We’re Off and Running, Part 11:
Quidam, Part 2 (1997-1998)

A few months ago, as I was flipping through a few classic Cirque du Soleil programme books (as is my wont), I was happily caught off-guard by a brief history of the company that it had written about itself in Saltimbanco’s original European Tour programme, published sometime in 1996. Not because the historia was in English, French, and Spanish, but rather I found the wording a bit more colorful… haughty… than what you’d find from the company today. Something about its whimsical and heady nature spoke to the way Cirque du Soleil saw itself then, containing a youthful verve and arrogance that is simply no longer present. When did Cirque lose this dynamic sense of self, this liveliness, and vivacity about its past, present, and future? Unfortunately, not long after. Thereafter the speak becomes less joie de vivre and more lié aux affaires, and Cirque du Soleil turns from a rag-tag band of street performers into a bona fide corporate entity right before our very eyes. This is not a new revelation – far from it in fact – but this re-discovery struck a chord of curiosity within…

How did others see Cirque du Soleil during this period?

Think about it: as Cirque’s multitude of shows travel around the globe in either arenas or under the big top, at each stop, in each city, there is a write-up in the local press. Sometimes the coverage is just a brief blurb about the show and its theme, occasionally there’s a short interview with a performer, a stage hand, or creation director, and other times it’s an assessment of the show itself, evaluating its technical and acrobatic merits with what had come through before. But the reviews we see today are too current, discussing these shows through a contemporary lens; shows that have/had 15 to 20 years touring the globe, shows we would refer to as “classic” or “signature”. What I’d become interested in knowing was what some of the first reviews, peeks, and evaluations of these shows were as they took their first steps across North America. How did the press see Le Cirque du Soleil in 1998, 1994, 1990, 1987?

It was time to peck through the archives.

What I found was extraordinary, and more than I expected. And I’m sharing these discoveries here in Fascination through a series of collections, beginning with the 1987 tournée of Le Cirque du Soleil (better known today as Le Cirque Réinventé), and continuing on from there. This month we continue on with 1997’s reviews of Quidam.

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By: Christine Ehren | Playbill
March 25, 1998

Is it theatre with circus or circus with theatre? Is it dance or is it a musical? No, I don’t ever want to put [Quidam] in a box…I think it’s funny to say that you can’t,” Cirque Du Soleil’s artistic director Andrew Watson explained, attempting to categorize his group’s new piece Quidam.

For this show, as for most Cirque shows, there is a governing theme. The meaning here lies buried in the Latin word “quidam”. A quidam, according to the show program, is “a nameless passer-by, a solitary figure lingering on a street corner, a person rushing past.”

According to Watson, Quidam grew out of what was going on around the world. “What started us this time was the loss of individuality, the anonymity of people. There was Rwanda, Bosnia; there were all these awful things happening…We’d hear about 100,000 refugees–this just becomes a figure to us…100,000 people is made up of 100,000 individuals all with their own past, future, and present, all different from everybody else,” he said.

Other influences included the Belgian painter Rene Magritte (obvious in the show’s art work, depicting a headless man standing against a brick wall and carrying an umbrella) and the work of French photographer Robert Doisneau.

To demonstrate, Watson stood and pointed out the window at people below. In pictures such as “The Kiss (Hotel Du Ville),” Doisneau managed to take a group photo, yet focus the viewer’s attention on a single person. “You’d see a whole group — he’d zoom in and suddenly, you’d see out of the group — that everyone down there has their own story,” he said.

Such is the goal of Quidam.

Part of the revelation of the theme lies in its story. Although not scripted in the traditional sense, Quidam, of all the Cirque shows, has the most story. There are definite, consistent characters — a little girl, her father and mother — and there is a sense of place, although the audience is left to wonder if the child has created the world in her head or if it physically exists. “You’re never quite sure who is in whose dream,” Watson said.

The sense of disorientation is deliberate. He explained, “We really do avoid telling a specific story because the public wouldn’t be able to dream it and then make their own interpretation.”

Quidam began its performing life on April 24, 1996 at the Cirque’s home base in Montreal, Canada. Since then, Watson has watched the show change and grow. Sometimes, however, a piece can evolve, but not within the concept of the show. Because of these changes, Watson and all of the designers visit the show usually once per city, partially to stimulate the artists, partially to clean the show up.

“Things can go millimeter by millimeter over a month period and then suddenly a scene in the show doesn’t mean what it did because an entrance got a little bit later, a little later, a little bit later and that can change the whole balance of what’s happening on stage,” Watson said. Experimentation is still encouraged. Watson said there was no fear for the artists to try new things on stage. New ideas are added as they fit the theme.

