How Cirque Du Soleil Reinvented The Big-Top Show Since Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984, it has grown from a troupe of street performers in Montreal to a billion-dollar entertainment business. Today, the company has more than 20 different shows in its repertoire.
NPR logo

How Cirque Du Soleil Reinvented The Big-Top Show

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Cirque Du Soleil Reinvented The Big-Top Show

How Cirque Du Soleil Reinvented The Big-Top Show

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Brian Naylor in Washington. Neal Conan is away. As you probably know, Cirque du Soleil is not your average circus. There are no traditional clowns and in lieu of animals, remarkable displays of the human body. During the show "Quidam," which is now in Washington, one performer is hurled into the air to rest on the shoulders of three others.

The crowd gasps and collectively holds its breath. At one point an acrobat descends from the ceiling coiled around red silk. A man jumps rope inside of a jump rope inside of a jump rope. A live band adds suspense and, in the midst of all this, there's a plot. Today we'll talk to two of the people who help bring this performance to life.

If you've seen "Quidam" or other Cirque du Soleil performances, what drew you in? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email is, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on "TALK OF THE NATION." Later in the program, Michelle Higgins, the New York Times' "Practical Traveler," gives advice for flying with kids over the holidays.

But first, Cirque du Soleil. Mark Ward has performed with Cirque since 1993. He's been in over 6,000 shows - wow - and in "Quidam" he plays John. And he's here with us today in studio three. Hey, welcome.

MARK WARD: Thank you very much.

NAYLOR: Now, there is a plot to "Quidam." What's the story about?

WARD: "Quidam" actually means anonymous passerby but the storyline - it's a thin storyline; we don't want to force feed you the story.


WARD: We want to leave you some room for imagination and your own thoughts. But it's the journey of a little girl. She's being neglected by her parents and she's all alone by herself and she hears a knock at her door. She opens the door; a headless man enters. He drops his hat and she picks it up and it transforms her into the world of "Quidam."

NAYLOR: And adventures ensue from there.

WARD: Exactly.

NAYLOR: And your character, John, is sort of a ringmaster but not really a ringmaster in the traditional sense.

WARD: Yeah. In a Cirque du Soleil kind of a way. Definitely a guide. I'm probably the closest to the public that we have onstage other than the clown. I'm somebody you can relate to.

NAYLOR: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Do you spend a lot of time in makeup? You don't have a whole lot on. I guess a traditional...

WARD: I have the most of anyone, actually.

NAYLOR: Oh, all right. Well.

WARD: It takes me about two hours every day to put that on every day, so.


WARD: Yes.

NAYLOR: I guess I was just thinking about the hair thing, but that's--

WARD: That's 30 minutes for that alone.


NAYLOR: And how did - tell us a little bit about how you got involved in Cirque du Soleil.

WARD: Well, I was still dancing classical ballet at the time, in 1993, and I received a call from the choreographer at the time, looking for an acrobatic person with dance capabilities as well. And I've been with them almost 18 and a half years now.

NAYLOR: So you didn't have a desire, as a little boy, to run off and join the circus; you got into it a different way.

WARD: Exactly. I wanted to dance for sure, but I substituted that with sports. And I had no idea what Cirque du Soleil was. And of course when I was hired I went there and saw all the people from around the world, and I was just blown away.

NAYLOR: Yeah. You are one of the only Americans in the cast; at least, in the cast in Washington. Is that difficult or fun or - ?

WARD: Oh, it's fun. I mean, we have 54 artists representing 18 countries. So we just about include everyone and it's definitely a big melting pot.

NAYLOR: Have you been in other shows, other Cirque shows?

WARD: Yes. I was in "Mystere" for five years as an original member, as an acrobat and a dancer.

NAYLOR: And so you've pretty much always been sort of an acrobat and a dancer.

WARD: Yes. Yes. I'm also a classical pianist as well, so.

NAYLOR: Well, let's also take some calls from our listeners. First we'll go to Patty from Fayetteville, Arkansas. Patty, I understand that you used to be a cast member of Cirque yourself.

PATTY: Oh, no. I'm just a huge fan.

