Cirque du Soleil’s high-wire act

The 100 members of the celebrated int'l acrobatic circus have taken over the Tel Aviv's Nokia Arena for 3 weeks.

‘ALEGRIA’ 370 (photo credit: Courtesy/ PR)
(photo credit: Courtesy/ PR)
A little more than 24 hours before the curtain was due rise on the Cirque du Soleil circus acrobatic spectacle, Mark Baylor was spending Tuesday afternoon limbering up on parallel bars at a training station deep in the bowels of the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv.
There may have been nervous excitement hidden beneath the spiky blond-dyed hair and upper physique found usually in sculptures, but the shirtless 27-year-old Canadian gymnast was an image of relaxed determination, as he went through aerial warm-up exercises that most of us could only dream of attempting.
“We’re stoked, there’s going to be some good energy on the stage,” said Baylor, who was a member of Canada’s national gymnastics team before joining Cirque du Soleil four years ago. “We thrive on energy and if the crowd is amped, we can feel it – it’s electrifying.”
Baylor is one of the 55 performers who populate Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria, one of 22 productions the Canadian-based company presents around the world.
Synonymous with Las Vegas, due to its ubiquitous presence there, Cirque du Soleil has branched out since being established in 1984, with its wings now spanning the entire globe. But the 20-performance run of its signature production Alegria, which began Wednesday night, marks the first time the high-flying extravaganza, which debuted in 1994, has made it to Israel.
According to Alegria Production Manager Michel Therrien, the biggest obstacle is to find a venue that meets Cirque du Soleil’s stringent space and logistical specifications.
The show was originally designed to be performed under a big top, but in 2009 was revamped for arenas.
However, with equipment and staging that fills 22 semitrailers, it still offers massive logistical challenges.
“My job is to make sure we fit the show in the building,” he said. “I flew to Tel Aviv a year ago with my tape measure, and we found out that the Nokia Arena was good, but contained some challenges.”
After months of consultations and adjustments, including taking down part of a wall in the arena to enable oversized sections of the staging to be hauled into the building, Therrien and his staff of 22 technicians and another 60 local hired hands, spent two days last week setting up the elaborate backdrop and stage.
Therrien is also responsible to ensure that not only the stage, but the backstage areas at the performance, are virtually identical at each venue the troupe arrives in – both to make the performers feel like they’re in familiar surroundings and also to provide for their safety in a performance where a platform placed a half-centimeter off track could result in serious injury.
For the 100 people from 15 countries who make up the traveling Cirque troupe, the Nokia Arena is home for the next three weeks. And behind the stage curtains, a virtual self-contained city has been set up to answer to their every need.
A full-service dining room is equipped with two complete meals daily, prepared by a catering staff that travels with the troupe. Menus – including fresh meat and dairy dishes, ranging from roast turkey and mac and cheese to tabouli and healthy salads – are based on the various needs of the performers, some whom require high-protein diets. But a special pastry chef is also working around the clock, providing gourmet donuts and cookies for those who feel they deserve a special treat.
According to Alegria’s traveling publicist Genevive Laurendeau, special effort is made to incorporate local ingredients and native dishes into the performers’ diets.
“I’m sure we’ll be seeing hummus on the menu,” she said. “We try to give the crew a taste of the country where they’re staying.”
While the key to keeping a traveling troupe happy is through its collective stomachs, other daily needs are treated with equal importance. The dining room also doubles as a living room, with comfortable couches inviting the crew to use the area for socializing and meeting outside of the pressures of their daily performances.
“You’ve got 100 people living together, working together and eating together,” said Alegria’s Artistic Director Bruno Darmagnac. “It’s really a family and while you don’t choose the members of your family, you do need to find a way to get along, and everyone makes that special effort.”
Of course, it helps when you don’t have to cook, or do your own laundry. Next door to the dining room is a full-fledged laundromat with high-powered washing machines and dryers transported among the contents of those 22 semi-trailers that the Cirque staff transported via roads and ferry from their last location in Nice, France.
The more than 400 elaborate stage costumes are cleaned daily, and if anything goes amiss, there’s a staff of tailors on hand to sew back on that stray button or let out the pants in case a performer indulges on too many of those doughnuts.
For more serious situations, there’s a full-time physical therapist and masseuse on hand to take care of any preshow ailments. But according to Laurendeau, the whole backstage setup is designed to minimize the likelihood that anything will come between the performer and the performance.
“We try to prevent injuries through regular training, warm up, onstage practice, and all the elements like nutritional food, so the performers have everything they need to focus on their performance,” she said.
It’s a long way from the ramshackle traveling circus depicted in folklore and iconic films like Martin Scorsese’s Carny, and if anybody can be credited with redefining what a circus in the 21st Century can encompass, it’s Cirque de Soleil.
The “Circus of the Sun” was founded by two Montreal street performers, Guy Laliberte and Daniel Gauthier.
Each show is a synthesis of circus styles from around the world, with its own central theme and storyline. Adding to the spectacle is a live six-piece band that pumps up the audience with a mix of rhythmic styles ranging from pop and tango to klezmer and techno.
Alegria, which was created for Cirque Du Soleil’s 10th anniversary, takes its name from the Spanish word for “joy.” And the show, as it marks its 18th year, is “like good wine, it’s getting better with time,” according to Artistic Director Darmagnac.
“The original concept of the show has stayed the same from the beginning – what’s improved is the acrobatics,” he said. “Like we’ve seen in the Olympics this year, records are being broken and it’s the same with us – the level of quality keeps getting higher and higher.”
Explaining that Alegria is a performer-driven show, and not one relying on bells and whistles and special effects, Darmagnac said that the human aspect is what has made it – and all Cirque du Soleil’s productions – the massive success stories they are.
“We tap into something very human and touching, and that’s the special element we offer,” he said. “Sure, it’s a show with circus acrobats, but it’s staged in a way that the show is also a theatrical performance where there are moments of bristling energy, but also quieter, poignant moments. The key to Alegria is in its details and its depth.
“When the performers get on stage, it’s like ‘here we are, this is what we have to give to you.’ It’s up to the public to take it – and usually they do – and it’s up to the public to decide how to react.
It’s a good bet that at the Nokia Arena over the next three weeks, the reaction will be multiple standing ovations.