Lights, camera, action! The stage has been set and the big moment finally arrived! The grand launch for the new Cirque du Soleil show, “IRIS” premiered on September 25, 2011, exclusively at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles. Its amazing to think that this show started from a mere blank canvas or a simple figment of one’s imagination, and has now evolved into the very live, three dimensional, dynamic theater show that it has become.
Before I get into the meat of my bantering I want to give you a quick fun fact. In 1987, Cirque was invited to participate in the Los Angeles Arts Festival in which it was a huge success. The show and company were warmly embraced by the public and the local entertainment community alike, thus giving it the necessary fuel to become the entertainment mogul it is today. The IRIS premier, happening now 24 years later, is momentous not only because it’s back in Los Angeles, but in a way pays homage to its humble beginnings. I’m sure the night of the premier was a “Kodak” moment for Guy Laliberte and early founders of the company.
Recently I had the pleasure of watching the show live for the first time. Its hard to imagine that after 8 months of being involved in the project, that I am just now witnessing it live for the first time. Strange you may say, but until now, I have been involved in every show in some capacity and have only seen trainings, rehearsals, or run throughs. Its really not the same experience as watching the show top to bottom, in it’s complete entirety. I am not a certified critic named Ebert or Roeper, but I want to say unbiasedly that this show is magnificent and thoroughly entertaining! I found myself sitting in the seats getting lost in its uniqueness just as any other viewer would. I was in awe of our acrobats, wowed by our talented dancers, and I laughed at all the jokes. Not to mention, the music by Danny Elfman soared through the house, connecting flawlessly to my emotions. I even went into the lobby during intermission so I could join in on conversations with our lovely patrons, who were all impressed as well.
Maybe my previous blogs and the paragraph above isn’t reason enough for you to book a ticket to LA so I will give you a few more snippets into my role with IRIS. Outside of “roof tops” which is my main number, there are several instances or “cues” which I perform.
During act one, my role is much more mental than physical, in that I am focusing my attention on remotely controlling a baby machine on stage. “Baby machine,” you ask? I’ll explain. There are three motorized baby machines in the show, which are radio controlled from “somewhere” in the house. These knee-high little creatures symbolize the three distinct elements of the movie making process (light, sound, and film) and are masterfully decorated to emphasize the antiquity of the past. I have several cues with the Baby Pavillion (sound machine) and the Baby Camera and its interesting because an artist like myself trains and runs choreography with them for many months eventually adding lifelike personality and character to a remote mechanical “artist.”
Act two is where things start to pick up for me. It all starts immediately following intermission, with a number we call “movie set.” This chain reaction scene is jam packed with full blown acrobatics using a number of different apparatuses like teeter boards and Russian bars. Its fueled by some energized dance choreography and musical genius that has an almost comical feel. I canʼt even begin to touch on all the elements in this scene without leaving something precious out (like the props) so Iʼll let you witness it. Did I mention ALL the artists are on stage for this one? This is one of my favorite numbers as its so skillfully choreographed and there is so much going on, there isnʼt much time for a mid-number applause. Outside the little pockets of acting and dancing, you can see me doing an iron cross on a ladder towards the beginning, spinning on a camera dolly in the middle of the number, and doing some funky gymnastics on an acro-table in the end. Very. Fun.
Rather than give more details about the show and spoil some of the greatest moments with words, I want to take this time to give an analysis of my life as a gymnast and now as an artist.
While I am still doing gymnastics in a different format, one of the first differences that come to mind is that an artist is not going for a score. The sole goal of any artistic performer is to take viewers to another realm, out of their current reality. As an artist, its less about competition and you versus someone else and more about connecting with an audience. I guess score can be measured in how loud an applause is or how taken aback someone is with the aesthetics of what they are watching, but the absence of score means there are less rules to be followed, less pressure, and more importance on creative ability. If a gymnast makes a mistake, it will hurt their overall score. If an artist makes a mistake, he/she would try to cover up or mask the mistake in a creative way which still holds the audience connection. This creative freedom is a concept I am quite fond of and its the main reason I was always looking for new skills to create in the sport.