NAYLOR: Oh, no. OK. Well, I read that wrong. I'm sorry?

PATTY: I'm just a huge fan. I've seen "Mystere" twice and I've seen "Zarkana" this summer and a couple of the other shows, and I absolutely, most importantly I think, their interaction with the audience.

NAYLOR: Yeah. I noticed that there was a lot of that in the performance I saw last night. Were you called up on the stage?

PATTY: Oh, no. No. No. But I'm honestly floored at how they make people think that some people are audience members and they're interacting and they're really not. That always throws me for a loop.

NAYLOR: All right.

PATTY: You've got the average Joe sitting there and they bring him out and it turns out that he's an actor. It's so cool.


NAYLOR: All right. Well, thanks very much. How do you decide who you bring up onto the stage with you?

WARD: You have to be very aware. You can't just pick anyone.

NAYLOR: And these aren't ringers. These are...

WARD: No, these are actual people from the audience. But you have to look for someone that is willing, but not overly willing; not too afraid, because it can go wrong and it's one of the parts that we are not in control.


WARD: When this happens, we are in the public's hands. So you have to be very selective.

NAYLOR: And it's very improvisational, obviously.

WARD: It's all improvisational, yes.

NAYLOR: And, I mean, what happens when you get someone who's kind of a, you know, a clunker?

WARD: That's where your improvisational skills really come into play.

NAYLOR: There's not a lot of dialogue in the shows, hardly any, really.

WARD: All the Cirque shows, we use what we call gibberish. Made up language. And it's very funny because some people go, Oh, that's French. That's German. That's Russian. It's actually nothing. But some of the songs we do use actual languages, especially on the CDs and things like that. But in the actual show, mostly it's gibberish.

NAYLOR: I was wondering that. I was thinking maybe it's Esperanto or something.


NAYLOR: I couldn't quite grab the thread there. But you've been with Cirque since 1993, as you said. Do most performers stay that long?

WARD: Not quite that long, but there are a few that have stayed actually longer. It depends on the individual. But I could say probably two years or more but that's up to the artist.

NAYLOR: Do you find as you travel around the country on tour are there cities that are more receptive to Cirque than others?

WARD: I wouldn't say receptive; I just think that as an artist and the show we have to be adaptable. What works in Japan may not work here in Washington. The reactions could be different. For instance, in Japan they won't applaud but they love it. And you won't know that until the very end. You're thinking during the show, oh, they hate me. And at the very end they stand up and they clap. Whereas here, they'll let you know right away that they're enjoying the show.

NAYLOR: And are there times when you wish that you could, you know, be doing something – maybe flying through the air – or are you pretty much happy doing the ringmaster role?

WARD: Well, I did my flying through the air. I still fly through the air. I was an acrobat, contortionist, ball walker, Japanese Taiko drums player for five years, a competitive gymnast and dancer before that. So I'm pretty much enjoying it all.

NAYLOR: Did you get - how does one get training on all of these different roles?

WARD: Well, the great thing about Cirque du Soleil, if you're willing to learn something they will teach you that. That's what happened with me. I came as a dancer and acrobat but I learned the other skills because they taught me.

NAYLOR: All right. Let's take a call now from Don from Pensacola, Florida. Don, thanks very much for joining us. Have you been to Cirque du Soleil?

DON: Well, I wanted to say that, as I told the young lady when I first called, unfortunately I lost my wife a year ago, August the 6th, but we were happily married for 15 years and one of the things we did in 15 years was to go to "Alegria."

NAYLOR: All right.

DON: And that is a Cirque du Soleil.

NAYLOR: Mm-hmm.

DON: OK. And it was marvelous. It was fabulous. You could be crying with happiness one moment and then busting out laughing in the next second. And the action, the thrill, everything about it just pulled the audience right into the stage. I mean, you literally felt yourself leaving your seat and joining them onstage. It was so awesome. I mean, it was - wow.

NAYLOR: Almost leaves you speechless, huh?

DON: Yeah. It was just one of those – unfortunately, our language is so limited that you can't come up with a word that would describe Cirque du Soleil.

