Creating magic takes work. Fostering imagination requires commitment. Building a world worthy of an audience’s suspension of disbelief, if even for simply two hours, demands discipline.
Cirque du Soleil understands this tenuous combination of work and imagination better than any other theatrical producer, welcoming you into their world with a flourish.
Belief in Fantasy
photo credit: Focka
I have been a fan of Cirque du Soleil since I was little, watching it on TV, fascinated by their whimsical makeup, and dreaming of someday seeing one of their shows in person. Thirty-something years later, I travel the country to see both their touring productions and resident shows. The wide-eyed child in me still alive and bouncing on tip-toes with excitement.
That “bouncing on tip-toes with excitement” feeling is very much something we want to foster here at Wonder and Company. It’s important to us to find ways to capture that feeling in words and images to share with you in hopes that it will ignite a spark of recognition. A flash of pure emotion you’ll remember from childhood.
In the culmination of what may have been a lifelong subconscious manipulation of my career, to reach this one point, I recently spent a day backstage with Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai in New Orleans. (insert lots of happiness and willful assertion of professional behavior here because y’all!)
photo credit: Cirque Du Soleil
Currently on an extensive arena tour, Varekai is a stunning show centered around the story of Icarus. The word Varekai (pronounced ver·ay·’kie) means “wherever” in the Romany language of the gypsies—the universal wanderers.
A critically acclaimed production that has enchanted millions since its premiere in 2002, Varekai picks up where the myth leaves off, finding Icarus falling into a forest of fantastical creatures instead of the ocean below. There he finds himself injured, enthralled by the creatures around him as he tries to regain his strength.
Theater is what sets Cirque du Soleil apart from other Cirque-style (yet not Cirque du Soleil) productions.
Set design, costuming, makeup, music, and storytelling work together to draw the audience in and compel them to believe in fantasy for the brief moments you share the arena or big top. The show has over 600 costumes, shoes, wigs, hats and accessories, taking a total of 250 hours a week to keep the costumes impeccable on tour.
Making a story immersive enough to earn a spot in the Cirque du Soleil canon of shows takes remarkable work. It’s not just a circus; it is a storytelling experience. Absolute theater for the young and young at heart. Varekai is a particularly easy to follow story, which makes it perfect for all ages as well as those unfamiliar with Cirque du Soleil.
And then there is the talent behind the work. Varekai features an international cast of 50 performers and musicians from 18 different countries. I spent the day with Emily McCarthy, an 18 year old acrobat from England who specializes in the Slippery Surface act but appears in up to six different acts during the show.
Emily, like all of the performers and crew I watched, is meticulous in her craft and an absolute asset to Cirque du Soleil for her professionalism and passion for both her work and the company. She was, quite frankly, enthralling to watch. Her joy was contagious. That could easily be said for her work onstage and off, which is a testament to the work ethics and dedication of the entire company.
At the generous permission of Cirque du Soleil, I had the unparalleled pleasure of having Emily do my makeup as she does her own every day for the show. As you can imagine, I was beside myself with each stroke of her brush and have far too much to tell you about it. With that in mind, we are excited to present the entire makeup process in an upcoming post on Wonder and Company very soon.
Notable now, though, is the autonomy the performers maintain as part of their day. They are responsible for their rehearsals, training, and do their own makeup. The makeup process alone is so complex that it can take upwards of an hour or more per performer each day. Even Emily admitted to not realizing that the performers each do their own makeup when she first joined Cirque at the age of 16.
As she applied the final details to my face, Emily was aware of how much time each step would take down to the minute. This was important as she finished with precisely enough time to prepare for her own rehearsal, an exercise that would include climbing the elaborate staircase that extends out from the golden rods that make up Varekai’s forest and into an elevated platform to test rigging for aerial stunts she would perform throughout the show. After that, she moved on to training with other performers under the dimmed blue lights backstage, stretching and smiling with an endless supply of enthusiasm for yet another night in her nearly three years of performing with Varekai.
You can’t teach that level of passion so Cirque du Soleil puts an immense effort into finding potential performers. Putting them through rigorous auditions that merely earn them a coveted place in a roster of potential performers, talent scouts travel the world to discover athletic and artistic talent, often in the competition space. These performers need to be flexible and dynamic enough to grow into the multi-faceted performers that Cirque productions require.
The perfect one-arm Mexican handstand isn’t enough. You have to make the audience believe you are a wood nymph curious of this strange boy fallen from the sky, as well. And believe is what Varekai makes you do.
photo credit: Focka
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Special thanks to Sarah Meyer at BMF in New Orleans and Cirque du Soleil’s Vanessa Napoli and Emily McCarthy. Although I paid for my own show tickets, they said yes when I pitched the backstage experience. Thank you!
You can follow Emily on Instagram where she shares backstage photos, training videos, and makeup tutorials.