However, in contrast, sports and especially gymnastics, provide something more concrete for athletes and fans alike. Score plays an important role in giving an athlete something to strive for as they attempt perfection. Score, especially in gymnastics, is what pushes an athlete to believe they are capable of more than they can conceive. Score also separates the good from the great. Sports and competition are rooted in times equally as ancient as the arts and mainly because human beings love rankings and champions. While there is still a connection between fans and athletes, sports have a unique ability of bringing people together to cheer for a common goal. A fan of a particular athlete can find themselves connecting to the story and individuality of said competitor. Not to mention, there is a physiological response in the body when an athlete is victorious and I believe buried in this immense energy are some of life’s most beautiful, irreplaceable gifts.
In terms of this new “job” and my old one as a professional gymnast, another stark difference is the schedule and training/peak cycles. As gymnasts, we are used to six week training cycles in which your intensity, workload, and mental-focus increase as competition nears. Once competition finishes, there is maybe one or two weeks of decompression time where you still work out but the work load is lightened to give necessary rest and recovery time to your body. For twenty years as a competitive gymnast, my body was wired for this schedule.
In the circus realm and especially with this show, we have to find it in us to give everything we have every night. We have 360 plus shows a year and that means we will have people in the seats night after night, ready to be entertained. While some skills in Cirque are just tough as gymnastics, its not the skills alone that entertain people. An artist can learn to entertain people through their emotions and conviction to a role or character. Artists entertain through giving selflessly and projecting outwardly, and by bringing an immense amount of life-energy every time they set foot on stage. One off day in the gym, where you are tired, hurt, and drained may just slightly affect your overall long term goal. However an off day as a performer, where you aren’t fully alive on stage, is easily noticeable if spotted and could have an impact on the overall feel of your act in a negative way. As for an ex-gymnast like myself, a certain period of rewiring must take place mentally and physically in order to acclimate to a show schedule of this nature.
The main similarity between the two realms is the aspect of performance. Both gymnastics and artistic performance are extremely similar in this regard, hence the term artistic gymnastics. Even after retiring from the sport, I find myself reliving the glory days quite often, but the images that come to mind first are those related to the performance of routines and tricks. I haven’t talked to a single gymnast or artistic performer that got bored with the feeling of sticking the final dismount in front of a huge crowd or taking in a standing ovation at the end of a show. Performance is an incredible stimulant for the body and mind. It usually justifies the sacrifices made in life, and makes the work leading up to said performance worthwhile.
I could go on about the similarities and differences between the two realms but the truth in comparing the two so closely is like comparing apples to oranges. One day I might want an apple, and the other an orange. Both have a unique ability to wow, yet at the same time are derived from different roots; sport and art.
I will leave you with this important piece and this is my advice to all budding and established gymnasts out there. I have taken note of valuable lessons since becoming a performer on stage that I would have brought with me to my life as a gymnast if I were to do it all over again.
Combine the two elements and start thinking of the sport as an art. Competitive gymnastics, at its highest level, is like trying to paint a “Monet” under extreme pressure. As a gymnast, its easy to get caught up in score, rankings, placement, accolade, start-value, etc. Pay closer attention to the artistry and performance aspect of what you are doing. In gymnastics, people are also buying tickets, coming to see you perform. Approach every competition as if it were a show, and every routine as if it were a piece of art. From the moment you set foot in the arena, know that you are ultimately there to show off your talent. From the moment you salute, know that you are painting a beautiful picture for those watching, using only body and mind as your instruments. Set your routine to music. Does it flow? Is it appealing to the eye? In the end, it doesn’t matter where you placed, people will soon forget, but people will always connect with the emotion you gave them through your performance and chances are you will unleash the true competitor in you.
In closing notes, I just want to openly confess that even though I am now retired, I will always have a long-lasting love affair with gymnastics. Gymnastics has tremendous gifts to offer and honestly, it brought me here, to this point; performing on stage every night. Regardless of how your career fares, just commend yourself for partaking in one of the world’s toughest sports, and now in my mind, most incredible art-forms.