Run Away to Cirque du Soleil

Feature in Issue 12-2 | Summer 2000

Cirque du Soleil is coming back to town, and this time – heralding the arrival of its latest European touring show Quidam – is holding auditions in London in September. Stewart McGill reports.

Since 1984 Cirque du Soleil’s groundbreaking mix of circus arts and theatre has given birth to thirteen unique shows. Eight shows are now selling out on three continents with close to five hundred artists performing in the various productions.

During the last year, I have witnessed Cirque du Soleil’s Chinese splendour in Santa Monica, other worldliness and visions of creation in Barcelona, and the most awe-inspiring visual and aural spectacles on the planet in Las Vegas. With their fusion of acrobatics, song, original music, dance and movement, each Cirque du Soleil show is a metaphor for a universe that has been reconstructed around a basic underlying concept. The magic and excellence evoked by the shows bear witness to the commitment of every artist to the spirit of Cirque du Soleil.

Ask them what their mission is and Cirque du Soleil will tell you it’s to invoke, evoke, provoke: invoke the imagination and evoke and provoke the senses of people around the world. The good news for actors, dancers and singers in the UK is that the company is actively seeking new talent to help them build a demanding and dynamic future. I spoke recently with the company’s casting department in Montreal and with artists performing in the European tour of Quidam to find out what Cirque du Soleil will be looking for when they arrive in London this autumn.

At audition, Cirque du Soleil look for a wide range of skills that can eventually fuse into one of their existing shows or become foundations for a new creation. The next all-new conception of Cirque du Soleil is planned for 2002 to tour North America. Individuality and identity is the clear root of the search for talent, as casting director Murielle Cantin explains: ‘At first in our audition sessions we will undertake improvisation to get to feel the pulse of the participants. We work a lot in improvisation. It is not like many auditions, because we take the time to really see who we have, what they have to show, and what they have to give. Perhaps, at this point, there may be some elimination as some types of artist may not demonstrate the right experience or potential. Some may be too raw and it is vital for us to avoid stereotypes and discover potential artists who can adapt to our ways of working.’

Cirque du Soleil’s team will evaluate the potential of those attending audition and, through the setting of specific tasks and the suggestion of approaches, a clear pattern begins to emerge. Murielle continues: ‘At Cirque du Soleil, auditions will be both general and specific in approach, exploring the exact type of body and energy. We always scan for talent to inspire us, to offer us something different … Even if instantly we don’t know where that talent may fit, it can help us when considering new directions.’

For the London auditions in September, Murielle will be accompanied by Line Gasson, auditions coordinator, and a team of specialists for the different disciplines: acting, singing, dancing, character work and mask. A subjective analysis will aim to avoid bias and keep an open mind, as Murielle tells me: ‘Open mind, open heart is our philosophy. You know some of those attending may be overwhelmed by the event and paralysed, and therefore unable to give of their best. We will keep open minds and respect each artist, to ensure that they have every opportunity to show their individual qualities.’

The pre-selection process is, naturally, vital to Cirque du Soleil and candidates must send their resumes with experience and background to the casting department in Montreal. Murielle and the team study all submissions and video/audio tapes before calling selected candidates to audition. ‘If I am in doubt, I will see the person,’ Murielle tells me – emphasising, once more, the need to find individuality from literally thousands of submissions.

Following intensive work in audition across a range of transdisciplinary techniques on the floor, certain artists will find routes into Cirque du Soleil and one of its many current or future projects. For a new show, an extended training and formation period at the company’s expansive headquarters in Montreal will bring together creators and artists to build work in ensemble. All the shows are made here and lead to one of the touring or resident programmes. For some, there could be a considerable period of waiting, whilst others find a place very quickly. At the auditions in Vegas I saw two people who got a job instantly, Murielle says. ‘We had an opening in a show, the artists seemed to fit perfectly. I asked our artistic director to see them and instant happiness all round!’

In North America right now the latest Cirque du Soleil show is Dralion, which I saw late last year in Santa Monica. It differs considerably from previous works, and is developed by a new creation team headed by Guy Caron using a high percentage of Chinese artists and troupe acts made in China. The casting department working on Dralion are faced with a huge challenge as the lead vocalist is a counter-tenor and a worldwide search is on for potential replacements. ‘What we try to do always is stay close to the originating concept of a work,’ Murielle explains, ‘but human beings bring their own individuality and personal essence so always a role will grow and evolve.’ A case in point is actor and dancer Mark Ward, originally selected to join the company’s Mystere production at Treasure Island, Las Vegas, but who now plays the lead in Quidam. ‘I recall my first contact with Cirque du Soleil,’ Mark tells me, ‘my dance instructor asked if I had heard of the company and choreographer Debbie Brown. I sent a video-tape of my best work. In under 24 hours Debbie called me to say that she needed something else, “Jam, Mark!” she demanded. Well, what does that mean? I thought forget it, they don’t want me. So my dance teacher insisted that we made a new tape that was much freer, in a wild costume… sort of a Tarzan outfit. I told jokes, did lots of crazy stuff enabling my personality to come through, and I got the job. Cirque du Soleil are really looking for individuals… That’s my advice, be yourself.’

Playing in Quidam has enabled Mark to reinvent the lead role of John, as UK audiences will discover later this year. But stepping into the shoes of creator John Gilley was a far from easy task. ‘I watched videos of John in the role then worked with him, and now I’m trying to make the character a cute kind of guy. He is very complex – a kind of contemporary MC, but in Cirque du Soleil’s own style. Imagine a child inside a man’s body. I’m enjoying this and despite my initial negative feelings concerning auditions, I believe one shouldn’t feel intimidated. Cirque du Soleil is very big and speaks for itself. Naturally people get nervous, but if you go and don’t be afraid they will grab what you have… Do it, be full of confidence… Be aggressive in their faces and then call up every two months. It’s a growing organisation, there is every opportunity.’

Back in Montreal, Murielle Cantin echoes Mark’s comments. ‘Cirque du Soleil is growing and many projects are developing. For artists auditioning in London we have seven shows around the world and possible new “challenge” shows ahead. Following life as an artist, we also have a “growing old” policy where a transition can be made to artistic director, training coordinator etc, moving into vital off-stage positions. In such a large organisation there is plenty of room to grow.’

Performers interested in auditioning for Cirque du Soleil should send a CV, photo and audio tape (for singers only) to: Cirque du Soleil Auditions, 8400 2nd Avenue, Montreal, Quebec, H1Z 4M6 Canada. Quidam, currently touring on the Continent, is scheduled to arrive in the UK at the end of 2000.

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