Watson knows what it’s like to work the Cirque from both sides of the tent as he himself used to perform with them as a trapeze artist. He joined in the 1987-88 tour and learned to tango and work with masks. Also on tour, he observed an artistic director for the first time.

After a year, he returned to the regular circus circuit, but found himself bored and missing the group work of the Cirque. “You felt like you were part of a show and we were all working together to make that show work, not just ‘I don’t care about the show; I want my act to work and I hope to get paid next week’,” Watson said.

Watson then ran into Cirque founding president Guy Laliberte at a circus festival in Monoco. The Cirque was thinking of expanding and needed a creative department. Laliberte hired Watson for casting and act formation and Gilles Ste Croix as artistic director. (What began as two people then is now staffed by 45. Watson’s original casting job is now done by 20 people.) Watson then spent a year on the road as an artistic coordinator before returning to find Ste Croix offering him his job as artistic director.

Working for the Cirque will keep its artistic director busy. Future plans include a movie version of Alegria, an aquatic show based in Las Vegas, and a new resident show at Walt Disney World in Orlando. As for Quidam, it will continue its tour on through Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

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By: Ricky Lyman | New York Times
April 6, 1998

A dim blue light spilled from one end of the cavernous rehearsal space at Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters here, as if a spaceship from a Steven Spielberg movie were landing in the next room. Mood-setting steam billowed from beneath the curtains surrounding the stage.

On the rehearsal stage, two dozen dancers and gymnasts burst into frantic, syncopated activity, some twirling like tops, others roaring across the stage like dive bombers, this one spinning and falling to the mat, that one kicking and wagging her head.

Franco Dragone, who has directed eight productions for Cirque du Soleil, was rehearsing the routine for a new water spectacular to open this year in Las Vegas. He sat down on a folding chair and watched the frantic activity with intense concentration. Behind him, sprawled on thick blue mats, another two dozen lean performers (average age: 28) from France, Canada, Russia, Ukraine and the United States, stretched and watched and sipped mineral water.

Mr. Dragone said that he had always felt a particular affinity for the work of the stage director Peter Brook. “The way he works is exactly the way we work here,” he said.”A show always starts with an obscure presentiment, an image or a vague idea, and then slowly you start to build, and as you do, you realize what is in the show and what is not in the show.”

Cirque du Soleil, a New Age carnival blending circus arts and street performance but without animals, subsists on mystery and surrealism as much as clowning and physical derring-do. It is only about a decade since the troupe set up its signature blue-and-gold tent in an open field in Battery Park City on its first United States tour.

Since its beginnings not quite 14 years ago, when it had 13 members, the company has grown to a worldwide organization with 1,700 employees, a sprawling new $40 million headquarters and branch offices in Amsterdam, Singapore and Tokyo. It has one production touring North America, a second touring Europe, a third in a permanent home at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, three more shows coming on line this year, including permanent sites at Walt Disney World in Florida and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, a Cirque du Soleil film and subsidiary operations producing and marketing soundtrack albums, building theatrical sets and selling Cirque du Soleil merchandise at an anticipated network of retail outlets all over the world.

Guy Laliberte, a co-founder with Daniel Gaulthier, a fellow street performer, said the company intended to double its sales this year to $300 million. Not bad for a former fire-eater and a former stilt-walker.

Cirque du Soleil is returning to Manhattan after a three-year absence with the fifth production it has presented in the city. The new show is called “Quidam,” from the Latin word that they translate as “anonymous passerby” or “somebody,” and it is a bit of a departure for the company, a haunting mood piece about social disconnection at the end of the millennium.

“Every show always starts from an idea for a theme that I feel,” said Mr. Dragone, whose background is in theater rather than street performing. ” ‘Quidam’ started with a question: What does a little girl or boy have on his mind today?”

Unlike previous productions, which relied on mythological and allegorical themes, the characters of “Quidam” are drawn from everyday life, though the recurring image is a headless man carrying an umbrella. The central character, if there is one, is a little girl whose parents are too preoccupied to pay attention to her. She wanders through various surreal scenes where she meets acrobats, dancers, contortionists and circus performers. (Cirque du Soleil has no clowns, it has “characters.”)

“Quidam” has its premiere in 1996 in Quebec, where all Cirque du Soleil productions are initially staged, and has visited several cities in Canada, California, Colorado and Texas before landing in Battery Park City. It will go to Chicago and Washington before closing in Atlanta at the end of the year.

Many critics who have seen “Quidam” in other cities have described it as darker and more psychological than previous Cirque du Soleil productions. But Mr. Dragone said he rejected the view that “Quidam” was a darker work. It only seems so, he said, because it deals with real people instead of mythical characters.

‘More Theatrical, More Poetic’

“There is no text, so I have to compose in images, images that can talk to us,” he said. “If I would describe ‘Quidam’ in any way, it would be as more theatrical, more poetic. It has an atmosphere of what you might call magical realism.”

