Flipping fantastic: Behind the scenes of Cirque du Soleil

Three hours before showtime, the atmosphere backstage in Cirque du Soleil's artists' tent is calm, business-like – almost zen.

Kurios: The Cabinet of Curiosities is the 35th production from Cirque.Credit:Martin Girard/shootstudio.ca

Mercifully cool compared with the stifling late-afternoon Singapore humidity outside, the tent is a smaller version of the adjoining grand chapiteau that can accommodate an audience of more than 2500.

The space is dominated by an expanse of blue gym mat and a four-metre gantry on which the acrobats train, warm up and try out new moves. A sprinkling of performers around the tent stretch, work out or receive massages from physio staff. Some have already donned their garish make-up, presenting a curious contrast with their casual gym clothes. In one corner a rangy young man is sprawled on a lounge minutely analysing a video of the previous night's show.

The show is Kurios: The Cabinet of Curiosities, the 35th production from Cirque, the Montreal-based circus behemoth. A steam-punk themed extravaganza, with an inescapably perky electro-swing soundtrack provided by a seven-piece band, the loose narrative explores the idea of a mad scientist or "seeker" who releases a fantastical world of wonders from a parallel universe just beyond our own.

Anne Weissbecker’s act a heart-stopping audience favourite, involves balancing on and hanging from a bicycle suspended many metres above the stage.Credit:Alvin Tam/The ImageBoxPhotography

A guest at a dinner party climbs impossibly high on a stack of chairs only to discover a parallel scene unfolding upside down above him. Performers dressed as fish propel each other as high as 14m on a vast trampoline, dubbed the acronet. A performer dressed as a pre-war aviator balances on tottering pile of planks and cylinders.

The show embraces a hand-cranked, home-made ethic that relies for impact mostly on the extraordinary performances of the acrobats rather than trying to dazzle with hi-tech special effects. The wonder comes from the "did-I-really-just-see-that?" moments from performers like French-born Anne Weissbecker, who has been with Cirque for a decade.

Her act, a heart-stopping audience favourite, involves balancing on and hanging from a bicycle suspended many metres above the stage. Ultimately, she "rides" the bike upside down.

It's the first time a flying bicycle has been used anywhere in a circus act.

"We worked on it for six months," she says. "No one was sure whether you could really do something. There was no vocabulary or tricks or choreography so we had to find everything."

And remarkably, there is not much that is special about the bike she uses.

"It's just a simple bike. If I took off the rope I could ride it down the street," she says. "It is an apparatus that everybody knows but nobody sees it flying. Kids always react because maybe they have just learned to ride their own bikes."

The narrative explores the idea of a mad scientist or ‘seeker’ who releases a fantastical world of wonders from a parallel universe just beyond our own.

Weissbecker's life has been dominated by circus since the age of 10, when she started acrobatic training in her home-town of Strasbourg.

She can still recall those early days – and being afraid of heights.

"I remember doing the trapeze maybe one-metre high and for me it felt very high. But you get used to it and you learn to trust in yourself."

There are a lot of things that would be really unusual for other people but for us hanging upside down is almost normal.

She smiles at the suggestion she really ought to be afraid as she hangs upside down from a spinning bicycle many metres above the stage.

"When you are holding – why would you let go?" she says. "It's like when you are walking – why would you trip and fall?

The Moscow-born Tomanov brothers, Roman and Vitali. Their discipline is the aerial straps – wide tapes suspended from a gantry.Credit:Martin Girard/Shootstudio.ca

"We train so much. There are a lot of things that would be really unusual for other people but for us hanging upside down is almost normal. It's not a big deal for me any more."

The person charged with getting the best performance possible each night from Weissbecker and the other 45 artists in the show is artistic director Rachel Lancaster.

"They are an incredibly passionate set of individuals who care deeply about what they are doing, which makes my job very easy," she says.

All the same, Lancaster must guard against any sense of ennui creeping in among the performers, many of whom have been doing the show since its 2014 premiere.

"You have to give people new ideas and new philosophical games and approaches," she says. "Nobody here is a robot. A big part of my job is how to keep people engaged to their maximum capacity."

