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Joy Division 

Take a backstage peek at Cirque du Soleil's uplifting Alegría

'The company is so unique: 55 artists, 17 different countries, 11 languages ... I always say, 'It looks like the theater, it smells like the theater, but it's not."

That's Tim Smith, seasoned Broadway veteran and current artistic director for Cirque du Soleil's touring arena show, Alegría. We're seated together, stage-front inside the INTRUST Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan. It's 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday, six hours from showtime and roughly 15 hours past the close of the first of six performances at the venue.

A handful of performers warm up nearby, on an X-shaped trampoline system set up below retracted floor segments in the stage. They tumble at impressive speeds before landing even more impressive flips and rotations, with calf muscles testing their Spandex, and sculpted abs, pecs and trunks speaking volumes for diet and training regiments.

Out of costume and in exercise garb (which includes one male's distracting pair of short shorts), the group as a whole looks like a wayward band of Olympians. And some Alegría members, like a high-bar performer I'll later meet, actually are former Olympic trainees and even medal winners.

"These people are one of a kind," says Smith. "You can't just get rid of the Mongolian contortion twins and get another pair."

Soaring soundtrack

Of course, the Montreal-based, 26-year-old Cirque du Soleil is pretty unique, itself. With 21 shows currently in production, including seven resident Las Vegas acts and a new Michael Jackson-themed show tentatively due in 2012, the company is an artistic juggernaut. In 2010 alone, it filled roughly 15 million seats.

It's the type of entertainment machine that can afford to send people like me across state lines, paying for airfare, hotel and transportation, so I can pass along some details about the show that'll soon be traveling here.

I'm well aware that if you're of a certain mindset, catching a Cirque show before you die is up there with visiting New York, or bungee jumping. It's a thing to do in part to say you did it, and because only after you do it do you realize just why everyone says you should have done it: It's just freakin' cool.

Each Cirque show is unique — O for its water-based format, OVO for its colorful look at insects, and so on — and Smith says that there's an explanation for why Alegría (Spanish for "joy") in particular has been "a jewel" for the past 16 years.

"The score motivates this show like I haven't seen in a very long time," he says. "The music is incredible and it's emotional, and when you couple that with an act that's happening 42 feet in the air, there's a reason that it's the largest-selling CD of any Cirque show to this date."

At the previous night's performance, I expected to feel awe for the acrobatic stunts and graceful displays of nearly superhuman strength and balance. (I'm talking about you, hand-balancing guy and silver-hoop-spinning girl.) I didn't expect to be struck by the vocals, particularly from the lovely White Singer (counterpart to the Black Singer). Thunderous drums and ominous keys heighten certain show segments, while other songs flip and vault among accordion-driven stylings, jazz beats and playful Klezmer melodies heavy on synthesized horns.

In the morning, I awoke with the title track in my head, making my walk down the hotel hallway perhaps just a little exaggerated and effeminate.

Wide load

To folks concerned that a show at the World Arena will fall short of Cirque's Vegas or original-style big-top shows — wherein the company lugs their own tents and creates a full circus atmosphere — Smith says don't be.

"The arena environment is the exact same show," he insists. "Nothing is compromised as far as the production value."

Nor should there be concern over which night you attend.

"It's utterly important for us to make sure that every show is exactly the same and that the people in the audience get the same experience," says assistant production manager Mike Newnum. Along with 21 other technicians, he's responsible for loading and unloading 18 semi trucks' worth of gear and safely rigging 90,000 pounds of lighting, rope ladders, netting and performance equipment to venue ceilings.

Though elaborate wigs, costumes, hats, shoes and accessories all hail from Cirque's costume workshop at International Headquarters in Montreal, a team of four people plus two local hires in each tour city fit, oversee and maintain 600 total items for the performers.

This requires 15 to 20 loads of laundry daily (everything that touches a performer's skin is washed after each performance), and costume replacement every three months. The wear-and-tear on stage also leaves the crew sewing many of the same buttons back on or mending the same rips and tears over and over.