Cirque du Soleil began in 1984 as part of the 450th anniversary celebration of Jacques Cartier’s landing in Canada, with the group touring Quebec on a grant from the provincial government. In 1985, the company traveled through Ontario and British Columbia, eventually setting up shop in its new 1,500-seat tent in Niagara Falls under the name Sun Circus. Soon it was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

“We learned something about ourselves,” Jean David, the company’s vice president of marketing, said in a recent magazine interview. “When you say ‘Sun Circus,’ it means one thing. But when you say ‘Cirque du Soleil,’ that’s different.”

After that, they stuck with the French.

In 1987 and 1988, the company made its first trip to the United States with a production they called “We Reinvent the Circus,” a show that already bore their trademarks of sensuality, mystery and fantastic imagery. It was a huge success.

A second show, “Nouvelle Experience,” toured North America in 1990 and 1991, then settled in Las Vegas for a year. This was followed by “Saltimbanco” in 1992 and 1993 and “Alegria” in 1994 and 1995. “Mystere,” the permanent show at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, has been running since 1993. The company has also signed a 12-year agreement with Walt Disney World to stage another new production in a new 1,650-seat theater resembling a circus tent that is being built in Florida.

And then there was the production that Mr. Dragone was rehearsing, amid the steam and the blue light. The still-untitled piece will find its home this year in the troupe’s second Las Vegas venue, a new proscenium theater with a swimming pool as a stage.

In the midst of the rehearsals, Mr. Dragone retired to a windowless rectangle at the center of the company’s new headquarters, where he chain-smoked cigarettes amid a jumble of artist’s sketches and well-thumbed copies of National Geographic and other magazines from which costume designers draw their inspiration. “We call this room the bunker,” he said. It is the troupe’s nerve center, where many of the creative decisions are made.

Guiding a multinational organization like Cirque du Soleil is a bit like being a street juggler — lots of distractions and balls in the air. It is Mr. Dragone’s job to make sure that the troupe keeps growing artistically while all its established shows retain their power.

“You know, every show has a very specific biorhythm,” Mr. Dragone said. “There are some periods that are more stressful than others, and you must pay attention to that.”

Cirque du Soleil’s new headquarters is built on land bought from Montreal’s city dump with government help. Though the headquarters complex is atop solid ground, it is just next door to a working landfill, which can clearly be seen from the structure’s balconies and roof decks.

The company’s founders see the project as part of the ethos that has always guided Cirque du Soleil, risky and a little altruistic, aimed at revitalizing the downtrodden neighborhood around the dump.

Outside the bunker, the complex is airy and filled with light. Offices look out across the many practice and rehearsal studios, and it is not uncommon for someone conducting a business call to look up and see a trapeze artist fly past the window.

Mr. Dragone said he was not too concerned that the company, which began by attracting passersby on the street and has grown into a three-continent corporate giant, would lose its soul.

Nor is he concerned that the permanent locations in Las Vegas and Disney World will alienate the company from its big top beginnings.

“Never will the Cirque stop the touring shows,” Mr. Dragone said. “Impossible. The roots are there.”

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By: Judy Hevrdejs | Chicago Tribune
July 19, 1998

In the world of Cirque du Soleil, kismet happens.

Early on in a show titled “Quidam,” a large steel wheel rolls onstage with a young man stretching his arms and legs across its interior.

It is a standard bit of athleticism in European gymnastic circles. Not an uncommon sight in circuses around the globe. Yet this wheel has rolled into Cirque’s world and that is where the similarities end.

As the young man turns inside the wheel–actually two equal-sized tubular wheels joined by a half-dozen steel rungs–he shifts his weight so the wheel drops on its side and, just as a dropped dinner plate might gyrate on a kitchen floor, he is sent spinning, his face sometimes a breath away from the floor, before he forces the wheel upright.

The 110-pound wheel of steel and the 155-pound man’s muscled body challenge each other for control. He slips through the bars and onto the wheel’s exterior. The wheel seems to take over, spinning the young man on a wild path across the stage. In the next second, the man shifts his weight and the wheel spins a pirouette. And then, in a maneuver that gets them every time, he stretches his body along the wheel’s interior curve, rolls across the stage and just as it appears his face will graze the stage, he slips through the bars to safety. And to applause.

