Behind the scenes at Cirque du Soleil's Kooza

The hard work that goes into making magic under the Grand Chapiteau.

click to enlarge Waiting for lift-off on the Teeterboard. - Photo by Shanna Gillette
Photo by Shanna Gillette
Waiting for lift-off on the Teeterboard.

They make it look so easy, don't they, those Cirque folks? Send in the clowns, trip the light fantastic on the high wire, take a few spins on the Wheel of Death — et voilà! Let's put on a show!

Of course it's not that easy. And seeing how it all comes together behind the scenes makes a Cirque production seem at once more plausible and more impossible.

Kooza is the latest Cirque extravaganza to hit the Tampa Bay area, running through Dec. 16 under the Grand Chapiteau outside Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Less New Age-y and more traditionally circus-y than some shows in the Montreal troupe's repertory, it's nevertheless full of jaw-dropping moments (the aforementioned Wheel, for one), as well as some inspired clowning. (The pre-show, when the clowns wreak havoc in the audience, upending popcorn bags and flirting shamelessly regardless of gender, is pure delirium.)

I got to see the show last Friday night, but that afternoon, accompanied by photographer Shanna Gillette, I joined a backstage tour led by publicist Mami Ohki to see how the magic is made.

We met Collette Livingston, wardrobe assistant, who showed us how the sole of each acrobat's shoe has its own distinctive "wire path" (everyone walks the wire in his or her own way, it seems). She also explained the hidden mechanisms of the dog costume: "When you see the dog pee, that's me!" Three full-time wardrobe mistresses manage 1,200 costume pieces, and it's all stored in a surprisingly compact space in a tent adjacent to the main arena.

Backstage was a kind of three-ring circus in itself. A clown was, naturally enough, clowning around while getting a costume fitting. Not far from him a unicyclist was practicing his routine. Curtained dressing cubicles, where the artists do their own makeup, border the rehearsal floor; the actor who plays the sinuous ringmaster figure, the Trickster, takes 90 minutes to complete his 33-step makeup regimen.

A few steps from the rehearsal tent, chef David Lariviere was preparing fish in a smoker outside the dining pavilion. Across the parking lot in the school trailer, teachers Melissa Mungo and Thierry DeGagne planned classes for the five school-age students traveling with the troupe (three of them contortionists from Mongolia, two of them children of performers), who range in age from 4th to 10th grade.

But the truly breathtaking part of the tour was the chance to see cast members under the big top as they ran through the death-defying stunts they'd be performing later that night, their attitude a mix of intense concentration and this-is-what-we-do-every-day nonchalance. There is one crazy sequence in the show that involves a Teeterboard, or seesaw, and guys on stilts being flipped 30 feet into the air. It looks ridiculously dangerous — Shanna's photos give you some idea — and I was flabbergasted to learn that the participants were wearing safety harnesses for rehearsal purposes only. During the show, Mami Ohki told me, the harnesses would come off.

Sure enough, that night the quintuple-somersaulting stilt-wearers shot high into the air without the benefit of tethers, protected only by their own (and their castmates') strength and precision. And I gasped again.

But somehow it was scarier when they were doing it in rehearsal. I guess by the time I saw the show I knew — at Cirque du Soleil, somersaults on stilts are just another day's work.

Read more about how Cirque du Soleil chefs cook for over 130 cast and crew of 23 nationalities.

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