When work is a workout

At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I liked Cirque du Soleil before it was cool.

It was 1994 in Vegas when I attended their "Mystere" performance. I remember seeing a man do a one-armed handstand, on a cane, atop a single pole that towered out of a hastily constructed pyramid of giant-size tinker toys. I held my breath frequently, certain someone would fall and break something important.

Recently I saw Cirque du Soleil perform "Amaluna" in Calgary, Alberta, my fourth time seeing the Montreal-based circus troupe, and again they did not disappoint.

There were unicycles and undulating tight ropes and trapeze, balancing acts and back flips, juggling and jocularity, all to original rock music with sensational singing and great guitar and drumming reminiscent of Rush.

Acrobats flew. Dancers moved with inhuman grace. A love story unfolded. Through it all I found myself wondering, "How is it that they are all so good looking?" (Awesome costumes aside.)

Turns out, they all look so great because the working out doesn't end when the show does.

Balancing act

"I work out several days of the week outside of the performances," says Melanie Sinclair, a 25-year-old former competitive gymnast from Orlando, Fla., who does an uneven bar performance for Cirque du Soleil. "Including the eight to 10 shows a week, it's about 30 hours of training each week."

Sinclair, who began gymnastics when she was 6, is always on the move, doing about 30 minutes of treadmill running or elliptical trainer each day.

She also bikes to work each day. "I have my own bike I bring on tour," she told me. On top of this is a lot of stretching.

"We receive a large quantity of videos and resumes," "Amaluna" company manager Jamie Reilly said of the competition to be part of the show. "We have casting agents, hold auditions and have a scouting team that will go to the Olympics and gymnastics competitions to find talent."

And it's not just amazing physicality they seek.

"There is a large acting component," Reilly said. "We need to select the right people to provide the wow factor during the show."

And that wow factor takes time to develop. Sinclair spent nine months of full-time preparation and rehearsals before "Amaluna" launched in Montreal.

And performers new to Cirque du Soleil quickly learn how physically demanding it is.

"Since coming here I've realized that cross-training is very important," said Amy McClendon, the main dancer (the peacock goddess) in the show. "I do the elliptical on high resistance to keep my legs strong."

Pilates classes are provided for the performers by the troupe. "They bring someone in locally," McClendon, 26, said. "A lot of the performers do Pilates. It's been like gold for me."

Paths to the big top

McClendon attended the Alvin Ailey School of Dance in New York. Before joining Cirque she performed musical theater on Broadway. She found her new role required a higher level of conditioning.

"There is a lot of physical exertion, even just having to change costumes," she said. "There is a whole other physical performance going on backstage."