NAYLOR: All right. Well, it sounds like a satisfied customer, Don. Thanks very much for joining us. I'd like to bring into the conversation now Fabrice Lemire who is the artistic director for "Quidam." He's responsible for making sure that all 52 performers, singers, dancers, musicians are ready to go for every show. He's also with us here in Studio 3A. And Fabrice, thank you for coming in.


NAYLOR: What do you do during the show? Are you offstage someplace?

LEMIRE: During the show I can be in the audience watching, taking notes. I can be backstage, be supportive of the cast, and making last minute and last moment adjustment. But most of the time I'll be watching the show from the front and move around the audience, make sure I can see different things different nights.

NAYLOR: Do you find different – every night is a different performance?

LEMIRE: It's a different show every night. Yes.


LEMIRE: Mostly for me. And what keeps the show alive is because we have this extraordinary collaboration with the performers and I will actually try to trigger this moment where one day I may be talking about technical things and then we'll talk about something more artistic and I will try to actually go backstage and ask for these things to be developed while performing and while respecting the content, of course.

So I'm looking at different things every night so my experience for sure is different. I'm sure the dancers – excuse me, the performers' experience is different as well. And the audience member at the end of the day might not look at something also, so.

NAYLOR: So it's not just different nights performers are maybe a little bit more on than other nights, but I mean there are actual changes in the show?

LEMIRE: We try to deliver the same high quality show every night but we, you know, they're human beings. They come into the day and when I walk – when they walk through that space, I will tell – I can see it. I can tell you which one's going to have a bad day. And then what we do is that we talk and we find a solution. Can I let this performer go onstage or not that night?

All of them want to go onstage but sometime I may have to actually pull a performer in and put a backup act because of a condition, a physical condition, or something else.

NAYLOR: One of the really fun acts at the beginning of the show is the German wheel. It looks like a...

LEMIRE: Right.

NAYLOR: ...kind of a giant hamster wheel almost. And there's an acrobat twirling and doing almost like break dancing. It seems like he's defying gravity.

LEMIRE: Yes. And actually, for me, just my interpretation of that character is a little bit of an extension of, like I tell Mark, is this kind of a shaman who comes in and takes you on a journey. And that wheel feeling is real. Like this tornado that keeps turning and spinning around and takes you with on that journey of that young girl.

NAYLOR: We're talking with two of the people behind Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam." The show is now in Washington D.C. If you've seen "Quidam" or other Cirque du Soleil performances, what drew you in? 800-989-8255. The email address is I'm Brian Naylor and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


NAYLOR: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Brian Naylor. There are circuses with clown cars and elephants and tigers, and then there is Cirque du Soleil. We're talking today about the show "Quidam." It's been described as a spectacle with dance and acrobatics, bodies contort and combine. And behind it all there's a story of a young girl looking for the meaning of life. Mark Ward plays John in "Quidam" and Fabrice Lemire serves as the show's artistic director.

If you've seen "Quidam" or other Cirque du Soleil performances, what drew you in? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's first turn to a caller. Mary from Farmington, Michigan, is with us. Thanks for calling.

MARY: Hi. My name is Mary and thanks for taking my phone call. I just have a quick question. I have seen a show in Las Vegas for Cirque du Soleil and unfortunately, during the show one of the performers on the (foreign language spoken) had fallen from a very high distance and they had cancelled the rest of the show. And it really got stuck in my head and I wanted to know what you guys do to make sure that the performers are safe.

NAYLOR: All right. Good question. Thank you, Mary. Fabrice, there is - most of their performing is going on without a net. How do you ensure the safety of the performers?

LEMIRE: The performers are highly trained. They're highly qualified for what they do and of course we will not put a performer on stage (unintelligible). So what we do is that during the training session, during the formation, there's expert in all level to supervise the process and everything is really, really taking under the microscope. So when you see a final product on stage it's because everything has been thought and well thought and processed. So we will not take risks.

And these performers also don't have a chance for a mistake. So this is when I go back to my idea of the communication. It's very important for me as an artistic director to be present and to talk with them. If I feel there is a doubt, if I feel there is maybe just a bad day with performers, I will not put a performer at risk and put him on stage.

