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

Seven’s a crowd for Fundy tourism

As Bernard Weber counted down from seven, the crowd lowered their umbrellas, threw their collective hands into the air and looked skyward.

Rain had been falling on and off for about an hour, but cheers still rang out from a crowd assembled in a number 7 formation when Weber got to “one.”

The Giant 7 event, held Wednesday evening on the Saint John Waterfront, was designed to promote the Bay of Fundy for the New7Wonders of the World.

Terri McCulloch, the executive director for Bay of Fundy tourism, said afterward that she was very pleased with how it went.

“We were aiming for 777 people and I think we got that,” she said.

The outline of the giant seven, which she estimates was about 200 feet wide and 300 feet long, was fitted for about that many people she said, and it was pretty full.

In the hour leading up to an official photo session, passersby were stopped on the boardwalk and recruited, offered free New7Wonders t-shirts. Three-year-old children ran around on the dock as the Black Eyed Peas blared from the speakers. Two teenagers, 13 and 15-years-old, stashed their bmx bikes against the lighthouse and walked through the gates.

Seven members of the Daley family were there too (an unplanned numeric coincidence). As Patti watched her four-year old son Sebastian dance to Kenny Loggins’ Footloose, with his t-shirt fluttering about his ankles, she said they were there to support the Bay of Fundy.

As frequent visitors to the bay, she said they would love to see the site instated as one of the new wonders of the world.

“It’s just a special place to be,” Daley said.

Weber, who founded the New7Wonders foundation and is now travelling around the world to encourage people to vote, said he hoped the event would spread that passion to the rest of Canada.

Fundy is Canada’s only entry in the event. And while he said he doesn’t like to dwell on this aspect of the contest, he acknowledged that being one of the seven could bring huge economic return for a country.

Weber said seven is the number that most people can remember. The seven sites that get the most votes will be in the global memory forever, he said.

Before the event started, Weber pulled from the inside pocket of his jacket five old photographs. They were from his first visit to the Bay of Fundy 20 years ago. As his fingers glazed the faded photographs he said he remembers the daily tidal phenomenon being incredible.

“It’s like the heartbeat of the world,” he said.

People can vote for the Bay of Fundy online for free at http://www.votemyfundy.com . They can also vote from their mobile phones by texting FUNDY to 77077 ($0.25 per text vote). Voting continues until New7Wonders of Nature declaration day on Nov. 11, 2011.

Previously published June 30, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Students tour England and Scotland

“That one looks like the genie from Aladdin.”

Two students sit on a hill byScotland’sStirlingCastle, deciphering images in the clouds. The intense wind surging over them rejuvenates as they absorb the magnificent highlands.

From April 2nd to 9th, a group ofPerth and District Collegiate Institute students and a handful of teachers/supervisors traveled toEngland andScotland for what was dubbed the “Kilts and Castles” trip. After a cramped six hour flight across theAtlantic Ocean we were all as excited to land inLondon as 45 jet-lagged people could be.

During the initial tour ofLondonthe first thing that struck me was the “hodgepodge of architecture”, as our tour guide, Emma, called it in her delicate English accent. One can see history patched together through stone, brick and steel; modern skyscrapers abruptly juxtapose elegant Victorian and Georgian structures. It is as if someone took a quaint country town, multiplied it by a quajillion, and squished it all along theThamesRiver.

The subject of population arose while Emma taught us the history of the city.London’s impressive 7 million madePerth’s 6000 seem pretty paltry.

We soon learned that “The Tube” was the primary mode of transportation for those 7 million people. “The Tube” is the underground subway network that spiderwebs throughoutLondon. In comparison toToronto’s hectic set-up, it is surprisingly agreeable and we soon had the main lines memorized.

