Pop Culture

Behind The Stage With Cirque Du Soleil's Alegría

Cirque du Soleil never fails to impress the masses with their feats of fancy.
Photo by Marie-Andrée Lemire
Cirque du Soleil never fails to impress the masses with their feats of fancy.
Cirque du Soleil is back with one of its most iconic shows, Alegría, a quarter-century after it first debuted. In its original format, it has been seen by more than 14 million people worldwide, and it established the signature style of Cirque du Soleil. Today, Houstonians get to witness the spectacle once again at Sam Houston Race Park through January 1.

“The show is about a clash of generations. We’re in a kingdom that has lost its king. There’s a new movement that challenges the established order to bring peace, harmony, and hope to their world that is in ruins,” said Francis Jalbert, the show’s senior director of public relations. “There are three families of characters: Angels, Bronx, and Aristocrats. They interact and find their new balance in this world. The king’s fool, Mr. Fleur, pretends he has the power and takes it, and that’s the moment that shakes everything. People want to challenge society because they don’t like how it's working.”

Featuring a soundtrack that incorporates an eclectic mix of sonic palates and stunning feats of circus artistry, Alegría earns its reputation as an all-time classic Cirque du Soleil show. Stunning costume design and vibrant sets allow you to fully immerse yourself in this kingdom on the verge of revolutionary change.

Sound familiar? That’s probably because the show's plot hasn’t changed since its 1994 debut and subsequent tour through 2013, but they way it is interpreted has evolved. Jalbert, who has been a member of the Cirque du Soleil team for 10 years, provided a personal tour for a behind-the-curtain experience to demonstrate just what goes into pulling off the jaw-dropping stunts and updated production.

“For the 25th anniversary, we wanted to bring Alegría back, but we wanted to show what Cirque du Soleil has become. We looked at the concept of the show and the costume design. We kept the same family of characters, but we looked at the production through the eyes of today. We brought new staging and a new director to look at things from a different angle to show where we are today,” Jalbert said.
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Cirque du Soleil knows how to keep the audience thrilled will also adding that classic artistic flair it has become so well-known for achieving.
Photo by Marie-Andrée Lemire
To put on the dazzling display that is seen daily at Sam Houston Race Park, the production planning started nearly two years ago. The casting department in Montreal scouted the world to find the best performers in various fields.

“Forty percent of our performers come from a gymnastics background, so they were training or competing nationally or internationally. We offer them a transition opportunity. We take them to Montreal, teach them how to transition different artistic skills, and integrate them into acts that use that skill set,” Jalbert described. “We also have performers who come from a circus background. They’re already trained circus performers, and they come with the skill set that is unique and specific to certain disciplines. We’ll find them at circus competitions or circus schools around the world.”

With a team in place, the company spends about eight months developing the concept – and each member of the creative team works on their concepts independently and funnels their vision through the director. Then, for another six to eight months, the artists gather in Montreal to train, and slowly the show starts to take form.

Each of those cast and team members end up playing a significant role in the show, whether it be in the spotlight or behind stage. In total, the Houston production involves 113 people, 53 of whom are performers. And they leave no stone unturned when it comes to making sure the group has every resource it needs.

“We even have a plumber, chef, IT experts, and performance medicine specialists. It’s a very diverse group. Everyone has a different professional background, cultural background, sometimes a different language. But we all get along to put on the best show every night,” Jalbert added.

Alegría also requires significant supplies and time to get going as well. Seventy trucks take the show from one city to the next, with each stop typically lasting one month or longer. It takes eight days of setup. When the performers take their final bow, it’s another two-and-a-half days to pack and leave.

But of course, it’s the magic that happens between setup and tear down that leaves audiences awestruck. Two performers took time out of their training and show schedule to share what all goes into being a Cirque du Soleil artist: Nicolai Kuntz, who performs the swinging trapeze duo, and Alexey Turchenko, who performs the aerial straps.
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Swinging on the trapeze looks like a breeze when Cirque du Soleil's Nicolai Kuntz does it.
Photo by Marie-Andrée Lemire
Kuntz comes from a circus family and has trained since childhood. “I grew up in the German circus. My parents used to work in the office. I started training when I was eight years old, and I specialized in trapeze when I was about 12. Ever since then, I’ve been in love with the trapeze. This show is the first time I’m doing it synchronized with a partner,” he said.

The act is something that requires not just skill but regular practice to keep the duo in sync with each other. Cirque’s performance schedule sometimes runs two shows per day. If the company is on a one-performance day, the athletes use that spare time to train and fine tune their skills. For Kuntz’ part of the job, those extra rehearsals are necessary to keep his performance top notch along with his partner Julia.

“The big difference here is that it's synchronized, which means we have to adjust the swing to each other to stay in sync. It’s really nice to be together on stage because there’s a close connection between us, and it draws the audience closer,” he said. “It was a lot of training. We had a long creation period in Montreal in 2018 and 2019. It was about eight months of training. Then, we were in Montreal for about another month to train for this show. We had trainings twice a day for two hours each to get back into it. It just takes a lot of time.”
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Nicolai Kuntz could hang here all day if he wanted to.
Photo by Sam Byrd
The experience is something he can’t get enough of.

