Still Flying High

High above a 17-foot-deep pool filled with scuba divers and spare oxygen aerators, nearly a dozen acrobats swing across a steel-framed ship suspended from the ceiling as a 1,600-person audience gasps and claps.

Below the ship, at O, Cirque du Soleil’s flagship Las Vegas show at the Bellagio Resort & Casino, a handful of old-timey aristocrat characters stoically walk off stage left. Backstage, the chaos is far less controlled. The aristocrat characters, called Comets, dart both behind and beneath the stage to circle around and reappear at stage right, sprinting past a shirtless colleague dancing wildly with a folding fan.

A dozen metres away, a technician gets ready to light torches for swimmers in the pool. Soon after, a pair of clowns straddling a shared bathtub skip off stage. Then they pass a man in the wings named John Maxson, stretching his hamstrings in a rare moment of solace.

Life has been a roller coaster for Maxson, and not because his youngest kid has just finished high school and community college at the same time. Beyond his family, O has been his entire life since before it even opened in October, 1998. He helped shape the show, a Las Vegas mainstay, as one of its original cast members. The show in turn shaped the rest of his life. It’s here that he met his wife, who still works on another Cirque show, in the early days of O.

So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Vegas, the global capital of excess and entertainment, Maxson, like so many of his colleagues, underwent the most jarring change of his career – going from performing for thousands of people hundreds of times a year to sitting at home, waiting, hoping the world would come back.

And yet as O’s 25th anniversary looms, he’s backstage, wearing makeup instead of a mask, preparing to hit the stage as the show’s voiceless Strong Man, the guardian of its amorphous world. Life has resumed.

The pool-based show, named after eau, the French word for water, was designed with a near-liquid level of adaptability in mind – written to accommodate its performers’ strengths, readapting its routines over the years without changing its structure. Thanks to luck, careful planning and guile – plus a dollop of corporate bankruptcy protection and restructuring – O is surviving COVID-19.

Maxson walks on stage, the steel ship receding, and faces the Bellagio audience for at least the eleven-thousandth time.

Maxson wasn’t the original Strong Man of O. The character was created and first played by Didier Antoine, a French gymnastics and trampoline coach who, by pure coincidence, once subbed in for a trapeze troupe’s catcher during a performance where Cirque co-founder Guy Laliberté was watching. Laliberté hired the troupe. In 1990, Antoine was suddenly a Cirque performer.

He swiftly fell into the orbit of the Italian-Belgian theatre director and performance-art enthusiast Franco Dragone, who since 1985 had come to shape many of Cirque’s biggest performances. In the mid-nineties, Dragone began to dream up the company’s most ambitious project yet: a water-based show at the soon-to-be-built Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip.

Antoine was involved from the very start, helping to put the show together as part of a creation process as fluid as the stage itself. The crew of immensely talented circus misfits shared their strengths and dreams as Dragone stitched them together through complex choreography and staging.

He encouraged the performers to play themselves, rather than being actors who play a role, Antoine said during a break from afternoon training at the Bellagio theatre, as performers swung from the steel ship, practising the act – the bateau – that Antoine, now the head coach of O, had designed for the show a quarter-century earlier.

Dragone, who died of a heart attack last year at 69, had a unique way of communicating with his performers and show designers. “One day, out of the clear blue sky, he said, ‘Show me the ocean,’ ” said Tony Ricotta, who came on board in those days to help with automation – such as, say, for the seven hydraulic-powered stage segments that rise and fall from the pool.

Ricotta took a moment to realize that his director wanted to see more of the water rolling off the downstage gutter as the stage moved. “We had to learn the director’s vocabulary of art to make his vision happen.” (Ricotta went on leave from O several weeks after his conversation with The Globe and Mail after a diver injured his neck on a set piece; Cirque declined to provide any further information about his employment because it was a personnel matter.)

Maxson, a diver from Washington State, joined the O team as it came together, too, performing in a handful of acts including the high dive and Russian swing – where a series of divers launch into the pool from floor-mounted swings. Dragone challenged his performers to push the limits of their performance, seeing how their skills could best adapt to the stage.

“You have to be very open with your ideas yourself,” Maxson said. This kind of openness, from all involved, formed into a near-plotless show about love that begins as it ends, serving entertainment up from circus history while embedding enough pool technology to splash directly into its future. The talent Dragone had assembled allowed the audience to interpret the story as they wished. “Franco was so successful because he doesn’t try to change the beauty inside you,” Antoine said.

As O approached its 22nd anniversary at the start of 2020, Cirque was flying high. The company had six permanent shows in Vegas and many others around the world. O was so popular that Cirque had just expanded its Bellagio run to 14 shows a week, up from 10, with head count set to rise by a full third among both cast and crew – well worth the US$120-million or so Cirque had invested in it since the nineties.

