PORTLAND, Maine — Despite the relative proximity of its home base to Maine, when the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil brings its Saltimbanco show to the Cumberland County Civic Center next month, it will be the first time the world famous troupe comes to the state.
This, after nearly 30 years in existence, during which the “Circus of the Sun” grew to 21 shows with performances in hundreds of cities across all continents — with the usual exception of Antarctica.
From Oct. 10-14, Maine audiences will get their first opportunities to take in one of the organization’s elaborate shows, which feature dancing, singing and acrobatics in what has become known globally as a high-octane, high-flying and high profile two-plus hours of entertainment.
Saltimbanco Artistic Director Neelanthi Vadivel, who first joined Cirque du Soleil as a dancer in the show Dralion, sat down for an interview with the Bangor Daily News in Portland on Tuesday.
Saltimbanco, she said, is a tried and true Cirque du Soleil show that has been touring for two decades, and as a proven crowd pleaser is used by the organization as an introduction show for new markets — such as Portland. What makes Saltimbanco unique is that, while the on-stage product is a colorful depiction of the cultural melding that goes on in an urban environment, Vadivel said the same cultural melding process is also ongoing backstage and without makeup.
In short, the metropolitan Saltimbanco — which is a derivation of an Italian phrase meaning “to jump on a bench” — is perhaps art imitating life imitating art.
Vadivel told us about the culture behind Saltimbanco, coming to Maine, her background, running away with the Cirque and how you can, too. If you’re good enough.
Question: Your background is in dancing. What’s the difference between approaching a show like this from the perspective of a dancer compared to the perspective of an artistic director?
Answer: Working with dancers, you know where you come from. Everybody comes from the same style of training, the same backgrounds. Most people started training when they were 5 or 6 years old. It’s pretty standardized, I would say, in theatrical or dance backgrounds, whereas working with the circus artists, they come from such extensively varied backgrounds. I have artists who were Olympic gymnasts, and then I have artists that grew up in the circus as children — I’ve got singers and musicians and actors and dancers as well, and they’re from 20 different countries. So not only are there language and cultural differences, there are training and background [differences]. Working with a group like that is a challenge.
Q: So how do you navigate all those differences as artistic director?
A: I think keeping the focus on the show [is important]. Everybody is quite committed to the show. It’s a classic Cirque du Soleil show, and because it’s 20 years old, it’s got quite an extensive history to it and a lot of legends — and a lot of culture around Saltimbanco — that people really buy into and hold close to their hearts. So keeping everybody really focused on this show, because it’s so special, I think it brings everybody together and we’re able to put on a show as a team.
Q: Saltimbanco centers around a metropolitan theme. How does your background and life experience inform your approach to that theme?
A: The starting point for the concept of the show was the meeting of cultures in the city and how urbanization is changing the landscape today. This is a touring show, and the last three years we’ve toured to about 40 different countries, so living that every day, seeing other cultures and how they function together and their differences — and seeing the 20 different nationalities that are within the cast [itself], that informs the subject matter heavily as well. We’re constantly having to tackle cultural differences and misunderstandings, the challenges of translation and making sure everybody’s on the same page.
Q: Millions of people around the world have seen Cirque du Soleil performances from the stands. Can you tell us a little about what goes on behind the scenes to prepare for these elaborate shows?
A: It’s a really well-oiled machine. Cirque has got quite a good format now for their touring shows. We generally arrive in a city [and] do a load-in on a Tuesday. So we’ll have the technicians in for about 10 to 12 hours setting everything up. The following day, we’ll have the artists in starting around 11:30 or noon to start training, and that’s generally our premiere day. There will be different trainings throughout the day, mainly for the group acts, because they require the most staging with the structures on the existing stage. Backstage people continue with their own conditioning and personal training, as well. We have a full gym for them and all the equipment that they need to train backstage, because it’s very important. Conditioning and [injury] prevention are at the top of our list. And then [on-stage performers] have about an hour to do their makeup — it generally takes them between an hour and an hour and a half, depending on the character they’re doing. Then they eat, rest and do what they need to do before the show. We do a bit of a sound check for the musicians and singers, and the show goes on at 8 o’clock.
