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November 27, 2014

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Cirque auditions draw aspiring artists with lofty dreams

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Steve Marcus

Timber Brown demonstrates his flexibility during auditions for new Cirque du Soleil performers in the “O” Theater at the Bellagio.

Auditions for Cirque du Soleil

Rachel Stewart performs a routine with a hoop during auditions for new Cirque du Soleil performers in the Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Maybe the bubbles got to her. A year ago, Hilary Sweeney was a scientist for Pepsi — and performed aerial acts at nights and on weekends. She came to love it so much that on Monday, she swapped her business suit for a tan leotard and dangled upside down from a rope in the middle of the Bellagio’s O Theater, hoping to make this a permanent gig.

Rebecca Freund, on the other hand, has long had circus in her blood. Her aunt and uncle rode elephants under the big top, and her cousin performs as a trapeze artist on the East Coast. Although Sweeney jokes that she “ran off to join the circus,” Freund seems to have prepared for a role as an aerialist all her life.

Despite their divergent paths, both women share a similar goal: to become a featured performer with Cirque du Soleil. Sweeney and Freund were among a handful of aerial artists who auditioned Monday for the French Canadian production company that has redefined circus entertainment from clowns and cotton candy to theater-quality dancing and acting.

•••

Two performers contorted around hoops. Two more twisted between fabric swaths billowing from the ceiling. Several performers climbed, then gyrated and swung from ropes, while a trio of acrobats balanced in the nooks of a hollow, hanging cube.

They came from as far away as Canada. Women outnumbered men five to one. Some had attended circus school from the time they could walk, while others only recently made the decision to abandon more typical jobs for a chance to soar onstage.

All agreed that working for Cirque would be the pinnacle of their careers.

“It’s the biggest and the best,” silk performer Danielle Rueda-Watts said of the Quebec-based company.

Acrobatic talent scout Stacy Clark sat quietly in the audience as performers twisted and turned. One by one, she thanked them for their effort. Unlike the harsh and often degrading judges seen in movies and on TV, Clark was a warm and gracious critic, so much so that even the performers were surprised.

“We are not the nasty ‘American Idol’ panel,” Clark said. “We want to have an exchange.”

That isn’t to say she isn’t picky. Having toured the world looking for performers, Clark has seen it all. There’s rarely an act that surprises her, she said. What catches her eye is a particular artist’s telling of a story or his take on a trick.

The first aerialists to perform Monday delivered. Clark invited all nine of the acts to a callback Wednesday. If they pass that test, an all-day audition of dancing, acting, tumbling and strength exercises, they’ll have succeeded. They’ll be deemed worthy of casting for a Cirque show. But their time onstage may still be a way off.

Instead, they’ll be entered into a database of “artists of caliber,” where they’ll wait for a call from an artistic director with a hole in his show’s lineup. It could come in weeks or years. They could end up in any of Cirque’s dozens of productions around the world.

As the performers filed out of the theater carrying their hoops and ropes, they stepped over and around a second group of aerialists stretching in the lobby. Their auditions were Wednesday afternoon.

•••

Cirque du Soleil regularly hosts auditions in Las Vegas. The city is home to seven, soon to be eight, Cirque shows and artistic directors know the city has a solid slate of talent. For performers, that can be a blessing and a curse. There’s a community to learn from and rely on, but there’s also an abundance of artists hungry to perform.

“My expectations are elevated here because we are in a place where we have a great deal of competition and exposure,” Clark said.

And the circus world is growing more competitive. The popularity of Cirque, along with shows such as “America’s Got Talent,” have brought acrobatic arts into the mainstream. More people are training in the field. Artists’ techniques are improving, and the talent pool is growing.

“Before, it was this obscure thing. It seemed so inaccessible,” silk performer Sarah Romanowsky said. “Now when I tell people what I do, everyone knows what I’m talking about.”

That’s not to say anyone can grab a rope and hope to replicate the performers. Most have been training for years, if not as aerialists, as gymnasts and dancers.

So who showed up for the Cirque du Soleil audition? And how did they learn to do what they do?

Meet some:

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      Sidonie Adamson, hoop

      Adamson, 23, of Vancouver, British Columbia, excelled at gymnastics as a child but was missing the competitive streak she needed to succeed at the sport. Her scientist parents decided to enroll her in circus school instead. She earns a living performing as an aerialist and working as a personal trainer.

      “People think you need to run away to join the circus,” Adamson said. “You don’t. You just need to work hard.”

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      Marshall Amey, trapeze

      Amey, 29, of Colorado, works as a dancer in Cirque du Soleil’s “Love.” He’s looking to be promoted as a trapeze artist with the company.

      “I want to transition,” he said. “It’s so fun to be in the air and fly.

      Amey toured the world as a cruise-ship dancer before landing the “Love” gig. He fell into dancing after taking a hip-hop class as a theater major in college. Now, he’s fallen in love with the aerial arts.

      “I’ll always be a dancer, but I want to take the moves from the ground into the air,” he said.

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      Timber Brown, rope

      Brown, 26, of Las Vegas, was in the police academy five years ago when an agent made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

      “An entertainment company saw a video of me jumping off roofs and asked me if I wanted to get paid to do it,” Brown said.

      He did, and he now earns a living performing a rope act. He has appeared in “Peepshow” and regularly travels across the country for events.

      Brown impressed the judges Monday, but said he improvised his audition.

      “Sometimes I don’t make a plan because things don’t go according to plan anyway,” he said. “I just climb things.”

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      Rachel Stewart, hoop

      The art school dropout got her first dance and gymnastics training when she enrolled in circus school three years ago. Today, she can hang from a hoop from the tips of her toes and extend her legs into splits across a dangling ring. A job as a fire performer in a show with aerialists piqued her interest in the art.