How the man and the steel wheel–a living, breathing Leonardo DaVinci drawing–came to be part of Cirque du Soleil’s “Quidam,” the ninth production from the Montreal-based troupe opening here July 22 under its blue-and-yellow tents, is a story in itself. Let’s start at the beginning:


Gilles Ste-Croix is an ex-stilt walker turned creative director. Ever since he joined the team that would establish Cirque du Soleil, he has prowled the world, searching for performers–tumblers, acrobats, trapeze artists, jugglers– to mesmerize audiences for Cirque du Soleil. It was during those travels that the Canadian spotted a gymnastic discipline that fascinated him. It involved a contraption made from tubular wheels in which an athlete earns points for body position, for example. Ste-Croix was convinced that the wheel, part of European gymnastic competitions since the turn of the century, could find a place with Cirque. About the same time, 24-year-old Chris Lashua, a Massachusetts kid and a wizard at bicycle stunts, was performing his bicycle routine with a circus in China. Ste-Croix spotted him and invited him to join Cirque’s production of “Fascination” in Japan.


After the cycling gig in Japan, Lashua moved to Las Vegas to work on carpentry, costuming, rigging for the Cirque show “Nouvelle Experience.” But he wanted to get back on stage. About that time, a friend showed him a newspaper clipping of a man, a student at a French circus school, stretched inside a wheel. Lashua was hooked. “I have this thing for wheels,” he said. Seeing a picture of a wheel and delivering a Cirque-caliber performance, though, are worlds apart. “The next step was to figure out from the photo what size the wheel was,” said Lashua. He worked with a welder on the wheel design, finally developing a wheel that is 7 feet in diameter and made from two hoops (each 1 1/2-inch tubes of steel) that are joined at six places by 3/4-inch tubing, like rungs of a ladder.

1994 & 1995

The wheel was ready to challenge Chris. During the day and through Cirque’s evening performances in Las Vegas, he worked on the stage crew. But after each night’s performance, he practiced with his wheel for several hours. Lashua invited feedback from Cirque’s creative team. Choreographers and artistic directors offered advice. “Any idea is worth being listened to,” said Ste-Croix. Then, late in 1995, after countless impromptu auditions for Cirque honchos–Ste-Croix invited Lashua to become part of a new Cirque production that would premiere in Montreal in April 1996.

January 1996

Before work began in Montreal, though, Cirque wanted Chris to work with masters of the gymnastic discipline.”‘I know you are motivated and not a great acrobat,'” Ste-Croix recalled telling Lashua. “‘I will send you to Germany to train.'” For six weeks in a gym near Frankfurt, Lashua worked with coaches Wolfgang Bientzle and Katja Hommeyer. Both have competed in the gymnastic sport and taught Chris the techniques (movements, positions, skills) an athlete would need to earn points in a gymnastic competition.

Mid-February 1996

Lashua traveled to Cirque’s home in Montreal for the real Cirque work to begin. “Only 2 percent (of the process) was getting the act and knowing it worked,” said Ste-Croix. Now Cirque’s team would put its twist on a traditional sport. For the first time, Chris and his wheel performed for the entire creative team without music, costuming or makeup. “We build a cycle of four to six months for developing a piece before beginning rehearsal,” explained Yves Neveu, director of the creative studio. Two to three months of rehearsals follow, with each artist working on developing his or her piece while the creative team tackles costumes, music and staging. The process, these days, occurs in Cirque’s massive blue-and-yellow splashed headquarters on the north side of Montreal.

Early March 1996

Each piece in a Cirque show is based on a singular vision, coached along by Ste-Croix but echoing Cirque’s motto of “Evoke, provoke, invoke.” The Cirque team “had a good sense of what would grab people,” said Lashua. Easing up on the technicalities of the sport–loosening up his limbs, crawling in and out of the wheel–might have lost Lashua points in a gymnastic competition, but the performance became more entertaining. The wheel was no longer a gymnastic apparatus but a prop to be played with by this blond Puck.

The costume department made a mold of Lashua’s head, as they do with all Cirque performers for creating latex bald caps, hats, wigs and masks. Costume designer Dominique Lemieux came up with Chris’ outfit–sort of. First off the sketch pad: a loin cloth and no shoes to echo the DaVinci drawing. Chris vetoed that. He needed shoes to hold his feet in the wheel’s stirrups. After five or six costume sketches, Lemieux came up with a flesh-colored bodystocking, streaked with shades of paint and finished with streams of fabric–and sneakers.

Then there was the challenge of music. “Finding the right music was hardest because it can be boring–all this rolling, the same rhythm, it never goes faster” recalled Ste-Croix. But music man Benoit Jutras met the challenge, delivering an original piece, “Incantation” that Ste-Croix said keeps the rhythm but has another level of drama.

