True Spectacle: Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam

Not many people get to peek behind the heavy black curtain hiding the mysterious backstage world of a circus. But beyond the glitzy costumes and expert acrobatics, there is a spectacle of a different kind.

Mireille Goyette was 17 years old when she started working for Cirque du Soleil. It was 1998 and by that point she’d been a competitive gymnast for 10 years. She said as a child she spent her days hanging off stairs and climbing anything vertical, so perhaps it is not surprising that her mother enrolled her in gymnastics at the age of three.

It wasn’t until three years later she realized she wanted to devote her life to the circus. During summer camp she’d gone to see the Cirquedu Soleil show Cirque Réinventé and emerged astounded. Afterwards, she recalls saying to her parents, “that’s what I would like to do when i grow up.”

Now she performs in front of wide-eyed audiences around the world, living out of hotel rooms with her 51 fellow nomad cast members.

Right now, they are making their way across Canada with one of Cirque’s classics: Quidam. They perform in Saint John from July 13 to 17 at Harbour Station.

Goyette is part of a couple acts, but her most elaborate is the Spanish Web. This involves five performers who are suspended high above the stage, connected to each other by ropes, which are in turn attached to a giant mobile machine called a téléphérique.

The téléphérique moves the artists left, right, upstage and downstage, even out over the audience. Dangling above the void, they manoeuvre the rope with arms, legs and toes, twisting themselves into acrobatic positions and elegantly tumbling through the air.

Behind the scenes, it’s a lot of hard work.

“It’s not your normal nine-to-five,” Goyette said.

Performers arrive early in the day to do their daily cardio, and practise their acts on the “blue carpet” (backstage area) up until about two hours before showtime. Then it’s makeup time.

Goyette said it takes her about 45 minutes to apply hers but other characters can take up to three hours. During this time the “techies” check lights and sound cues. The band arrives and warms up its instruments. The performers have one last warm-up.

Then, the show is on.

If it’s a Sunday, there’s even more hustle going on backstage. During the last show, the crew is busy “loading out.” Everything is packed and shortly after curtain call everyone boards a bus or plane, en-route to the next city. They arrive in the middle of the night and take Monday off. Tuesday they set up the tiled stage and the 120-foot long téléphérique. On Wednesday, the cycle begins again.

The audience doesn’t see any of this. Goyette said even if there is a tiny mistake – a dancer misses a beat or a toe isn’t perfectly pointed – the audience usually doesn’t catch it. Instead they see the special lighting effects (a rubbery mat on the stage is perforated with 200,000 tiny holes so light can pass through from beneath) and the synchronized choreography.

But Quidam is more than just colourful costumes and wow-factor, said artistic director Fabrice Lemire, who often works 65 hours a week. It has a plot. This, he said, is what makes it different from the typical Cirque show.

The story follows a young girl, Zoé, as she deals with her distant and apathetic parents. To escape her boredom, she slides into an imaginary realm of her own creation, into the fanciful world of Quidam.

According to the show’s overview, Quidam “could be anyone, anybody. Someone coming or going at the heart of our anonymous society. A member of the crowd, one of the silent majority. The one who cries out, sings and dreams within us all.”

Lemire said he likes to interpret it as a young girl trying to distinguish her individual self as she becomes a teenager, with all the “turmoil, action and beauty” that involves.

Since Cirque du Soleil started in 1984 in the small Quebec town of Baie-Saint-Paul, the company has exploded worldwide. Close to 100 million spectators have seen a Cirque du Soleil show and the company has 5,000 employees.

Goyette said sometimes it can be hard being a part of one of their travelling arena shows. But the camaraderie among the cast makes it like a second family, she said. They are constantly pranking each other, hiding hats and pre-dusting blush brushes with the wrong colour. Never going so far as to compromise the show, but Goyette said you never know what’s going to happen.

Despite everything, she said the stage is her home.

“Being onstage to me is where I belong.”

As the shows draws to a close Zoé reunites with her parents, and the characters of her imagination fade back to fantasy, behind the heavy black curtain.

Previously published July 2, 2011; the Telegraph-Journal