The Cirque(us) comes to Singapore

Elizabeth Soh
Elizabeth Soh
Singapore Showbiz

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

The artistes ripple through the air, bodies like twirling ribbons in their kaleidoscopic costumes.

Defying gravity and what seems like the principles behind human anatomy, an acrobat grips a pole and swings himself around it, each graceful round propelling him with supernatural speed up to the ceiling of the stadium where he hangs, suspended, chatting to his friends 20 metres below.

Stepping into the back-stage world of the Cirque Du Soleil Saltimbanco troupe is like walking into a magical Technicolor world full of thrumming energy, motion, bright lights, and animated chatter.

Yahoo! Singapore went behind the scenes of the Cirque's temporary home at the Indoor Stadium to find out more about the people who make one of the most beloved modern-day circuses come together.

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

Saltimbanco's last performance here was over 10 years ago when they arrived to huge fanfare, pitching their billowing white circus tents on the greens of our Padang at City Hall.

Here's an idea of what to expect, in numbers -

Saltimbanco has a company of 50 travelling artistes, and a full crew of 95 people, including technicians, wardrobe assistants, carpenters, and physiotherapists.

This time around, its being shown in the Indoor Stadium in an 'arena' format to a group of 5,000 circus-goers each show.

Previously its 'big top' circus set-up, which needed large open spaces for tents to be pitched, only allowed for 2,500 audience members.

3 signature performances to look out for - the Chinese Poles, Russian Swing, and Bungee, which will see the artistes performing heart-stopping twists and turns without harnesses.

The troupe needs 16 trailers to hold all its equipment, and it takes 2 planes to transport all their costumes, stage sets, and crew members.

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

Troupe members come from all over the world - including countries like the United States, Kazakhstan, Australia, UK, Brazil,Russia, and Canada, and the group is always changing.

Yahoo! spoke to two relative new comers, JR Owens, also known as The Ringmaster, and the petite Beta, an ex-World Championships gymnast.

To California native Owens, who joined the troupe 7 months ago after grueling auditions, "running away with the circus was a dream come true".

JR Owens, The Ring master (Yahoo! Photos / Jeanette Tan)

"It changed my life - you don't think of the circus and think of people who look like me. Its all shapes and sizes here, and its just amazing" said the 1.98 m tall professional magician, actor, and clown.

Owens will don 2 hours worth of makeup and a head piece that elevates him to a tottering 2.12 m tall every night this week to play the Ringmaster for the Cirque - a role that sees him speaking in "Gibberish" and interacting with the audience.

"Ringmaster is already an extension of me," he said, before gamely demonstrating a Gibberish dialogue - yammering on in a language that didn't make sense at all but communicating the same message succintly in hand gestures, exaggerated expressions, and body language.

A pre-stage ritual for the jovial Owens is downing a lethal 6-shot espresso made with coffee beans from home and percolated in his very own state of the art coffee machine he drags everywhere with him.

"Most countries, the coffee is just, well, let's say its gross and grosser, but in Singapore, I don't need my coffee - I love the coffee here - with the layer of condensed milk, it's just.. wow," Owens enthused.

Right behind the sparkling Cirque stage is a full gym setup where artistes go to warm up and also collect their head-gear for their performances - every single troupe member has his or her own personalised head piece in outrageous colours and materials.

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

Each Cirque artiste trains for at least 8 hours a day, but luckily for them, there are no restrictions on what they can eat - which explains why the crew have been out and about exploring Singapore and enjoying cholesterol-laden delicacies like char kway teow, chili, pepper, and butter crab, and fresh seafood at nearby hawker centres.

"We have nutritionists back in Montreal who give us diet plans - I was put on a five meals a day diet instead of having one large meal at the end of the day, now I eat what I want but spread it out, its still great," said Owens, who lost more than a hundred pounds since joining the Cirque.

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

Even further backstage in the warren of rooms and makeshift dressing areas are the cast's whopping 3,000 costumes in a dazzling array of bright colours that you'd never see anywhere out on the street - turquoise, bright pink, deep, sunshine yellows, and neon green fill the racks.

Maintaining those costumes is also hard work - five industrial dryers and five washing machines run 15 hours a day to keep the costumes clean, fresh and ready for the artiste's next performance.

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

Also working her magic to make sure the costumes are kept in tip-top condition is Tanya Jacobs, Head of Wardrobe.

She is working in a room full of costumes, a rainbow spectrum of thread, and vintage sewing machine when we drop by.

Jacobs tells reporters that her biggest worry about costumes are tears or damage which can compromise their safety, because almost everything else can be fixed.

"The worst case scenario is always if the safety of the artistes are threatened - like if the suspender snaps or a shoelace breaks - it doesn't sound like a big deal but they are performing complicated and dangerous stunts out there," said Jacobs.

Besides the pressure of getting costumes ready in an instant and making sure that everyone is properly fitted, Tanya is also in charge of make-up, an integral part of their performance.

Every artiste is schooled by instructors back in Montreal on the intricacies of applying their stage makeup, which takes an average of an hour for a skilled performer and up to three hours for those just starting out.

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

For Brazilian Roberta "Beta" Monari, who plays "Bon Bon Rose", stage makeup takes a whopping 27 steps over 15 pages to create a look that is almost three dimensional.

The 28-year-old ex World Championships gymnast has been with the troupe for four years, during which she has visited 40 countries and picked up three languages apart from her native Portuguese.

"I can speak English, French, and Russian," said the petite artiste, who stands at just over 1.5 m tall and weighs in at a slight 50 kg.

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

Pre-show, Beta picks out her personal "mirror" from three containers of mirrors labelled neatly with each artistes name, and then grabs her large ziploc bag of makeup in a myriad of colours, including specially customised blends like Soleil Red by makeup partner M.A.C.

Finally, after about an hour, Beta is transformed into "Bon Bon Rose" and ready to rock along with the rest of the cast.

Cirque Du Soleil Behind the Scenes (Yahoo! Photos / Elizabeth Soh)

Beta, who is dating a Russian member of the troupe, says that while travelling with Saltimbanco has been amazing and the best experience of her life, she still misses home badly.

"Its fun, its great, we get to see the world, but I really miss home," said Beta, who last set home in her native Brazil seven months ago.

Beta may be able to return home for longer soon - the Cirque's Saltimbanco show here is their last performance in Singapore ever - the French-Canadian troupe ends its 20 year run at the end of 2012 to make way for new troupes.

So for those still hesitating about catching them at the Indoor Stadium, Owens has this to say -

"The performances are poetic, they are beautiful, traditional acts - in the aerial trapeze, they just fly through the air. You have to see it," he said.

Here's a sneak peek of what you'll see at Saltimbanco:

Saltimbanco, presented by Cirque du Soleil, is showing at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, from Tuesday to this Sunday. Click here for more details and to purchase tickets.