Late March 1996

Each of the show’s pieces has gone through development: Chris’ wheel is ready to go. Rehearsals are in full swing. Director Franco Dragone crafts a story with the chosen pieces. “Our inspiration (for a show’s story) comes from our collective memory,” said Ste-Croix, “We are not visionaries. We are just living in your world.” The creative team talks themes: Forgotten people. The right to be different. The anonymity of the world. The show, they decide, will focus on “a nameless passerby, a solitary figure lingering on a street corner, a person rushing past, a person who lives lost amidst the crowd in an all too anonymous society.” The name? The French “Quidam” — pronounced key-dahm — which translates as a fellow or chap. The show premiered in Montreal April 24, 1996, before heading off on a world tour. Each week, Lashua performs with his wheel for 10 performances–exercise enough he said to keep himself fit for the rigors of the act.

July 1998

Come Wednesday night, under the blue and yellow tents in the United Center parking lot, several characters in “Quidam” will set the tone for the evening’s performance, inviting the audience into Cirque’s world. The first acrobat/artist to command the stage will be a solitary young man: Chris Lashua, his muscled arms and legs stretched taught within the confines of a huge wheel, will spin across the stage, fabric streamers flying, an imp ready to play with the wheel and the audience.

* * * * *

By: Christ Jones | Chicago Tribune
July 24, 1998

When the Cirque du Soleil first pitched its revisionist big top by North Pier nearly a decade ago, they were an obscure avant-garde French-Canadian curiosity in a small, hot tent with hard benches and folks in wacky costumes. Back in Chicago for the first time in three years with “Quidam,” the Cirque is now a global cultural powerhouse of unparalleled aesthetic and commercial clout.

One can see the stylistic influence of this singular circus everywhere–from other theatrical productions to restaurant design; from casino interiors to fashion shows. This is the brand name of non-linear live entertainment; a brilliantly fashioned amalgam of circus, dance and performance art that somehow has made surrealisme accessible to a mass audience and, consequently, immensely profitable. How appropriate that the new site in Chicago should be the United Center parking lot.

The danger of such longevity and high exposure is that elements of the Cirque’s signature style start to become familiar. The image of the child looking in on a fantasy world; the clown polishing someone’s bald pate; the beautiful bodies contorting themselves into unimaginable positions through sheer brute strength; the seemingly wordless lyrics that float through the air; the singular beauty of the staging: all of these are Cirque tropes that overwhelm the senses when seen for the first time.

So if this is your first viewing, prepare to be overwhelmed. But once you have seen the acts repeated five or six times, they lose some (but not all) of their power.

With costumes that mainly represent recognizable people more than fanciful non-human fictions, “Quidam” is the most literal, urban and adult of all of the Cirque shows to date (although with images reminiscent of the art of Magritte and the films of director Atom Egoyan, it’s still an ephemeral show by everyone else’s standards).

Themed around the characters of two parents and their daughter who are whisked from an archetypal domestic living room into a world of, well, circus acts, director Andrew Watson explicitly relates the circus performers to a family that he presumably intends to represent us.

Thus when the semi-naked Isabelle Chasse does an eroticized aerial contortion hanging from the top of the tent and wearing a huge red piece of silk, the father stares longingly at his wife, who’s wearing a dress in exactly that color.

Although it never steps over the line of good taste or into the realm of literal sexuality, the Cirque has long played with fetishized images–the final act of “Quidam” features two tiny women wearing lingerie and platinum blond wigs who are tossed around (brilliantly, of course) amidst a group of men. And if it were not for her androgynous quality and outstanding athletic craft, Chasse’s routine would not be out of place in a sex club.

One has to be looking for this stuff, perhaps, in order to draw such conclusions. As always with the Cirque, the individual acts are all of the highest technical quality–Chris Lashua’s opening human-wheel routine is stunning, as are the aerial hoops of Genevieve Bessette and Marie-Michelle Faber and the agonizing (for the audience) manipulations of Patrick McGuire and Steven Ragatz.

The tent is beautifully cool and all the seats have backs. And this show features a high-tech rigging system that does away with all set changes (although the usual high-wire act is gone). At the peak of its powers, prowess and influence, the Cirque can now do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, sure that the audience will follow. It will be interesting to see where these ever-inventive Canadians take us next.

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By: Anne Taubeneck | Chicago Tribune
August 23, 1998

Q. At one point in a precarious balancing act called “Statue,” Marie-Laure Mesnage is upside down with only her shoulders touching the top of the back of her partner, Yves Decoste. What keeps her from slipping?

A. “Practice, technique, strength – and resin,” Decoste answers. He and Mesnage apply a mixture of resin and alcohol to their skin to keep it from being too slippery. Even so, after an air-conditioning unit faltered during a matinee on a hot day in New York, the temperature in the tent rose 10 to 15 degrees and “Statue” was cancelled for fear of injury due to excessive sweat.

Q. In what may be the sexiest circus act ever, “Aerial Contortion in Silk,” 22-year-old Isabelle Chasse does forehead-high leg stretches and thigh-straining splits, supported above the stage only by two slender pieces of fabric. Are they really silk?