There is many shows. There is many nights with "Quidam" and we, you know, do not see accidents. There will be injuries, like any other sport in the high level but what we do is we make sure that the supervision is there at all time and we will not take a risk when there is one.

NAYLOR: How do you find the acts that perform in "Quidam" or in any of the Cirque du Soleil shows?

LEMIRE: Some people create something and they present it to the company. We have a casting division back in Montreal and you can offer your expertise. You come in with an (unintelligible) you come in with an idea and you present it and sometimes it's really well polished and all together. Or some of the time it's actually somebody within the company will come up with an idea and I looking for people willing to try.

And you do a workshop. You do some kind of exploration together. And you come up with a product.

NAYLOR: The one actor I was thinking of, the Chinese diablos.

LEMIRE: Right.

NAYLOR: The four young women who do the magical things with a couple of sticks and some string and what look like giant yo-yos.

LEMIRE: They are yo-yos, yes.

NAYLOR: And now is that something that they had developed and said here. Let's give it a shot or...

LEMIRE: It's part of the traditional circus element that they have and what we have done with "Quidam" right now is I'm backing up - I'm backup tracking a little bit here. We used to have young girls for that in the big top but they were 11, 12, 13 years old and the formula of this yo-yo, the pattern was a lot more upright so it's a lot of, what you call this, tosses in the air.

NAYLOR: Mm-hmm.

LEMIRE: What we develop with a new team is a lot more on the spiral. So we're actually a bit more. We're pushing the envelope a little further with the technicality of it because we can and they are willing to try. And they're actually doing a great job with it.

NAYLOR: I want to read an email that we got from Elizabeth(ph) in Madison, Wisconsin. She writes: I was so inspired after seeing "The Beatles LOVE" in Las Vegas that I immediately began taking both high and low flying trapeze lessons.


NAYLOR: And in fact, you know, I noticed in Washington last summer there was a vacant lot downtown and there were people offering trapeze lessons and I'm wondering if you've spawned a whole new interest in America.

LEMIRE: It's possible. I think what you do – what you see is that, you know, yes, the shows are very inspiring and people see this and first of all, they are amazed. And they're like, oh, wow. I cannot do this. And then actually they are curious and they want to explore. And what we have is that there is a link within the company where if you're interested you just go to that link and you actually can present your ideas to the company.

And it might not work for "Quidam" but it might be actually down the line an exciting idea for a brand new production within the company.

NAYLOR: And, Mark, that's what you did with your act? You've proposed different things.

WARD: Yes. For me, actually, I was lucky enough to receive a call and I sent in a videotape and they hired me from that videotape. But Cirque du Soleil also has quite a few outreach programs. Like this lady who decided to take the trapeze lessons, we have a thing called Cirque du Monde where we help kids out and we teach them circus arts.

So that's the good thing about Cirque du Soleil. If you're willing to learn, they're probably willing to teach you.

NAYLOR: And, Mark, I have to ask you, as an African-American, is your Cirque experience different? I mean, there are not – I guess traditionally there are not a lot of African-American circus performers. Is it easy to fit in with a group like Cirque du Soleil that is so diverse already?

WARD: Yeah. Actually, there is one other basically all African-American Universal Soul circus which has been around for many years which is an awesome, awesome company. But for Cirque du Soleil, like I said, it was a big melting pot for me. I never felt – it wasn't any different for me being an African-American artist. It was just a way of expressing myself and being hired. So it was definitely a great opportunity.

NAYLOR: Let's take a call now. Michael joins us from St. Paul, Minnesota. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I have seen just about every Cirque du Soleil show. There's a few I haven't seen. My parents just went to see "LOVE" and they're 80 years old and loved it. But it's just amazing. It's hard to come up with the words to describe what Cirque du Soleil is but they're really an amazing example of extraordinary performance art that draws you into an almost alternate reality and definitely an envelope-pushing reality.

