The first thing I saw after stepping into the blue-and-yellow-striped big top was a lizard man perched above the crowd, hissing and throwing popcorn at laughing audience members as they waited for the show to start.
Needless to say, it’s a theatre experience I never forgot.
This was back in 2013 and I was about to see Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna, which was the first big top show to come to Edmonton. Big tops are the origins of circus; they are its heart and soul. There is a marked difference in the atmosphere and especially the audience’s engagement when shows are in a big top as compared to those in a stadium. It’s simply more intimate: the performers are very close to you, flying right above your head. It’s marvelous.
I can attest personally to the mesmerizing effect of a big top show, so I was psyched when I heard that Cirque du Soleil’s big top is back in town with Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities. The show is set in a 19th steampunk esthetic, with each act capturing the genre’s swashbuckling, steam engine-and-electric-inventions-gone-wild flair.
I sat down with two of the performers, aerialist Anne Weisseecker and hand balancer Andrii Bondarenko, for a conversation about the show, their advice for aspiring circus performers, and most importantly, their favourite foods and wines.
“I come from France and so in France there [are] many circus schools for kids,” Weisseecker says. “When I wanted to become professional, I actually came to Canada and I did the national circus school here in Montreal. So I stayed there three years and I learned – my specialty was rope but I also learned so many of the disciplines.”
Weisseecker went straight into Cirque du Soleil from school. Kurios is her second show with the company. Her act is brand new: she’s playing a flying telegram girl who delivers messages on a bicycle suspended seven metres above the ground on aerial ropes.
This is also Bondarenko’s second show with Cirque. His background is acrosport, or acrobatic sports. He was a member of the Ukrainian national team for five years and did a number of competitions in this field around the world, where he was head-hunted by representatives of Cirque du Soleil.
In Kurios, he’s doing a hand balancing act on chairs. His character is a bourgeoisie dinner party host, and by the end of his act he’ll also be balanced about seven metres above the ground.
“This show has so many surprises,” Bondarenko says. “So just come to see us and you will be really surprised. It doesn’t matter [if you’ve already seen a Cirque show] – each show they always have something to surprise you.”
Cirque performers have to watch what they eat fairly closely, but they do have more flexibility in their diet than you might assume. A full working kitchen and cook team travels along with each show, so that performers have ready access to plenty of fresh options and don’t have to worry about finding their own meals while on tour. Right before a show, performers eat very little so as not to end up with digestive issues while they are on stage. But afterwards, and on their days off, they can eat pretty much what they like.
“I’m French, I eat everything – I love food!” Weisseecker says with a laugh. She mentions good bread and cheese as high on her list of favourite foods, just as you’d expect from someone who grew up in Alsace. She also lists that region’s white wines as among her favourites, especially Riesling.
Bondarenko is a little choosier with his meals – he’s not a fan of spicy foods and favours lighter fare. “I prefer Japanese or Chinese food, and I really love pho soup,” he says. “And I like sushi.”
As for wine, he doesn’t waste time on the cheap stuff. “I prefer Champagne,” Bondarenko says with a grin.
Cirque du Soleil has played a major role in reviving and evolving circus arts in the 21st century. I think there’s certainly a connection between the international popularity of Cirque shows and the increased number of people learning various circus arts here in Edmonton. Case in point: Firefly Theatre and Circus regularly sells out its various classes.
Given the increased competition in this field, both Weisseecker and Bondarenko offer some advice to young aspirants who want to run off and join the circus.
“I think it’s important to have the passion for what you do, because it’s a long road and after, even when you are in Cirque, you still have to train; you can never really relax,” Weisseecker says. “Because it’s a live show, so it’s not because yesterday you did a great show that tomorrow you will do another one. You really have to continue to work on yourself and on your skills.”
Bondarenko stresses the importance of patience and perseverance. “Never give up and don’t try to copy anyone – try to find your own style and somebody will find you and you’re gonna have a job,” he advises. “It’s very important to be unique in this world because it’s a big competition, so don’t try to make a copy.”
Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios runs July 20 to August 3, 2017.
For more information on Kurios and to buy tickets, check out their website.