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By Zachary Whittenburg
Cirque offers performers surprising opportunities and paths.
Left: Performers in costume as a comet and The Fool head to the stage. Middle: The Beatles LOVE dance master Katy Tate (in pink sneakers) directs a “Drive My Car” rehearsal. Right: Eira Glover in a LOVE rehearsal.
Canada’s Montréal-based Cirque du Soleil can claim three decades of wrapping spectacle, music, crowd-pleasing clowning and acrobatic excellence together into hit shows. But in the new millennium, it has also become one of the largest employers of professional dancers in the U.S. The company has eight shows running in Las Vegas alone that employ more than 100 dancers, as well as teachers and rehearsal directors. A few dozen more dancers are on Cirque’s payroll as part of touring productions and special projects based elsewhere.
“When we had this explosion of hiring dancers, it was unexpected,” says Cirque talent scout Rick Tjia. After eight years with Montréal contemporary company La La La Human Steps, Tjia joined the organization in 2002; by 2004, he says, the number of Cirque dancers had quadrupled. “I don’t know if the trend will continue,” says Tjia, “but I certainly hope so.”
Specialty circus artists and apparatus acts still reign supreme in legacy productions like Mystère and OVO, in which dancers—if any—are mostly relegated to backup duties. Cirque dancers are, unsurprisingly, more often featured in newer shows focused on pop music, such as Las Vegas extravaganzas Michael Jackson ONE and The Beatles LOVE. Most of these dancers perform twice a day, five days a week as part of a single cast, though some are responsible for multiple tracks.
Cirque du Soleil does not discuss details of its contracts with performers, who are not unionized, nor will the company say whether performer pay is commensurate with the degree of physical risk involved, or summarize the standard benefits for employees of its Las Vegas shows. “I do know there have been benchmarking activities in the past,” says Tjia, “to compare our conditions with those elsewhere to make sure they are fair.” The past few years have posed some challenges for the company, as reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper and other outlets, necessitating some layoffs and providing its first visible stumbles in Las Vegas. After lackluster ticket sales, Viva Elvis closed early at the Aria Resort and Casino. Cast members of some touring shows have seen benefits dramatically reduced. In June 2013, aerial performer Sarah Guyard-Guillot died from her injuries after falling during a performance of Kà, the first such fatal accident in Cirque’s history.
LOVE dancers Jason Beitel and Laura Cota practice a lift.
However, Cirque continues to audition and hire a broad range of dance talent and artists from diverse backgrounds. Katy Tate, dance master for LOVE (“dance masters” play a special role in Cirque productions, with more oversight than dance captains in an average musical) grew up on the competition and convention circuit, and then worked on commercial gigs in Los Angeles and at Disney World. Samanth “Sam” Rayapati, 23, a native of Hyderabad, India, who joined LOVE in 2013, says he had no formal training: “Everything I learned was from YouTube.”
Canadian Eira Glover, 31, who performs in LOVE, came to Las Vegas in 2003 as part of the original cast of A New Day, starring Celine Dion. She has since hopped in and out of the concert-dance world, working with Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, Crystal Pite and Aszure Barton & Artists between touring with Cirque’s Delirium and performing at their various special events. Glover calls this restlessness unusual among her colleagues at Cirque, but “I love change,” she explains. “Always doing different things, always having different things asked of me: That’s what keeps me lit.” She confesses to missing the close-knit dance company atmosphere, but two benefits of working for Cirque keep pulling her back: learning new skills, such as breakdancing or aerial work, and performing for more than 2,000 people each night.
It’s up to Tate and her fellow dance masters to make certain these very differently trained dancers remain safe in the complex, high-risk environments of motorized scenery, haze machines, cables and harnesses. Tate reports to the artistic director and coaches and manages the dance aspects of LOVE’s 67 artists—dancers, acrobatic and aerial performers. Supplementing rehearsals and training sessions that, more often than not, dancers attend on performance days, LOVE offers the dancers skill-building workshops with guest instructors, including commercial choreographer Liz Imperio and New York postmodern choreographer David Dorfman. Cast members are “not required, but highly encouraged,” Tate adds, to take advantage of conditioning options provided by Cirque du Soleil, like physical therapy, and access to fitness equipment and cross-training with coaches and Pilates.
When Mukhtar Mukhtar, 32, originated the role of Krishna in LOVE, leaving his hip-hop crew and studies in forensic science at the University of Westminster in England, he was surprised that dancing would be “just one element” of being a member of LOVE’s cast. “Every morning was a lot of cardio. We trained for strength before we even got into the material,” he recalls. He also learned two new techniques—partnering and South African gumboot dancing. He ended up staying several years with LOVE before passing the torch to his successor.
Photos at left. Top: Tate leads a "Get Back" run-through. Middle: Glover getting her wig application. Bottom: LOVE performers in character.
Employees are encouraged to explore new roles for themselves. Tate, who trains select cast members to handle additional responsibilities as dance captains, says an artistic directorship “is definitely something I see myself moving toward.”
When Cirque dancers are ready to leave the Strip, the company’s new ventures can open up career opportunities. Mukhtar was hired as a choreographer by then–casting director Michel Laprise, now a top-level creative director for Cirque. Contributing to several company projects, like its 3-D feature film, Worlds Away, followed. This month, Mukhtar helms the second annual One Night for ONE DROP, an event benefiting an initiative launched by Cirque co-founder Guy Laliberté, dedicated to ensuring universal access to safe, clean water worldwide.
All this in addition to the fact that, within Cirque’s empire, there’s almost always another major production in the works.KURIOS—Cabinet of Curiosities opens in Montréal in April, though whether it will involve dancers, and how many, can change weekly during the creative process. As Tjia says, “There are always surprises.”
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The launch of an online registry for current, former and aspiring Cirque performers “has had a huge impact on efficiency,” says talent scout Rick Tjia. As they watch video samples uploaded to cirquedusoleil.com/jobs, Tjia and his colleagues apply specific tags to each in a meta-database. “We’ll note that there are turns, that there are jumps, down to that level of detail. With b-boys, we tag down to the specific power moves they have, as well as whether they’re just doing those, or if they have something original. And we note the dancer’s improvisation level.”
Tjia rarely knows how soon new opportunities will arise, but when they do, the wheels turn quickly. “We can create lists based on specific fields, so, if we’re looking for someone who knows a certain discipline at a certain level, or with strong ballet technique who’s also a physical actor and has some acrobatic capabilities, I can select a list of those artists, then even narrow it down further. Say which ones are in Spain and available next week. When it’s time to hire for a new show, we have to know who’s out there right now.”
Social media have made it much easier to connect with new talent. Tjia’s team manages the Twitter account @Dance_at_Cirque, answering questions and posting updates about auditions and the scouts’ whereabouts in both French and English.
Zachary Whittenburg is manager of communication at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
All photos by Square Shooting.