Wandering through the regalHamptonCourtPalacewhere numerous dignitaries lived and walked, it was hard not to be impressed. InClock Court, the towering astronomical clock made for Henry VIII shows the hour, month, day, number of days since the beginning of the year, and the phases of the moon. The detail and grandeur demonstrated from that era was astonishing. Stretching over 60 acres behind the palace are the gardens, most of which have been restored to what they looked like to the Kings andQueenswho once enjoyed them. It was a history class to beat all history classes.

We took the overnight train toEdinburgh,Scotland. In the morning when my roommate and I opened the blinds,EdinburghCastlewas perfectly centered in our window, the sunrise softly highlighting the ancient stone. It was right out of a fairytale and we couldn’t help but gasp.

I must say, the people are the strength behindScotland’s character. One such rugged Sir that we had the pleasure of meeting was our tour guide forEdinburghCastle– a certain Robbie Robertson. Fully clad in traditional Scottish regalia, he was a hardy old salt with wispy white hair and beard. “You can always count on my tours to end by12:45because of a medical condition I have,” he assured us, “You see, I have to be at the bar by1:00…”

Edinburghis split between the antiquity of OldTown(13th – 14th Century) and Georgian New Town (1800’s). During our wanderings through the city, some of us were privileged to tryScotland’s heart-attack inducing delicacy – deep-fried Mars bar. Though it looks and sounds disgusting, it is the most sinfully delectable indulgence you could possibly have the misfortune of tasting, at what we estimated was 5000 calories a bite.

At the border of the Scottish Highlands sitsStirlingCastlewhere the winds off the hills rush up and can almost lift you off the ground. It was hard to imagine so beautiful a place stained with blood from long ago battles.

Scotland’s rustic intrigue andEngland’s metropolitan romance charmed our lives for one week. We returned home culturally enriched, historically educated, and with a hint of accent still on everyone’s tongue.

Previously published May 2, 2007; The Charlatan

Geo-venturing in Algonquin Park

The surrounding snow walls suck oxygen, suffocating, as panic chips away at logic. But when it is -27ºC outside the shelter, the claustrophobics of our group host a night-long battle between anxiety and warmth.

At the end of February, the PDCI Geo-ventures class set out for three days into the wilderness ofAlgonquinNational Park. The winter camping trip was the first on the course’s adventurous list and we hoped that our preparatory work would keep hypothermia and frost-bite at bay.

The bus was packed from floor to ceiling with gear. People warily watched the unsteady mound while visions of dislodged ski poles shooting into the back of unsuspecting skulls rattled around in our imaginations.

Pulling up to the campsite, the number of tents already there was surprising. For many in our little group, it was difficult to grasp that people – under their own free will – would distance themselves from the comforts of domestic suburbia to plunge into the frigid elements.

As we spilled out of the bus, sunshine washed over us. Clean air filled our lungs and we enjoyed the special optimism that only comes from being outside on a beautiful day.

Sleeping options at Mew Lake Campground included tent or quin-zhee (a hollowed out pile of snow that can vaguely resemble an igloo). Additionally, the site offered furnished, heated ‘yurts’ in case someone’s health became severely jeopardized.

Frankly, that first bone-chilling night, for many, was spent awake and shivering. I was one of the lucky ones. Cocooned in two thick sleeping bags I was quite comfortable.

Quin-zhees certainly aren’t for everyone. It can be unnerving to wake up with a foot thick solid roof of snow barely above your face. The minimal mobility of the ‘mummy bag’ doesn’t help.

After an appendage-numbing first morning, our misery subsided with breakfast and cross-country skiing along theLeafLaketrail and the slightly shorter Jack Rabbit. We sweated the uphills, zoomed the downhills and laughed at each other when we crashed at the bottom, skis and limbs intertwining into complicated knots.

The group gradually spread out until the still air was disturbed only by swooshing skis and crunching snow. For those of us who were used to constant socializing, the isolation brought an appreciation for simply spending time alone in the frosted forest.

Algonquin is a mix of southern hardwood and northern coniferous forests. The park sits on the meridian of the two forest types, and hosts a vast range of wildlife.