“I really enjoy the flying parts of it because it gets me the closest feeling of actually flying. That gives me so much joy. I like to be in the heights as well, because it keeps me on the edge a little bit,” he said.

When it comes to the little details, Cirque has the experience to know what works best for the audience – and for the performers. That includes making sure the costumes are tailored to the exact needs of each athlete.

“Because I catch the trapeze with my legs a lot, I cannot wear a costume that is loose around the legs,” Kuntz said about his act that has him flipping, twisting and contorting through the air. “Everything is specifically tailored to my size. When we arrive in Montreal, we take so many measurements. I didn’t know there were so many measurements to take on the body. Each costume is fitted to the person to the millimeter.”

The makeup is just as important. Each performer is taught how to apply the right look to their face. To ensure that standards are kept high, the circus has regular check-ins where they take photos of the performer in their makeup that they then send to the central office to make sure that the look is just right or provide feedback if touch-ups are needed.
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The key to makeup is to make it look as if you aren't wearing it.
Photo by Sam Byrd
“The makeup is a process. It still takes me a good hour to do it. In the beginning it took me almost two hours. It’s really interesting to do it, and it functions as a ritual before the show. It’s a moment for yourself to prepare for the show and focus. It’s quite enjoyable. I never imagined I’d like makeup this much,” Kuntz said.

Through all the preparation, we’re still talking about a performance put on by fallible humans, which means there is occasionally something that doesn’t go according to plan. And that’s where all the training kicks in to make the show look as flawless as possible. Anything less than perceived perfection just wouldn’t fit the Cirque du Soleil reputation.

“A misstep can always happen with acrobatics. It’s nice to have a 10 out of 10, but sometimes it’s a nine out of 10. There’s going to be that one moment where there’s a little mess up. There are many ways to correct it and get around it, but that’s where experience comes into play. The longer you are doing a discipline, the more you can anticipate a mistake before it happens and fix it before it happens. Even if it does happen, there are ways to fix it up to look pretty and nice for the audience,” Kuntz said.

The partnership between the cast members usually also helps, which is an underlying theme all the cast members experience. Because they are working with each other for hours each day – sometimes literally placing their trust and well-being in the hands of another as they perform breathtaking feats - they form a friendship. Or really, it’s almost a familial relationship.

For Turchenko, that relationship became a reality when he married his wife, Julia, who is his partner for the aerial straps. In fact, the duo created this particular act so that they could remain working in the same city.

“Ten years ago, we worked in the Moscow Circus. I was a solo artist, and she was as well. Then we started dating. But when you work with Cirque du Soleil, every program lasts a season, and then you go on a new show and meet your new team,” he said. “We realized that after the season, we’ll separate, but we wanted to continue dating, so we needed to create something together so that we could stay together. So we created this duo straps routine. This time, we’re traveling together.”

The duo soar through the Big Top and share a sentimental moment at the end of their routine that leaves watchers gummy with emotion.
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Alexey Turchenko makes this look easy.
Photo by Sam Byrd
“My character is a Bronx. Julia is an Angel. The idea of our part of show is that when a Bronx tries to open ideas on questioning how to move forward, the Angel can change the world. Here, I show how it’s supposed to be,” he said.

Turchenko has been involved in circus life for 20 years already, and if he has it his way, he’ll continue doing it forever. But, if and when the time comes for him to hang up his straps, he says he’s prepared for his next move.

“I have a fitness education, so I like coaching. I coach gymnastics, trampoline, and workout techniques,” he said. “I started gymnastics when I was 6 years old. I learned power, endurance, stretching, balance, and acrobatics. I understand how the body works, so when I see my clients, and I know what they need to do to improve.”

Taking care of the body is something that both Turchenko and the circus don't take for granted. In fact, there is one non-negotiable for Cirque du Soleil and its team members: Safety is paramount. Behind stage, everyone wears masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. During rehearsals, a team of specialists make sure that harnesses are secured and every hook, strap, swing, trapeze and safety net is in place. Physicians as well as an arsenal of massage guns are available all day to help athletes to stretch as well as recover from the strenuous demands of their routine. The utmost dedication to bodily health is a requirement from which Cirque du Soleil will not budge.
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The duo straps provide one of the show's many highlights.
Photo by Marie-Andrée Lemire
The payoff is worth it, especially after the crowd “oohs” and “ahhs” throughout the night in wonderment of the costumes, storyline, and of course those heart-stopping acrobatics.

“For me, I want people to come here and forget about their everyday problems and struggles…to have a break from their everyday life. They can sit down and enjoy a live performance for two hours and be taken to a different world,” Kuntz said. “The show can be interpreted in many ways by people. Everyone can take a note from this show and integrate it into their personal lives. I hope it inspires people to change something about themselves or in their lives because they’re inspired by the show.”

Cirque du Soleil's Alegría runs through January 1 at Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 N. Sam Houston Parkway W. For tickets or information, visit cirquedusoleil.com/alegria. $85 - $230.