When you're in a Cirque du Soleil performance, I saw "Ka" in Las Vegas and I had to keep pushing my chin up because my mouth was hanging open with 14 different performers or something like that were shooting arrows at the stage and people on the stage were dodging those arrows as the whole stage lifts up and comes out over the audience. It just, it blows your mind. And it gets a lot of my entertainment dollar, that's for sure.

We have a – just one more quick thing. We have a, I think, one of those training schools here in St. Paul, Cirque(ph) Juventas, which I've gone to a couple of their performance and you see these young kids doing these amazing circus performances at that young age. And we're lucky enough to have something like that right in our community.

NAYLOR: Michael, thanks very much for calling. Fabrice, I'm wondering – you were laughing when he was talking about the arrows flying around onstage in the performance "Ka." There are a lot of repeat customers, clearly, people who have seen one of your shows and come back. Is there a certain Cirque du Soleil - I'm sorry. I'm losing my word here. It's basically there's a sort of technique that seems to be throughout all of the different Cirque shows.

LEMIRE: Well, you always would have the wow factor with the technique. Like with all the tricks, the high level of acrobatics. And then I think they all try to be – have their own identity so they will have a plot, a theme, which might be just a very easy to line to follow and then after that you develop around that theme. So there's a group or creator who put this together and come up.

What we'll see sometime is we know what's working, you know. There is some acts like I'm thinking just off the top of my head, a (unintelligible) act which is quite stunning and this will be placed in "Quidam" and in some other shows because we know the impact on the audience. The slow motion, the control between this (unintelligible) male and female and the well-balanced couple. So that is formulas which will work and then we'll reuse it again.

NAYLOR: A sensibility is what I was looking for.

LEMIRE: Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah.

NAYLOR: There's a certain sensibility to these shows in terms of what the costumes are and the acts and also the music is pretty distinct. And let me take a call here from Lisa(ph) in Milwaukee. Lisa, you're a fan of the music at Cirque du Soleil.

LISA: Yes. I saw "Quidam" here in Milwaukee just recently but my first experience was 16 years ago seeing "Alegria." And I was enthralled by the band and the music and I've seen as many performances as I can, not just for the visuals, but because the music is so beautiful and it's so moving.

NAYLOR: Fabrice, is the music all composed, originally, for the productions?

LEMIRE: Absolutely. Actually everything was created together. And going back to the music is that - what I love about Benoit Jutras' composition is that it's really like him. He has - he is influenced by classical, by rock, by everything. And he put all of this together. And he had such a very strong sensibility and strong relationship and collaboration with Franco Dragone, when they created it together, then you can feel today again. I also believe - and I am just talking, you know, again, on the top of my head, but looking at archive and notes from Franco that to keep a short life of 15 years is that it's because you allow your performers or your musicians to bring something to the plate. So it's not an archive. It's not an old - like an old piece, one you put in a museum. The show stays alive because it get influenced by generation who get involved within the show. It can be musicians. It can be the performers, the directors and so long.

NAYLOR: Steve joins us now on TALK OF THE NATION. Steve from Richmond, California, thanks for calling.

STEVE: Hello. Thank you. This is an honor. I love Cirque. My wife and I go all the time. And I'm a musician. And my question is about the music because that's one of the major attractions for it. How much do the musicians or does the band have to improvise, you know, go along with the performances? And I've also always wondered, do they play with the quick track (unintelligible) rolled into the song too quickly, you know, it could be disastrous.

NAYLOR: And those are good questions. Fabrice, how about that?

LEMIRE: Actually, I will pass the...

WARD: To me.

NAYLOR: Oh, All right.

LEMIRE: I have an answer to that, too, but I'm going to let Mark.

WARD: Yes. As you know, all the shows are live and the music is done specifically for that act. But, of course, things can happen, so depending on the song, we have a band leader for every single show. And sometimes, there's a clique, and these are professional musicians, and they're able to improvise and be ready to change on a dime. Like all of the shows, we had 21 shows altogether, and all distinctive music, all distinctive artists. And that's what makes it work because everyone is so in tune and ready for anything to happen to make the show work.

