Inside the heads of circus performers

Cirque du Soleil's resident 'performance psychologist' explains what makes circus artists tick

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

A typical Cirque du Soleil show is a long way from the “Greatest Show on Earth” of the early 1900s.

Gone is the ringmaster entreating you to step right up and see a fabulous variety show, and animals and sideshows are nowhere to be seen. The Big Top, that is, the tent where it all goes down, is no longer a requirement either. Instead, a Cirque show offers an abstract narrative told through a variety of acrobatic circus and gymnastic acts, topped off with elements of modern dance, usually to the tune of psychedelic world music.

Non-mainstream music, modern dance and gymnastics may not sound like a formula for economic success — practitioners of modern dance, for example, are rarely known for their opulence. Yet Cirque du Soleil is enormously successful; the company expects to sell 15 million tickets in 2012 alone. Since its creation in 1984, Cirque has ballooned from a small circus troupe into a multinational company that employs 5,000 people, more than 1,300 of whom are performers, and has made company founder Guy LaLibert%uFFFD a billionaire two and a half times over, according to Forbes magazine estimates.

The days of a child running away to the circus are no more. The performers employed by Cirque are either top-notch athletes or lifelong artists. (The juggler in Dralion, which is coming to the 1stBank Center Feb. 8-12, had been working on his act for years before coming to Cirque, and he practices his routine with near-clinical obsessive attention to detail.)

About 50 percent of Cirque performers actually spent most of their lives in competitive athletics such as gymnastics, according to Cirque’s corporate PR manager, Chantal C%uFFFDt%uFFFD. After being hired by Cirque, athletes set off to the Montreal headquarters, where they will embark on a 16-week training program designed to help them make the tumultuous transition from athlete to artistic performer.

The transition can be tough for some.

To ease things, Cirque du Soleil offers a vast net of resources to the athletes while in Montreal, including nutrition counseling, personal training and psychological help. Enter Madeleine Hall%uFFFD, Cirque du Soleil’s “senior performance psychologist.” Hall%uFFFD called Boulder Weekly from Canada and explained how she and her associates make the transition from athlete to artist an easy one.

Boulder Weekly: Can you explain the difference between a sports and performance psychologist?

Madeleine Hall%uFFFD: In sports psychology, most of the time there are a few key important competitions a few times a year; you’re not allowed to make any mistakes if you want to succeed or be one of the best. Here, it’s the opposite. We have, in certain context, we have more than 470 shows a year, so it’s a little bit different, just in that aspect. Making a mistake during the show, if you don’t consider the [physical] risk issues, it’s not a big deal.

Another difference for sure is the artistic aspect. Most of the athletes who are selected to come here do not have an artistic background. They are athletes. When they come here, they have to develop those skills, which I would say is a little bit demanding.

BW: Is it a difficult transition for the athletes?

MH: I wouldn’t use the word difficult.

I would say this is, for sure, a transition. They need to develop a capacity of adaptation. They need to understand that even if they are doing the most difficult acrobatic trick … the only way this fabulous acrobatic element can have value is if it’s included in the artistic aspect. When they understand that, the transition is easy.

I will say there is a period of a few days at the beginning where they are kind of lost. Having to learn many new things and having to let go of all the rules that they learned so far — like being the best, being first, things like that — it’s not important here.

BW: What specifically do you guys do when an athlete first arrives at Cirque?

MH: When they arrive, very often, we start with the artistic aspect. That means that the first two, three days, they will be involved in many different artistic activities. It’s really immersive. We have,

at this time, some discussion about how they feel and how they perceive this new aspect, and what are their strategies to cope with this new environment. This is the beginning. After that, they start a regular schedule. A few hours of acrobatic work, a few hours of artistic work, like dance, like theater, like percussion, like movement, like singing, and many others. … They also have physical conditioning, and after that it’s time to sleep. They have a heavy schedule.

This is what we call the core. All of them are doing different artistic classes.

Usually we say that it takes 10 or 15 years to become an artist. In our case, we have 16 weeks. So what we try to do is to make sure we open different doors. They will be able to test different artistic activities and see which ones fit the best with them, just to have the need or desire to go through different levels. We know that at the end of the 16 weeks, they are not artists. Our only goal that we have is just to make sure that they have the basic knowledge and competency so that they have the desire to continue to be able to develop themselves artistically.

BW: Does this ingrained competitive edge actually hinder the athletes’ creativity? Is that why it’s such a problem?

MH: You know, the first move that we do when they arrive here is to make them consider that they all understand that they are all at the same level. Their competitiveness is still there, but they realize that that is not why they’re here [at Cirque du Soleil].

BW: What’s your job, what’s your capacity, in the first few days to help with that transition?

MH: The performance psychologist service is divided in many aspects. The first aspect is in education. We have weekly meetings with them, with small groups most of the time.

The second aspect is that we also offer individual discussions. If an individual wants to talk about concentration, for example, we can set many meetings to discuss different skills, different aspects.

Third, we offer counseling for any problems that they could face. Adaptation, missing their people, homesickness, or difficulties with the language barrier, we can offer more working [assistance].

BW: Therapy sessions?

MH: We work with them in order to develop tools to help them, that could help them to be their best, to offer their best performance, so that some issues like homesickness will not interfere with their capacity to perform. It’s not clinical psychology in the sense of pathology. … But we offer counseling, helping them to understand and put some problems in perspective.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by author.