After a show — a show lasts two and a half hours — some of the artists continue to train. [Some] prefer to train after the show. They’re all warmed up and ready. They’ll work on their own personal things or they’ll work out at the gym, or do whatever they want to do. I’m generally in the office until about midnight, as well, handling all the fun office tasks that go with the job. Then that’s it. We start it all over the next day. We have anywhere between one and two shows a day.
Q: How does somebody go about becoming a Cirque du Soleil performer?
A: There are thousands and thousands of people who say that every day, ‘I want to work for Cirque du Soleil.’ We have an entire department in Montreal that’s only devoted to casting. Anybody who says one day, ‘I want to work with Cirque du Soleil’ can log on to the website — the cirquedusoleil.com website, look under ‘casting’ — and find a description of what they do. So there are [headings for] dancers, musicians, singers, acrobats, clowns — whatever it is the person does, [they can] find a listing of the things we’re looking for. So then you can prepare your demo, send in your [resume] and reels and whatever you want to send in. The casting department goes through the first formal triage, with specialists looking through the videos. Then we create this huge database where everybody has to be logged in according to their skills and the skills that we think are the right level. Then when a show needs an artist, they go through that database and they pull the top candidates, which are then presented to the artistic director to make a selection.
Q: How long do performers typically stay with Cirque du Soleil?
A: Anywhere from a year to 20 years. It really depends on the artist.
Q: As a dancer, which performance that you’ve been a part of is your favorite?
A: With Cirque du Soleil, I’ve only been a performer in one show, called Dralion. I was a performer with them for two and a half years. Prior to that, I was a professional dancer with some Canadian repertoire companies, Les Grands Ballets Canadien and Les Ballets jazz de Montreal. They’re very different experiences. Completely different, and both brought me a lot of fulfillment as an artist, but in very different ways.
Q: How did you make the transition to Cirque du Soleil?
A: I grew up in Montreal, so Cirque du Soleil was always very present. I’d seen many of their shows, and many of my friends started slowly migrating over to Cirque du Soleil as more and more roles became available for trained dancers. Before, it seemed more acrobatic focused, or clowns and musicians. It didn’t seem to be a place for trained dancers in my mind. Then when I saw more and more roles being developed that were interesting, I applied. I went through the casting process and sent my demos and contacted casting. I did an audition — they do open auditions sometimes, especially for dancers — and I was called three years later. I wasn’t called that year, but three years later, I had a message on my voicemail asking me to send in some more information. And I was finally offered a job.
Q: You formed your own dance company in Montreal, as well. Can you tell us about that?
A: Yes, I have a dance company in Montreal. It’s still running. I’m not a part of it any more. It’s just a small pickup company. My partner was the choreographer, his name is Edgar Vendejas — my business partner — and he still runs the company. It’s doing really well. It’s contemporary dance.
Q: This is the first time Cirque du Soleil has brought a show to Maine. What can you tell us about breaking into a new place like this?
A: [Saltimbanco] has been all over the world. We’re the show that’s probably opened the most new markets at Cirque du Soleil. We really are the pioneers. We’re the ones that go out and discover new markets and bring Cirque du Soleil to the world. We’re really quite thrilled to be coming to Maine and to be opening one more new market. This show is a 20-year-old show, but it’s still very inspiring. A million people saw the show last year, and it’s still just doing so well.
Q: Is this your first visit to Maine personally?
A: No, I’ve been through with my dance companies a few years ago. We did a lot of American tours.
Q: What are your favorite things about Maine?
A: Well, I grew up in Quebec, so I’m used to this landscape of the beautiful foliage and the maple trees, and the countryside and the rolling hills. It’s beautiful. And I have to say Portland is quite a charming town.
Cirque du Soleil will perform Oct. 10-14 at Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center, 1 Civic Center Square. For tickets, visit visit ticketmaster.com.