Back at the bus we had an intimate encounter with the very bold, very social Grey Jay, one of Algonquin’s 272 recorded birds. It is also known as the Whiskeyjack – a distortion of the Native Algonquian word ‘Wisakajack’, which means a mischievous spirit of the forest who likes to play tricks on people. The birds swooped in gracefully, perching delicately on the edges of our outstretched hands just long enough to steal away with some trail mix. Our ever-watchful teacher Mr. Greg Anderson smiled at the blatant wonder on our faces and seemed satisfied as he listened to the excited chatter.

The final morning, we woke to light freezing rain. We ate and packed up quickly before finally climbing, grungy and weather-beaten, onto the bus. Shortly after we left, the increasing intensity of the ice pellets made for a stressful drive home. But exhaustion left us thankful just for the dry warmth of the bus heater.

There’s something about pitching a bunch of teenagers into the wilderness for a few days that makes a great learning experience. In the absence of parental help and basic creature comforts, we had to grit our teeth and get through, helping and supporting each other along the way. In our Canadian winter wilderness we bonded and discovered that sometimes laughter can be a great heater.

Previously published March 14, 2007; The Perth Courier

Adirondack adventures

I had been getting death threats for about three hours. Each promise of excruciating torture hit the back of my head and I let it slide off my back with an amused chuckle. My brother, the verbal assailant, was not so jovial. We were biking up a massive hill in the heart of the Adirondak mountains, and he held me responsible for the numbing pain in his legs.

After a summer of balancing three jobs and living alone in my apartment with my cat Earl, I needed an adventure. For weeks I’d felt stir-crazy and uninspired, and had taken to swinging mindlessly in my desk chair for hours. My wanderlust set itself on a multi-day bike trip down to Saranac Lake, New York.

My 16-year old brother Colin is pretty fit so I figured he could handle the 250km one-way trip. Two years previously, I had convinced him to go on another bike trip to Wolfe Island, right off the shore of Kingston. The trip had been a blast, but Colin had insisted that we take the train on the way back. I assured him that this time we were making it the whole way. It was destination or die.

So with 30 pounds of camping gear, clothes, and trail mix packed into our saddle bags, we set off from my parent’s house in Balderson, Ont. We were giving ourselves four days to get there.

As far as training goes, the extent of mine was biking to work every couple days. Colin tried once, a week before departure, to bike the 10km to a friends’ and almost expired. I seriously considered lashing a stick to Colin’s helmet, with a Snickers bar dangling before his eyes Looney Tunes style. I shelved the idea for worst-case-scenario and hoped that sibling love and mental tenacity would persevere.

The weather was kind to us for most of the trip and we’d covered all but 30km by the last day. On flat terrain, it should have taken us a few hours. As it was, the unrelenting hills set off an emotional rollercoaster, where downhill was a thrill-ride to see how fast we could go, and uphill meant I was hearing about how Colin didn’t love me anymore.

It was lightly raining when we got to the ‘Welcome to Saranac Lake’ sign and stopped for a rare photo-op. Our trip picture album is pitifully scarce, since whenever we passed something interesting en route, we’d acknowledge that we should take a picture of it, and then realize that neither of us cared enough to actually break the circular motion that our legs had begrudgingly accepted as default.

We peddled into the parking lot where my mother was waiting for us to the sweet haven of warm van. The drizzle was now a torrential downpour.

“Never. Again,” Colin said between wheezes. Bowlegged, we staggered off our bikes, and I laughed until tears blended with the rain on my cheeks.

When I later asked him what had been his least favourite part of the trip, he had replied with utter sincerity, “probably the peddling part.”

In retrospect, I think it’s safe to assume that Colin prefers a bit less ‘alternative-style exercise’, and a bit more classic iron-pumping in the gym; I doubt I’ll be able to get him out again any time soon.

While I’m a devout believer that people should get physical activity in whatever way works for them, I find it’s always fun to stray from the treadmill once in a while.

Previously published in 2011; the Charlatan