      “I just started playing with them,” she said. “I never expected to get called for a show this big and complex.”

      In five years, Stewart, 22, of Boston, hopes to run her own circus school and touring production.

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      Sarah Romanowsky, silks

      Romanowsky, 28, of West Hollywood, Calif., teaches and performs aerial stunts seven days a week. She started dancing as a young child and parlayed those skills into her aerial act.

      “I wanted to be challenged in a new way but in a place I could still use my dance,” she said.

      She has been performing her silks act for five years and last summer appeared as an aerialist in a “Glee” commercial for Chevrolet. Still, she feels she has room to grow.

      “There’s always further to go,” Romanowsky said. “You’re never done learning. You can always be more flexible, stronger, more artistic.”

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      The Cube Trio: Nikki Blakeslee

      At 41 years old, Blakeslee was the oldest performer to audition Monday for Cirque. Nobody would know it watching her stretch inside a hollow cube as part of the three-woman contortion act.

      “When people learn my age, they probably wonder what it’s going to look like,” said Blakeslee, a former professional dancer and instructor. “Let’s just say I’m a late bloomer. I just keep going until I can’t go anymore.”

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      The Cube Trio: Rebecca Freund

      In Los Angeles, where the Cube Trio perform, aerial arts have become fairly prevalent, the performers said. Freund, a trained gymnast, and her partners show off their skills in a Hollywood nightclub show.

      The women decided to send an audition tape to Cirque on a whim. Friends suggested their act would be a good fit for the production.

      “It was a last minute thing,” Freund said.

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      The Cube Trio: Laura Sheehy

      Sheehy, 38, was always drawn to the stage but started her career as a dancer and actress. She performed on Broadway for four years in “Cabaret” and danced for the New York Knicks.

      Transitioning to aerial felt natural, she said.

      “Having been a dancer, aerial became a huge interest,” Sheehy said. “It’s like dancing in the air.”

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      Hilary Sweeney, rope

      “Just going through the process of preparing for this audition has been self-transformative,” 30-year-old Sweeney, the Pepsi scientist-turned-aerial performer, said. “It has boosted my self-confidence and helped me with feeling out of my element.”

      Although she has been dancing since she was 5, Sweeney took up aerial arts only a few years ago.

      She works as a freelance performer and teaches at a circus school for children. Science was certainly the more straightforward career route for the chemistry major, but as she says: “What a better way to spend your life.”

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      Danielle Rueda-Watts, silks

      Rueda-Watts, a gymnast and yoga enthusiast turned aerialist, makes a full-time living dangling and dancing on fabric. But it isn’t always easy, she admits.

      “It’s hard when you’re not in a show and you’re on the outside, working gig to gig,” the Las Vegan said. “You’re a specialist. In Las Vegas, with so many conventions and corporate events, you can survive but it’s spotty. I try to fill it out with club work.“

    • Cirque du Soleil Auditions
      Photo by Steve Marcus

      Laura Sheehy, double rope

      Sheehy doubled down on her audition and performed both as a member of the Cube Trio and as a double rope aerialist. For her second act, she swung and contorted from two looped ropes hanging from the ceiling.

      The audition presented her with new challenges, such as trying to stretch her body into unfamiliar positions during a flexibility exercise.

      “I don’t know if I can dislocate my shoulders,” she said. Turns out, she can.

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    1. Now I'm not putting any of these people down. These performers all look very talented, and appear to be VERY good at what they do after dedicating many years of practice. But seriously, all Cirque du Soleil keeps doing is recycling the same acts over and over again. The only difference between any of their shows are themes that dictate different costumes, props, and stage settings. Not much difference in seeing a trapeze act at Circus Vargas in a parking lot and what you see at a Cirque show.

      Here, let me save you money:
      Mystere: I'm on a Trapeze dressed as a bird!
      O: I'm on a Trapeze above a pool and I'm wet!
      Le Reve: I'm on a Trapeze above a fountain and I'm wet!
      Ka: I'm on a Trapeze in front of a moving stage!
      beLIEve: I'm on a Trapeze with magic acts!
      The Beatles Love: I'm on a Trapeze dressed as Sgt. Pepper!
      Viva Elvis: I'm on a Trapeze dressed as Elvis!

    2. Le Reve is not Cirque.

    3. goingbust:

      I stand corrected. You are right, Le Reve is NOT officially a Cirque production. It was however created by Franco Dragone who did 5 other Cirque shows including O and Mystere for Wynn in the past, so it's got some pretty deep roots to Cirque which still proves my point.

      A Cirque performance is a pretty interesting and entertaining one. However you can't just keep watching the same thing over and over again. They just keep "badge engineering" the costumes to make them *seem* different when they do the same thing in different shows. It went from story telling, to themes, to outright product licensing. Next up is a Cirque show that's supposed to license Michael Jackson. Wow. Hold.Me.Back. What's next to license? I wouldn't even blink an eye if the next Cirque show was called "Vitesse" and was a NASCAR theme where Dale Earnhardt falls from a trapeze, into a pool of water dyed black to resemble used motor oil, only to get hoisted up into the rafters wearing a white sequined racing suit with wings, all while the cast sings the Johnny Cash version of "Hurt".

    4. Just pointing out that Le Reve is not Cirque. Not meant as a personal insult. Many people think it is because of the obvious resemblances. Several have thought I was wrong when I told them it was not.

      Your NASCAR idea is pretty funny. If Cirque doesn't use it, mayeb the Wayans Brothers should create a Cirque parody - Trapeze Movie. :)