A. Don’t try this act at home using knotted silk scarves. Chasse dangles from a tough blend of nylon and Lycra.

Q. Early in each show, emcee John Gilkey picks out an audience member who becomes part of a comic bit onstage. How does Gilkey decide whom to choose?

A. “We look for a big person, because we put him in a small costume that will look funny tight on him,” Gilkey says. “And we look for someone who seems playful. I’ll take the head of a person who’s looking at me and turn it so it’s pointing the other direction. If he resists, he probably wouldn’t be good, but if he goes along with that, it’s pretty certain he’ll play to the right extent.”

Some choices have backfired. “One man in Los Angeles got violent and tried to bang the heads of two (performers) together,” says Gilkey. And though he reassures people he’s selected – “talking under my breath, telling them, ‘Don’t worry, this will be painless,’ ” – a few “have had major stage fright, crying or shaking uncontrollably. You kind of speed things up when that happens.”

Q. For audience participation bits, Gilkey always selects men. Is Cirque sexist?

A. “There is an unwritten rule among clowns,” he explains, “that if you’re going to make fun of somebody, women and children are out of bounds.”

Q. On opening night, a screaming baby in the audience unexpectedly became part of a Gilkey routine. Was he pleased or peeved?

A. The emcee’s snarly looks in the noisy baby’s direction got big laughs. “That works,” Gilkey says, “because the audience doesn’t expect you to break out of (your routine).”

Q. In the fast-paced acrobatic act, “Banquine,” two women in white costumes that appear to have been inspired by Victoria’s Secret get thrown around as if they were Barbie dolls. How much do they weigh?

A. Elena Kolesnikova, of Russia, and Tatiana Gousarova, from the Ukraine, weigh, respectively, 90 and 88 pounds.

Q. Gilkey does a trick with a hoop, making it travel in large circles on the stage and then magically come back to him. How does he do that?

A. “The bummer about that trick is there’s no trick to it,” says Gilkey. “I’ve just practiced a lot. What’s much more difficult is the dance I do with the coat rack while juggling balls. That has to be done with a very delicate hand in time to very fast, agressive, macho-style Latin music.”

Q. Does a medical specialist travel with the troupe to handle injuries?

A. Two athletic therapists, Ian Murray and Angela Greco (also a physiotherapist), travel with the cast. The most common ailment: lower back pain.

Q. How young is too young to enjoy this sophisticated show?

A. Gilkey thinks children 6 or 7 are old enough to appreciate the “physical feats,” but added that the show’s crashes of thunder could frighten a younger child. (So could the lightning, the headless man and the clown with spikes coming out of his costume.) This writer plans to take her 9-year-old, even though the 2 1/2-hour show (including intermission) is long, even for that age.

Q. The glossy, $8 program is filled with gorgeous photos and obscure quotes, but has no information about the acts and little about the performers. Why is it so lacking in facts?

A. According to Cirque spokesman Lance Taylor, “Practically speaking, there’s a wealth of information that could go into the program, but we didn’t want it to be a 40-page magazine.” He added, “The idea behind Cirque du Soleil has always been that every person should walk away from the show with his own individual interpretation of what the meaning behind it was.”

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By: Caroline Abels | Charlotte Post-Gazette
April 28, 2002

In the backstage trailer known as “the kitchen,” a petite French woman with bulging biceps is laughing with her Canadian partner, Yves Decoste, about a question once put to them by Cirque du Soleil audience members. “They said to us, ‘Oh, you must certainly be a couple in real life, no?’ ” recalls the woman, Marie-Laure Mesnage.

Their startling feat in the Cirque du Soleil show “Quidam” is when Mesnage balances upside down on Decoste by placing the tops of her bare shoulders directly on the tops of his. Performed slowly and in near silence, it is a meditation on the interdependence of men and women, and is one of a handful of breathtaking stunts in “Quidam” — a Latin term for “anonymous passer-by” pronounced “key-dahm.”

But the fact is, Mesnage, 36, and Decoste, 40, are just friends. They dated in the 1990s, but as they toured Europe with the act that would eventually make it into the show, they broke up — at which point they had to rely on their inner strength, as much as the strength of their arms and legs, to keep the act going.

“The first night after we split, it was not easy to perform,” Mesnage recalls. “But the public was great. No applause during the act, and then they exploded at the end. Maybe I told them somehow what was happening in my head.”

What’s happening in the heads of “Quidam” performers as they leap, climb, catapult, swing, shimmy and teeter on stage is up to the imagination of stunned onlookers, some of whom go to one of Cirque du Soleil’s seven shows worldwide expecting an American three-ring circus.

But “Quidam,” which is touring North America and opens in Pittsburgh on May 9, resembles a dark and sensual dream more than a nursery school. Clowns are few, and animals are nowhere. Instead, the big top brims with odd characters, evocative lighting, thunderous sounds and athletes of such agility you wonder whether they’re superhuman.