As we talk, behind us on the mat, eight chiselled acrobats are rehearsing over and over a stunt that involves one of their number vaulting to the shoulders of another man at the top of a human pyramid.

They are being drilled by an unsmiling smaller man who barks orders in Russian. It's intense and quite terrifying to watch.

"They are constantly evolving and asking, 'What else can we do?'" says Lancaster. "How can we get more speed out of this? We've been doing two turns for a year and a half, let's add one more. It's that constant investment in researching themselves and their bodies that keeps them focused on wanting to perform the same thing. It's that desire to understand the detail and then evolve the detail that drives them."

Lancaster has been with Kurios for three years and seems to retain a genuine passion for the production that she says can be appreciated on various levels.

"Everybody is going to take away what is important to them," she says. "What's magical is that it takes you on a journey for two-and-a-half hours. For some people it is a very physical connection watching the acrobats. For others it's exploring the depth and complexity and detail of the costumes and the props.

If you have just done something that has made the audience stop breathing you need to give them a little bit of time to recover.

"For some it's the fact we can do things on an enormous scale and then go down to just tiny moments in the front of the stage and it doesn't feel jarring. At that point you have just given in to the story and you let it carry you."

Some of those more intimate moments include a yo-yo act and a charming puppet show that uses only the performers' hands.

This variation in scale provides natural pacing to the show, as well as giving the audience a "break" from the daredevilry.

"If you have just done something that has made the audience stop breathing you need to give them a little bit of time to recover," says Lancaster. "If all the things you do just increase that intensity it becomes a very stressful experience."

Unarguably, one of those big impact moments of Kurios comes with the act of the Moscow-born Tomanov brothers, Roman and Vitali. Their discipline is the aerial straps – wide tapes suspended from a gantry.

The pair spin, swing, circle and fall in a dizzying display of precision and control.

The two brothers, compact and as well muscled as one would expect from a lifetime devoted to their craft, both now live in the US. Roman, the younger has a strong American inflection in his accent, while Vitali's English still bears strong traces of his native Russia.

The whole show will be packed into 27 shipping containers when it heads to Sydney. Credit:Martin Girard/Shootstudio.ca

Their father, himself a legendary trapeze artist, began training them on the straps when they were just five or six years old.

"It was tough. We trained every day," says Roman. "We'd get up, go to school then from school we'd go to training with my dad for an hour-and-a-half or two hours then we would have gymnastics training for another four hours then we'd do dance – break dance or jazz or ballet."

"That's how we grew up and that's why we tell him now, 'Thank you," adds Vitali.

Being trained in identical fashion by their father has made the pair uniquely suited to perform together.

"We know each other because we went through the same thing," says Roman. "A lot of people have different techniques but we kind of developed our own."

Vitali chimes in: "We are like twin brothers. Every mistake he makes I feel, and every mistake I make he feels."

Not that there are mistakes – at least not anything that could be perceived from the audience. But the pair work together with such staggering accuracy and precision that they have to adapt to even the tiniest change in the routine.

"I feel it if we are slightly 'off'," says Roman. "The second we take off I already know where I'm going to end up and how fast I'm going. When we split if I am a touch in front I know exactly how close I will get to him.

"It depends on speed and the friction of the air. It's weird but I feel these little things. I know precisely what's going to happen."

With about two hours to go the pre-show routine is in full swing. The stage is being cleaned, props checked, lighting checked and the band is beginning its soundcheck.

In just a few weeks, the whole show will be packed into 27 shipping containers and shifted to Sydney ready for the show's nine-month Australian tour.

For Lancaster, that travelling aspect of the show is one of the things that makes it special compared with, say, the six resident Cirque shows playing in Las Vegas.

"It's a very different human connection compared to the arena shows because of the size and scale of them," she says. "Even though they are doing some amazing things, because they look about this big [she holds up thumb and finger] it's not the same as when you are watching say an act like acronet and you feel like you're living and breathing those giant drops.

"In this space it can take your breath away. You can't help but gasp."

Nick Galvin travelled to Singapore courtesy of Cirque du Soleil. Kurios opens at the Entertainment Quarter, Sydney on October 2

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