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.
"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."
While some performers have previous careers that lend themselves to joining this circus, others go to school for it.
"It was four years of Cirque university," straps performer Andreanne Nadeau told me of attending L'Ecole Nationale de Cirque de Montreal to obtain a diploma in circus studies. "It was five to seven hours of training every day. There is also theory, physiology, psychology, career management and a second language."
Nadeau has impressive musculature, and she needs it. "I am a Valkyrie in the show," she said. "It's a highflying act using aerial straps. It's mostly upper-body strength."
Nadeau started dancing at age 4, but she also played basketball and football and took part in track and field. She didn't go to circus school until later in life. "I didn't join until I was 25."
And at 31, Nadeau isn't worried about the ticking clock for a career that might seem more conducive to youth. "We have performers who are over 50 in Cirque du Soleil," she said.
All the performers I spoke with are concerned about career longevity, and so is Cirque du Soleil, which is why two performance medicine therapists travel with the "Amaluna" troupe, both of whom have master's degrees in sports medicine.
"We research the various performers' disciplines and the body mechanics that are necessary," Chad Fraser said. Because joint injuries are common, the therapists focus on strengthening the small internal muscles around these joints. "We also train the muscles in different joint spaces so that if unexpected movement happens, we prevent injury from taking place."
As it turns out, most of the injuries are from overuse. "It comes from doing the same thing every day," Fraser said. "But the performers are pretty good about taking care of themselves."
"Most of my injuries came from my gymnastics years," Sinclair said. "Here the goal is to make sure you last. It's not just a hobby or a sport, it's your career. You need to be smart."
On top of the physical therapy guiding the performers movements, there are also coaches traveling with the show.
"We have a coach for our act specifically, and there is another coach who oversees all the acts," Sinclair said. "We have a lot of guidance from the coaching staff and artistic director to help us continuously refine the show and make it better."
I can verify this. Backstage, I saw two large whiteboards filled with written critiques of previous performances. This is a show that's been live for a year, and still they're trying to make it better.
And even though performers live a life of near constant physical exertion, motivation to go on the stage is always high.
"Like any job, you look forward to vacation," McClendon said. "But because it's performing and something I love doing, there is a motivation that will never go away, even when you're tired."
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of sixpackabs.com.