Sitting in the audience, you might think so. But backstage in Charlotte a few weeks ago — tiptoeing around contorted bodies, bumping into giggling Chinese acrobats and hearing stories like the one about Mesnage and Decoste — it was apparent that the Cirque du Soleil (“Circus of the Sun” in French) is a most human place.

As the soleil sets over the cirque, roughly three hours before show time, many of “Quidam’s” buff and agile performers do what they often inspire audience members to do: work out.

Their gym is in a tent behind the blue-and-yellow Big Top, a venue that seats 2,600 people. In this crowded tent, 56 performers plucked from around the world not only lift weights, and each other, but also step into costume, apply their makeup, nervously sip cups of coffee and practice to make perfect.

Blue velvet curtains separate the dressing rooms from the practice area, where gym mats are spread out next to weights, barbells, rowing machines and exercise balls. Dozens of props — bowler hats, boxing gloves, tambourines, wigs — rest on shelves, while in the costume corner, intricately woven sheaves of linen, wool, velvet and silk are washed, ironed and sewn by staff.

Life back here is busy and unglamorous, with everyone off doing his own thing. Russian acrobats cavort on the trampoline, teen-age acrobats from Beijing gab with their translator, a juggler receives acupuncture from a resident physiotherapist, and rope climbers take Pilates instruction.

Although the “Quidam” story line — of a girl who is shunned by her parents but then whisked away to a strange but friendlier place — is designed to evoke emotion, awe is the main reaction of audiences who see acts like the Spanish Webs, in which performers climb ropes only to drop and swing from them; the Banquine, in which Slavic acrobats form human pyramids; and the German Wheel, in which Chris Lashua (whose parents, Diane and Duane Lashua, live in Moon) becomes the spoke of a spinning metal wheel 6 feet in diameter.

The world of Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci is where most of these 12- to 48-year-olds come from. They’re first spotted in gymnastic competitions if they haven’t already sent an audition tape to Cirque’s Montreal headquarters.

Others have backgrounds in ballet, modern dance and music, and most come from countries with strong acrobatic and circus traditions: Canada, China, Russia, Ukraine.

Looking at Eric Newton, 38, whose biceps are the size of melons, you’d think the Philadelphia native came from the bodybuilding world, not the theater. But after his acting training, he took up clowning and learned to work a trapeze well enough to play a trapeze-flying Ariel in a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

Newton arrived on the “Quidam” set in March to stand in for an injured performer, and now he is standing in awe of the unpretentious and hard-working athletes around him.

“Even though I was a circus professional, I always saw Cirque performers as perfect,” he says, sweat dripping from his face following a rehearsal. “I thought everyone must be so superior and that when I came here, people would say to me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ But now I see that it’s never easy for them. They’re always working at their act.”

Or watching it. Performers are often huddled around a television screen backstage, looking at videotapes of their act with the artistic coordinator, who keeps an eye on the show while it’s on tour.

By all reports, Mesnage and Decoste do a good job of keeping an eye on their balancing act. The two friends notice when their moves are getting sloppy and continually fine-tune the toughest parts — for example, when Mesnage slides down Decoste’s back after balancing on his shoulders.

“They’re the least of our worries,” says resident physiotherapist Bronwyn Claassen. “They have an amazing understanding of their bodies. If Marie-Laure knows she’s not feeling right in a certain spot, she’ll come to me and say, ‘There’s an imbalance here.'”

Mesnage engages in a workout routine for four months before changing it. In some cities where the tour stops, she takes dance classes.

And when she’s not working on her own body, she’s boosting the confidence of younger performers who turn to her for pointers. Mesnage was a gymnastics coach and director of a Montreal gymnastics center when Decoste asked her to tour the balancing act with him in Europe after his male partner was injured.

Decoste now says the act is more complete with a woman. “There is a yin and yang element there, and the audience picks up on that.”

* * *

About an hour before the show, the gruff stage manager — both feared and adored — gathers the cast for a quick pep talk that also can double as a finger-wagging session. He then begins barking orders to get everything in place.

That means Louise Fournier, the props master, must start blowing up dozens of balloons. The vacuum-packing sound of the air machine begins to drown out the thump of feet landing on mats, the squeak of the trampoline and the voices of the singers warming up.

Fournier must have every prop in place at the right time so performers can make their entrance cues. The most exciting part of her job, she says, “is when everything works perfectly.” That’s about 85 percent of the time, and her success each night “depends on the day, the city … the barometric pressure.”

By this time, Mark Ward, who performs gags throughout the show to “animate” the crowd, has already had his makeup on for two hours. Like everyone else, he was trained at Montreal headquarters to do his own makeup, and he does so with the care and attention of a calligrapher as he explains that, before he joined the Cirque, he was a ballet dancer.

