Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM has hit the United States, and The Bert Show has your inside scoop! Social Media Director Cassie and Intern Ashley headed over to the set for an exclusive sneak peak of what goes on behind the scenes, courtesy of Cirque’s resident PR expert, Francis Jalbert.
TOTEM, which world-premiered in Montreal on April 22, 2010 will have a shelf life of about 15 years, says Jalbert. And while you only see a handful of the actors on stage during the actual performance in different capacities (main acts will often reappear as supporting characters in other story lines), there are 120 touring employees with 50 official accompanying members (spouses and family).
Although everyone involved speaks English – ranging from being fluent to being able to speak just enough to get by – close to 25 different languages and 50 nationalities are represented.
And into the inner-workings we go…
Life On The Road
The Montreal-based company, Cirque du Soleil, strives to keep life constant for its employees while on the road – upon arrival to a new installation city, the artists are set up in corporate housing or residency hotels. While a total of 23 children are on the tour – ranging from the ages of 6 months to 17 years old – they continue with their schooling; in fact, TOTEM’s lot (pictured, courtesy of Cirque du Soleil), contains school trailers, and the company staffs three teachers on site. The goal is to keep their lives as normal as possible: on Halloween, the kids even trick-or-treated on set, Jalbert told us.
Even though 65 trailers are needed to transport the 1,200 tons of equipment and the site itself takes 8 days to set up (and 3 days to deconstruct), the set up of everything stays exactly the same in every city, down to the layout…and even the heat and humidity levels. This way, the artists don’t ever feel out of place, nothing gets lost, and conditions remain constant, allowing the artists to stay performing at peak levels.
Everything the employees could ever need is provided; the kitchen employs one touring kitchen manager and three touring cooks – they cook about 250 meals a day. Two performance medicine therapists travel with the tour – in fact, just after our interview with Guilhem Cauchois and Sarah Tessier, (the trapeze duo), Cauchois went to get a massage.
Although the staff lives off-site, the artistic tent includes a wardrobe area, dressing rooms, a fully equipped training area (pictured) where watching people balance on their heads for minutes at a time is completely commonplace – Jalbert didn’t even bat an eye when this happened during our interview, and a physiotherapy room.
A Backstage Look
Call time for TOTEM is about an hour and a half before the show, half of the trapeze duo act, Sarah Tessier, tells us, but she gets there much earlier to apply her makeup, which can take her up to an hour. All of the artists apply their own make-up before the show; the official cosmetic supplier is MAC, and each artist has intensive training on how exactly to apply the make-up.
Initially, each performer sits down with the make-up artist for a tutorial, and then the makeup artist does half the face, and watches as the performer completes the other half. Step-by-step tutorial guides – accompanied by photos of each stage – are provided for the performers so they can replicate the exact look on the road.
In the wardrobe department, cabinets of make-up, all labeled by serial number (the artist’s colors are recorded in their makeup guides) stand side-by-side with cabinets of carefully labeled fabric swatches shipped in from Montreal (in case of costume emergency, the fabrics are on hand, Jalbert explains; it’s a little hard to get the fabric in from Canada that quickly if there’s a time crunch).
After every performance, the costumes are washed, and depending on the details and composition, they could be either machine washed or hand washed (two of the headpieces for one act are decked out in Swarovski crystals…and they don’t mix with dryers so well). Each day, the wardrobe department works on the costumes, fixing minor wear and tears.
As for the costumes, each artist spends time being digitally measured so that their costumes fit like a glove. Their skin tone is even measured so that the fabric for the full body suits will look like natural skin; in the summer, tanning is discouraged – otherwise, the entire costume’s “skin” tone is thrown off.
For the monkey costumes, which play a key role throughout TOTEM, Jalbert tells us that custom molds are made of the performer’s head, so that his or her specific mask will ONLY fit them, no other artist. Then, each hair is hand sewn into the mask; after completion, it was deemed that the masks were too “clean,” so they dirtied them up to better fit the artistic vision of the show.
As for the headpieces (pictured), Jalbert tells us they are hand-made in Montreal, and it can take hours to finish each piece.
The show is performed six days a week, sometimes twice a day, and the seating capacity of the Grand Chapiteau – where the actual performance is held - is approximately 2,600.
The stage contains secret entrances in the floor (and a sliding panel which reveals a trampoline, used in the opening act). The main fixture of TOTEM, the “turtle skeleton,” weighs a whopping 2,700 lbs (1,225 kg), and includes 2 horizontal bars for the performers to use, and is completely covered in a non-slip finish.
Some acts practice their set for about an hour each day; the newer acts like Cauchois and Tessier practice more to refine their craft (although through audience eyes, it’s already flawless.) The company also features guest acts like the “perchers” (pictured, courtesy of Pouya Dianat/Cirque du Soleil), a Russian troupe who have been working together for years, and then are trained to be Cirque du Soleil actors, as well as acts crafted in-house.
