I have never seen a Cirque du Soleil show. Of course, I’ve always wanted to go, but a show has never been conveniently located near me. So when I got word that I was to attend a special press event for "Alegría" at the O2, one of London’s largest performance venues, I was excited.
This was certainly not a standard meet-and-greet. After making the surprisingly short tube journey to the O2 and meeting up with the PR team, I was handed a very official media pass and then I was led into what appeared to be a secret passageway behind a wall. Down a long corridor littered with signed posters and T-shirts from famous performers, we walked past what appeared to be an enclosed laundromat where industrial washers and dryers were whirring away. Apparently, these machines travel with Cirque to every performance and between 10 and 15 loads of laundry are done every day.
Down another hall I began to hear the faint hum of music, getting louder the farther along we walked. Emily, my PR handler, said the cast was practicing their jumps and vaults, and I was welcome to watch and take photos.
Turning right, we were suddenly enveloped in a nearly pitch-black cavity. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out what appeared to be canopies hung from wires all around us, and then, emerging from the blackness, I could see 20-some bodies hurling themselves off trampolines in the air, flipping, spinning and turning before gracefully landing on their feet with a flourish. I took gymnastics classes in my earlier years, but nothing like this.
Spellbound, I watched how the performers worked seamlessly together, even in practice. After performers finished their routines, they were given pats on the back and encouragement from their teammates. There was a distinct sense of family and camaraderie among the troupe, perhaps in part because this was "Alegría"’s final year and the last time that the show would be performed in London. Except for the music, the atmosphere felt surprisingly subdued and almost solemn.
As the performers continued to practice their precision moves, I was introduced to Vanessa, who was in charge of background operations. Just like the washers and dryers, she travels with the cast and crew to every performance. Vanessa is a vital component to Cirque and makes sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.
We sat down on, of all things, an unoccupied practice mat (I really was behind the scenes!). Vanessa poured out the details of "Alegría": It’s the longest-running Cirque show to date, currently at 19 years, although this will be its last. It’s also one of the most simple of the productions, focusing more on the human body and technique rather than complicated and showy tech features. That focus, she said, leaves more room for the story to develop. Enthusiastically she described how the show, which has a distinctly baroque-style and which has its music performed live in-house, was in effect an account of an emotional and everlasting power struggle between good and evil.
Departing the practice mat, we took a quick tour around the wardrobe department, where I was shown just a sliver of the more than 4,000 costume pieces and accessories that have their own dedicated trucks for transport. The masks were particularly impressive; they’re a signature element of this famed show.
Afterward, I was shown the way out—back down the corridor and past the laundry facility—and deposited, amazingly, at the front entrance of the O2. Back outside the enormous arena, I was left in something of a daze, feeling as though I had left a dream world and returned to reality—not unlike the feeling you get after attending a real Cirque performance.
("Alegría" has since left London and is touring Europe throughout 2013. Visit www.cirquedusoleil.com for more information and tickets to this and other Cirque du Soleil shows.)