"It's the nature of the beast," says wardrobe assistant Amy Brown.

The artists I saw on the trampoline earlier, called power track artists, are the costume department's most steady clients: "That's actually a gold lamé fabric, so it's a gold wire on top of Spandex," Brown says of their costumes. "So as you see them sliding across the floor and you see them bouncing on the trampoline, it just tears that gold wire up."

Trust fall

As the night's performance draws closer, a flurry of new activity breaks out in the drab concrete corridors between the arena rooms serving as dressing areas, a media center, an all-hours canteen, a costume shop and office space. Behind a giant black curtain cutting the arena floor in two, small groups of performers — most short and hyper-muscular — warm up on practice bars, a punching bag, free-weights and exercise bikes. Music from the likes of the Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers blares from above, seemingly helping some athletes focus on their training, and others to relax and cut up with their teammates. Sans the imposing rolling trunks and stacks of various equipment flanking all sides of the area, it could be mistaken for a small college gym, minus the wet-sock smell.

Near three complicated-looking dry-erase boards detailing all the show cues and schedule, two couches face a large television. Performers can pull up video of their last performance — and most do daily — to review their technique and make mental notes for the next go-round. While here, I see one of the aforementioned Mongolian contortionists cast a less-than-ecstatic expression toward the monitor. (What? That part where you're both folded backward in half and you're balancing atop her hipbones and the audience is fawning and clapping isn't perfect?)

I'm guided to some gym mats at the center of the action, where blond, baby-faced aerial high bar acrobat and Belarus native Slava Petrakov is stretching near his seven teammates. Through a heavy accent but soft voice, he tells me he's been with Cirque nearly three years, having essentially chosen it over the Olympics. While training for the Beijing games in 2008, he got a call from Cirque inviting him to try out; the organization keeps close ties with gymnastic and acrobatic associations worldwide, which is how many performers come aboard.

Upon being hired by the company, all artists train in Montreal, where all the shows are created. Petrakov spent his first seven months with Cirque focused solely on learning his routine.

I first ask about the incredible timing and coordination it requires to leap from the middle bar to the side bars then down to the catchers below, who swing like a pendulum. He says the key to nailing the exact moment is knowing when to launch off in relation to the chair: "From the middle bar, start when the chair is in front ... it's hard in the beginning, but if you do it, after months, you know."

As for the catcher: "You need to trust him like you trust yourself."

I can't resist inquiring further. What about falling?

Petrakov says when it first happened to him in a performance, he was depressed for two days.

"I'm like, 'Oh my God, I work for Cirque du Soleil — it's the number one Cirque in the world, and I don't have a chance [to] fall.

"But now I know we're not robots. We can fall, of course, and if you fall you just play around and show the public you're OK. ... Without fall[ing], you'll never be a professional."

Petrakov actually calls the basic week in the life of a Cirque performer "easy." They get Mondays and Tuesdays off and usually hit movies, malls, swimming pools or gyms and sometimes take quick trips. Wednesdays through Sundays, they warm up one hour each day prior to performing and otherwise train as they individually see fit, saving enough energy for the eight performances, doubled up on the weekend days.

As for the eight minutes you're on stage: "Just enjoy," he says, "and give the public your best."

Re-creation nation

Somewhere in Alegría is a gossamer-thin storyline that's supposedly about the handing down of power through generations and transition from monarchies to democracies. Two talented clowns do the heaviest lifting as far as advancing many of those ideas; their sketches elicit some good laughs as well as surprising poignancy.

But honestly, even reading about the themes beforehand, I couldn't really see them. That the underlying framework is entirely capable of being missed is OK, according to Smith. He acknowledges that there's no Point A-to-Point-B arc inside Alegría's 2½ hours (with intermission). Instead, he says the vague outline allows for the audience to think and create for themselves.

"Cirque's mandate as a company is creation," he says. "... Most of the time if you create something, that's what it was from opening night. This is not true for Cirque. They constantly challenge the show, they constantly challenge creativity and the artists and the acts to do new things."

matthew@csindy.com

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