An Interview With Fixed Trapeze Duo, Guilhem Cauchois And Sarah Tessier
Guilhem Cauchois and Sarah Tessier comprise the fixed trapeze duo; portraying two lovebirds, the two play a young man and woman who tease, play and sulk in an innocent game of seduction and eventually intertwine their bodies in a light-hearted vertical dance of fresh, unusual movements and lifts.
Tessier and Cauchois have been working on and perfecting their act for over three years, (they were first matched together at the world-renown National Circus School in Montreal). To put it in perspective: they were matched…and had to develop a trust bond within days. Performing stunts at dangerous heights with someone you don’t know requires major trust levels, something which the duo had to work to build. Starting with smaller tricks, they eventually built up that relationship; their performances now have the audience gasping as Cauchois drops Tessier…and catches her at the last minute while hanging upside down from his legs on the trapeze.
After their hour-long rehearsal session with their specialized director, they made their way to what the show’s cast and crew call the “red carpet area,” which was right next to the mini gym and consisted of a red carpet (shocker!), couches and a TV for the performers to watch the live show and clips to critique themselves later. (Jalbert tells us that every performance is recorded and archived in Montreal, and are often used as training materials for new employees.)
Everything about their interactions is routine: Tessier’s hand gestures are graceful even when she’s casually speaking, and after three years of working together, the pair’s familiarity is evident in the way they interact on – and even off – stage: at one point, Cauchois lightly touches Tessier’s knee mid-conversation as he laughs. Other times, Cauchois, a native French speaker will pause mid-sentence think, and turn his head slightly toward Tessier and speak one word in French (in this case, the word “stutter”), which Tessier translates for him instantly, allowing Cauchois to continue with his sentence as if he never stopped at all.
Both Cauchois and Tessier have a unique story on how they ended up in the circus: as a child, Montreal-based Tessier was always a big sports junkie. She began gymnastics at the age of seven, and throughout high school, she would practice for 16 hours outside her regular classes (her family supported her…as long as she kept her grades up – sounds like your typical parent). When her friend just suggested she audition for the world-renown National Circus School in Montreal in her last year of high school, she did.
As for Paris-born Cauchois, he came into the Circus business from a totally different angle: he got his start early due to a speech impediment. His parents enrolled him in theater classes to help him work on his stutter, but when he moved cities, he no longer had access to theater classes. But what was easily accessible were circus classes (camps exist world-wide), and since he had the athletic prowess, he took it on, later on ending up at the same school as Tessier.
In 2011, one year before graduating from the School, Cirque du Soleil Casting scouts contacted Sarah and Guilhem to offer them a contract with a start date at the end of their studies for the touring production TOTEM. While their act (pictured, courtesy of Pouya Dianat/Cirque du Soleil) doesn’t display all the high skill moves the duo can perform (although they told us they keep up with those skills in training), they’ve only been on the road for two months, and are still refining their act.
So what does a typical day for the two look like? Since the pair is typically up late performing, they don’t get up until later in the day, maybe about 11AM, although the time varies. Cauchois hits the gym from anywhere from about one and a half hours to two and a half, focusing on weights and conditioning, while Tessier’s gym routine consists of similar workouts, but for less time. The pair doesn’t have a specific special diet…although Cauchois “eats a lot.”
Travelling on the road takes it’s toll, however. Tessier’s parents are in Canada, and while they’ve been able to drive down to see a show, Cauchois Paris-based parents haven’t been able to make the trip just yet.
With show time just hours away, the interview wrapped with an awkward exchange of “Good Luck.” In traditional theater, saying the phrase “Good Luck” is actually bad luck, so exchanges of “break a leg” are said instead…but saying that to actors whose main art is physical will get you some weird looks. (Yes, it happened…apparently the phrase doesn’t translate so well.) So what do they say to each other, instead? It varies for each culture, but for the French speakers, it’s “Merde.” Yep, that’s French for “Sh**”…although Jalbert, Tessier and Cauchois assure us that it doesn’t carry the same shock value as it does in the States. But the key thing lies in the response – you never respond with “thank you.” A head nod or just a “yeah” will suffice just fine.
- Cassie Young, with written Cauchois/Tessier interview contributions from Ashley Corrao.
About Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM
TOTEM traces the fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly. The characters evolve on a stage evoking a giant turtle, the symbol of origin for many ancient civilizations.
Inspired by many founding myths, TOTEM illustrates, through a visual and acrobatic language, the evolutionary progress of species. Somewhere between science and legend TOTEM explores the ties that bind Man to other species, his dreams and his infinite potential.
The Pictures: Behind The Scenes And On Stage
Photo Credit: Pouya Dianat/Cirque du Soleil