“I was always the black sheep of the family, the oddball,” he says. “I’d see Baryshnikov flying across the TV screen and think, ‘Wow, I want to do that.’ But I’m black and Mexican, and growing up in Texas, I wasn’t supposed to do that. So I always knew that at 15, 16, I was going to leave.”

He studied at the New York City Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem before getting hired at Chicago City Ballet. Then in 1993, getting a little bored, he auditioned for the Cirque. On a videotape, he told jokes, stuck out his belly, donned a Tarzan outfit, and got a job in the Cirque show “Mystere,” a nontouring show based in Las Vegas.

After 2,347 shows, he transferred to “Quidam” — it’s common for Cirque performers to jump from show to show — and now, at age 36, he works out three to four times a week and warms up while listening to Alicia Keys, Harry Connick Jr. and Dionne Warwick on his headphones.

By 7:15, roughly half the performers are dressed for the show, although the costumes are less colorful than those in Cirque shows like “Saltimbanco” and “Alegria.” According to “Quidam” artistic director Serge Roy, who cast this North American tour, the show is a departure from the others due to its storyline.

“The creators wanted to bring an emotion on stage — but not necessarily happiness,” he says. ” ‘Quidam’ is about something more contemporary, about you and me, about people we live with but don’t necessarily notice.”

Backstage, someone has remembered that one of the Russian acrobats just turned 36, and has written “Happy Birthday Sasha ‘Bunny’ Zaitsev!” on the blackboard. The camaraderie among the unpretentious performers is evident as everyone helps each other with costumes and, later, as they sit on a tattered green sofa absentmindedly rolling up blue ribbons that are unraveled during one of the acts.

The performers know they need each other’s help during this show or else the show will suffer — or else they will all … fall down.

By 7:40, everyone is emerging from cocoons, having donned bald caps, boxing gloves, rabbit ears, pointy knees, red bathrobes.

“Have a good show, everyone!” the stage manager calls out. And over the next two hours, he will cue the various acts.

“Stand by, clowns!” “Stand by, skipping ropes!”

And stand by, North Carolin-ians …

* * *

At intermission, Decoste grabs a bowl of soup in “the kitchen” — one of about 15 trailers in the traveling “Quidam” compound — and reads Montreal newspapers flown in from headquarters. Each night, chefs who travel with the show serve up gourmet food for personnel, everything from lentil burgers with avocado topping to steak with mushrooms and potato cakes.

Decoste would choose the lentil burgers. Despite his physically demanding profession, he is a vegetarian.

“One time I was in the bush in South Africa and I saw a rhino, and I just had a feeling, and right away I stopped eating meat,” he said. “I’m almost positive I would be stronger if I ate meat, but it’s a choice, and I accept it.”

After the show, performers hop on a van that takes them back to the apartments they are temporarily occupying in Charlotte. In Pittsburgh, performers will be scattered throughout a few apartment buildings Downtown and in the vicinity of the parking lot adjacent to Heinz Field, where the show will take place.

Some performers have their own cars for the North American tour so they can explore the cities they visit. Though Cirque officials declined to reveal salaries, the performers are reportedly well paid. That might stem from the fact that Cirque du Soleil was created by struggling Montreal street performers in the mid-1980s.

“It was just one more way to put butter on our bread,” recalls artistic director Roy, a former acrobat who was involved in Cirque from the start. Now the seven shows attract 7 million people each year, and in March, Cirque acrobats even performed at the Oscars.

Beyond the pay, though, there’s the satisfaction of having a steady job in the arts world and the prestige of having Cirque du Soleil on your resume.

Newton, the former actor replacing an injured performer, might not see his temporary job turn into a full-time one when his contract expires after the Pittsburgh run. But that won’t make his three-month stint any less gratifying.

Five years ago, he sent a tape of his work to Cirque headquarters and eventually got an audition in Los Angeles. But his name was simply filed away in Montreal. “They never called, but I kept calling them,” he says. “I was persistent.”

He was hired earlier this year, and now he rolls his eyes to indicate he still can’t believe it. “I’d figured I’d never be in Cirque du Soleil, and I was at peace with that,” he says. “So it shows that anything can happen.”

# # #

That’s all I have room for in this issue, but there’s plenty more to come!

• Issue #171, APR 2018 – Dralion, Part 1 (1999-2001)
• Issue #172, MAY 2018 – Dralion, Part 2 (2001-2003)
• Issue #173, JUN 2018 – Varekai, Part 1 (2002)
• Issue #174, JUL 2018 – Varekai, Part 2 (2003-2004)
• Issue #175, AUG 2018 – Varekai, Part 3 (2005)