NAYLOR: And, Mark, I'm just wondering, as the sort of the ringmaster in this performance, does it come to you to - do you hade any - do you set the pace at all for the show?

WARD: Many times I can, because if something happens, I'm usually the first one on stage to try to pick something up or to keep things going. So we definitely have to be ready to move and be aware of what's happening on around us, not just what you're doing but what's happening on the entire stage.

NAYLOR: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go now to Cathy(ph) in St. Paul. You've been the Cirque performance of "LOVE," is it?

CATHY: Yeah, "The Beatles in Love(ph)" out in Las Vegas.

NAYLOR: And what are your thoughts? You like it?

CATHY: I loved it. You know, I wasn't a huge Cirque du Soleil fan because I would see them on TV - and quite honestly, what I saw on TV they're just - their magic, what they do, it just, you know, it's so much better live. It's just incredible. And "The Beatles in Love" is the best show I've ever seen of any show of any kind - rock music, whatever. It was incredible. I just wanted to encourage your listeners: If you love Beatle music, go and see "The Beatles in Love."

NAYLOR: All right. Cathy, thanks very much. Now, I understand not only The Beatles, but there's also now a performance show featuring the music of Michael Jackson.

LEMIRE: Correct.

NAYLOR: And what I'm wondering, something like this, do you start with a, you know - as the artistic director, perhaps you're dealing with the show "Quidam" that is well established. But when it comes to developing a new show, do the creators start with a kind of a blank piece of paper or do they have some ideas, acts they'd want to work in? How does that work?

LEMIRE: They do. And I think what you have is that you have a vision of one person. And you bring to the table that vision, and you share this vision with other creator - lighting, costume, set designers and so long. It's very important during this process that all of them can really sink in and first have a listen to each other and work closely so nothing crashes. I think the harmony in "Quidam" is very much of a result of that. You can see 15 years later, I mean, that collaboration was so strong from the start that the product, the final product is very rich and just beautiful. The idea sometimes are very simple, and sometimes actually a creator will not know what is going to have a completion, he discovered within the process. So you just have a - maybe just a simple plot and then move with it. And then a lot of times, what happens is that it that actually you change direction. OK. This is not where I want to go. Let's meet - brief it again this way and best explore this again, and we take a different road. That happens too, but you got to have an idea to start with something.

NAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And in constructing the show, there are - it seems different levels almost. There's the - there's a level where - Mark, you perform on the ring itself. There's often a level that's one level up with acrobats twirling and tosses, and then there's the high-wire folks as it...

WARD: Aerial.

LEMIRE: Aerial, yeah.

WARD: Yeah, that sort of thing.

NAYLOR: And is that how the - yeah, I mean, do you construct these shows with that sort of structure in mind?

LEMIRE: I think it's important to have this idea in mind. I mean, this is what Cirque is well known for. So you want to really explore every single aspect and every single places within your space that you're given.

NAYLOR: And, Mark, just - finally, I'm wondering what you would like to do next? Do you like being the ringmaster playing John. Is there something else that you've got in mind one day that you'd like to perform on the Cirque stage?

WARD: Well, I'm still really enjoying myself. That's why I do, after almost 19 years. I've done pretty much all of it, but I just remain open. And right now John works for me, so I'm enjoying it.

NAYLOR: And is it physically demanding to be out there for - what - this is a five-night run, I guess, in Washington.

WARD: Yes. I mean, of course, it's not as physically demanding as it was for me being a dancer and acrobat. But being the principal character, it sometimes becomes more mentally exhausting, but at the same time it keeps you fresh because you have to be able to adapt and change.

NAYLOR: We've been speaking with Mark Ward. He plays the character John in the Cirque du Soleil production of "Quidam" and - which is on a North American tour. He joined us in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for being with us.

WARD: Thanks for having me.

NAYLOR: And Fabrice Lemire, who is the artistic director of "Quidam," also in Studio 3A. Thanks very much, Fabrice.

LEMIRE: Thank you.

NAYLOR: Coming up: kids on airplanes. The Practical Traveler joins us with some advice for parents and other travelers on how to survive the busy holiday travel season. I'm Brian Naylor. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.