By early March, staff in Vegas began trading calls and messages with Cirque’s headquarters in Montreal, trying to draw up a plan if this mystery COVID-19 illness found its way to Nevada. Of course it did. Ricotta, who’d risen through the ranks to become the senior company manager overseeing O and Zumanity, had to call both casts the second week of that March and tell them that their final performance for a while would take place that Saturday.

They thought, as just about everyone did back then, that the delay might last for two months. Maxson trudged home, suddenly finding himself without an audience. At first it felt like a vacation. But then the restlessness set in. He’d always been moving: diving, training, learning. But for the first time in Maxson’s life, “there were no other opportunities to continue.”

The usually exceptionally toned diver didn’t have the training equipment of O’s two gyms on hand, nor the careful eye of the show’s strength and conditioning coach. He struggled to stay in shape. The mental toll was just as bad. Slowing down, he said, “was never something that I had even remotely considered.”

The health of Cirque itself was spiralling, too. Though it launched a series of digital specials and tried early show relaunches in countries such as Mexico and China, its $100-million-a-month revenues were sapped, with most audiences stuck at home. The company filed for creditor protection in June, 2020, and all but 600 or so temporarily laid-off employees became permanently laid-off employees. But many cast and staff in Vegas were among those spared, with hopes they’d be ready for a swift return when the public-health situation allowed.

As time dragged on, Cirque’s financial situation got more dire. Its bankruptcy proceedings became massively complex. By the end of 2020, the equity stakes of some major shareholders, including the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, were erased, as new majority owners Catalyst Capital took over.

But by the spring of 2021, life for performers at O began to spring back to life. Cirque’s imperilled finances had stabilized, vaccines were starting to roll out and public-health authorities were moving toward the restricted reopening of society. The company set a mid-year deadline to relaunch both O and its oldest Vegas companion, Mystère.

Maxson remembers the near-delirious experience of walking back into the Bellagio theatre, suddenly surrounded by dozens of others after having barely spoken to anyone besides his wife and kids for a year. “Even though they’re your friends, and you miss them, you have a fear of getting sick because that’s all you’ve watched on the news and thought about for over a year,” he said.

But the anxiety of being around others was soon supplanted by a more logistical one: As they trained and later performed, the cast would need to stay masked at all times unless they were heading into the pool. ”Otherwise, you’re pretty much waterboarding yourself,” Maxson says. Even regular masks were hard to breathe through in the midst of intense performance. The Strong Man had to buy a rubberlike adapter to wear under his, so that it didn’t stick to his lips and constrict.

Backstage, social distancing was a little easier. The company had expanded its dressing area to fit 40 more people just before the pandemic as it prepared to expand to seven-days-a-week staffing. With a regular-sized staff – about 75 cast and 75 crew – they could space out, with some cast members using back offices to apply makeup. Cirque implemented weekly COVID-19 testing and emergency sick leave.

Though O doesn’t have traditional understudies, its cast are trained to be flexible, and people who did become sick had more backups than usual: the people they’d hired to expand O in early 2020, and staff from still-shuttered O, offered two pools of substitute talent.

“I can’t say we didn’t have a share of people who got COVID regularly – you know, it’s hard when everybody’s jam packed together,” Ricotta said. But on July 1, 2021, the show went on. Sitting in the house of the theatre two years later, Maxson said his sense of purpose was renewed: “This is where I feel most alive.”

Maxson then ambled down the theatre’s stairs and through the backstage entrance, soon emerging in a bathing suit. He nabbed a bunch of other impossibly fit performers for a huddle: some were old hands, others new recruits, and he was going to coach them how to gracefully execute their moves on the Russian Swings.

Though the first few months of O were rough, what with all the masked acrobatics, the show’s official protocols follow present guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – which, in mid-2023, isn’t much. “You’re much quicker to put on a mask” if you’re feeling sick, Maxson said.

The audiences returned, too. As social distancing and the worldwide sense of unease dissipated, O jumped back to near-sellouts. And two years later, here was Maxson, adapting the show to new performers, yet again to keep it fresh after 25 years.

As a dozen or so people watched from the seats, the house lights on, he wandered between the stage’s three swings, shouting safety instructions to the divers as they prepared to fly high in the air. Reaching the swing at stage right, he clambered aboard in front of two others.

One swing, two swings, three swings. “Up!” he yelled, flung himself backward, then leapt dozens of feet in the air. As he did, he raised his hands above his head into a shrug, facing the Bellagio with a smile, as if to say: This is no big deal.

{ SOURCE: The Globe and Mail }