other in a good way, that’s the message we like to send. In Zinzanni it’s very nice…
KARYNE: …’Cause we feel like we can give that message.
SARAH: The fact that we touch people. At the end [of our act] we go down and we talk with the audience. That’s a little bit hard, it’s a challenge. Before we do our act it’s okay, we’re playing a character. After the act we try to play [our] character but everybody’s like, “How old are you? Where are you from?” And you’re thinking, “Ahhhh!”
KARYNE: We can’t be mean and cold and not answer their questions.
SARAH: At first we would answer in French but they felt we were being rude.
KJ: What one thing or experience has had the most effect on your career, on your life?
KARYNE: Working together so intensely. For me, anyway. Because if we hadn’t worked together and we each had done different things I think it would have been easier to see what our relationship is. I feel so close to her and so together in mindset. We’re not just sisters, we’re partners. We’re this mix of things.
SARAH: Sometimes you forget you’re two, you start to think you’re one. It’s a whole life experience to try and figure it all out.
KARYNE: We’re trying to be more focused on, “Who Am I? Who Is She?” Our differences. Because we work together it’s really hard [for us] to see. The first time we ever realized that there was someone else besides ourselves was the first week of trapeze we did.
SARAH: Andrew asked us, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of you?” And we didn’t like it. We answered, “We’re the same! We don’t have any differences.”
KARYNE: But Andrew said he saw differences, “You’re more flexible, and you’re stronger.” He saw the differences between the two of us. And it’s true. Since we were born we’ve moved forward holding each others hands, literally. And when we started doing trapeze he made us look at each other and see that there is a different person there. And to work together with the strengths and weaknesses we both have.
KARYNE: And that’s how I think it should be in companies, partnerships, or couples.
SARAH: You’re better at doing dishes, and I’m better at cooking.
KJ: Who inspires you? What inspires you?
SARAH: A lot of things. Music, we’ve always been really inspired by music.
KARYNE: Musicians in general, the way they express themselves with music.
SARAH: We like every kind of music except heavy metal. And country, we like so-so.
KARYNE: We’re inspired by our dad, our mom, our friends. The guy who washes the dishes. Everyone gives us something every day.
SARAH: Something we learned that we really try to live by is this: You can go walking in the mountains and be really amazed by the size and beauty of it. But you have to remember that when you walk in the park or on the street and you see a little flower that that is just as beautiful as the mountain. So if you don’t have inspiration look at the little things and try to find inspiration there. Performing is hopefully something you can also project, for people to get inspiration from and inspire others, too.
SARAH: You always have to be inspired so you can inspire other people. Every day we have to feed [inspire] ourselves with something, you know.
KARYNE: At the circus they give people the chance to take classes. Which is amazing because they pay for it. People can take classes in whatever they want. For me it was cello, for Sarah it was drawing. If you take a class during the day, even if it’s for just an hour you come out of it so excited. You did something new, you learned something new. And when you go and perform you have this new thing to give. Even if you stay home you can also be inspired, like by the radio. So learning something new is always good.
KJ: Is there one attribute you think someone who wants to be involved in circus arts has to have in order to be successful?
SARAH: A dream. Determination. Discipline.
KARYNE: Craziness. (Laughs)
SARAH: I think you need to have a dream. Of course, if I leave the circus world and I want to try something in another direction I’ll have to see if it works. But we had a dream, we had a passion and we went for it 100%. We stopped seeing our friends, we didn’t go out, we didn’t drink. We just worked so hard at it that we got it. And I think if you’re dedicated you can get pretty much what you want.
KARYNE: Also I think in the performing arts you need to have a lot of imagination. Because when you keep on doing something over and over, like in the circus world where you do something over and over, you need to be using your imagination every day, for every show. And feel like you’re a bird, feel like you’re flying or in the water, a fish, whatever.
SARAH: It’s like taking drugs without having any drugs. It’s like having a good trip every day.
KJ: What words of wisdom do you have for young artists? What would you say to encourage them or make them aware of what the challenges are?
KARYNE: When you want it, you can have it. If you really want it you’ll be able to do it.
SARAH: And also, be open.
KARYNE: Be very open to ideas, everything. Another thing I keep on telling myself is, I’m a unique person even if I have a twin sister who looks like me. I am like a diamond, a piece of art, and diamonds are all different. We’re all unique, each of us. So if I just stay myself and be truthful when performing I can project myself out to the audience. And people will be interested in seeing it.
SARAH: So people will see who you are.
KARYNE: Knowing that you’re different than anyone else, that’s really a big help. Even if I am trying something new, playing music or singing for example, I think about that. And I trust that people will be interested in it enough to see me inside it.
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At that point our interview had to stop as they had to get to the tent to prepare for the evenings show. We chatted a bit more about our mutual love of Cirque du Soleil and other topics but were interrupted when adorable baby Azia came toddling up to her mommy. We also got to say a brief hello to Karyne’s husband.
Our sincere thanks for this interview to Karyne and Sarah Steben for being so giving in talking with us, our contact at One Reel for graciously running interference, and my wife LouAnna for patiently putting up with my obsessive hobby.