Cirque du Soleil is returning to our shores next week with the company’s eighth Big Top show to tour Australia, KOOZA, which is described as a “death-defying, colourful homage to the traditions of circus”.

Since premiering in Montreal in 2007, over seven million people worldwide have seen KOOZA. For its Australian debut, tonnes of equipment and over 1,000 costume pieces are being transported here on two 747s.

Theatre People spoke to company manager Geneviève Deslandes about what distinguishes KOOZA from other Cirque du Soleil shows we’ve seen in Australia. According to Deslandes, KOOZA is all about Cirque du Soleil returning to its traditional circus roots.

“We went back to the essence of the circus,” she says, but emphasises that KOOZA is still a highly technological show with the lavish costumes and live music audience members have come to expect.

The show has a cast of 50 acrobats, musicians, singers and actors from around the world.

“We have a Colombian team in ‘Wheel of Death’ that are, in our books, the best in the world, and the high wire team from Spain that are the best in the world and [have been] doing this for five generations,” Deslandes says.

The ‘Wheel of Death’ act to which she refers involves a 1,600 pound wheel rotating at high speeds, powered only by two artists who leap and counter-rotate in what is said to be a truly death-defying display of acrobatics.

Deslandes vividly remembers the occasion on which she first saw the ‘Wheel of Death’ performed in Montreal (where the company’s global headquarters is located).

“The day I saw that show, I said, ‘Thank God I’m not in charge of KOOZA… How stressful!”

But some time later, she received some news from her boss.

“He called me with a giggle and said, ‘You’re now going on KOOZA’!

“But at the same time, it’s also what makes it so special to work with a troupe of artists like that…, realising how risky it is what they do every day… We’re so good at dressing it up and making it look easy that I think we forget how risky it is, and the fact that these guys really do go on that wheel and risk their lives every day, and [that] bending over backwards like our contortionists do is not natural or easy in any way. So, I love KOOZA for that. I think it’s a really strong reminder… [that] an ordinary person, as talented as they are, cannot just pull off that kind of stunt. That’s why I protect my people so much off stage. [I] make sure that I keep them in a nice plush cocoon so that they can be so good on the stage.”

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Cirque du Soleil’s KOOZA (Photo: Matt Beard, Costumes: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt, ©2012 Cirque du Soleil)

Talking talent, we asked Deslandes precisely what it takes to perform in one of Cirque du Soleil’s spectacular shows.

“A very high level of discipline,” is her response.

“Anyone who thinks, ‘I’ve been doing gymnastics for that long. I can pull that off easily’ will fail. I’ve been doing this for close to 15 years and you see a very confident, young, ‘afraid of nothing’ acrobat come on stage, and after two or three months, they realise it’s really hard to sustain such a rhythm. If you don’t keep your body in tip-top shape, you will not be able to do eight to 10 shows per week.

Deslandes continues: “But also, the level of inspiration that it takes to keep going on stage just like it’s the first time. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, is to have the mental strength, not just the body strength, to pull off such a job… It’s really demanding.”

Of course, training is also a crucial factor.

“We often have gymnasts and Olympians that we will recruit fresh off a competition, and then train them at our head office in Montreal to help them progress into becoming an artist, and not just an athlete or an acrobat because there’s a really big difference between both.

“But mental strength will be your best ally [in order] to have such a career.”

Deslandes says Cirque du Soleil has scouts headhunting new artists at world-level athletic and gymnastics competitions.

“You know that if these athletes have reached that level, they have what it takes to enjoy the ride with us, because it’s not all about putting something amazing on stage. We want people to really enjoy it,” she says.

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Cirque du Soleil’s KOOZA (Photo: Matt Beard, Costumes: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt, ©2012 Cirque du Soleil)

“But nowadays, as well, it could be as easy as uploading your video on our casting platform on cirquedusoleil.com.”

She says some members of the Cirque du Soleil team are recruited without having to even travel initially to its Montreal headquarters.

“[With] singers and musicians, that happens a lot. They’ll upload their audition online, and then we correspond with them, we have phone interviews and we have them sometimes [do] a second audition. But that’s all done online. Sometimes, that person gets to the tour and has never been to the head office and has never met anyone face-to-face. It’s a real benefit of technology for us. It’s been amazing the progression over, I would say, the last 10 years.”

Deslandes also says that over the almost two decades the company has bought its shows to the country, Cirque du Soleil has built a very loyal Australian fan base.

“There are also a lot of people that say, ‘I’ve seen Cirque before. I don’t need to see it again’,” she adds.

“I would say if some people have seen our shows before and didn’t enjoy it, this might be the one to convince them and leave them on the edge of their seat… But I also think it’s the one that will convince a lot of Australian men that circus actually is for them because it’s got such a high level of adrenaline.”

KOOZA’s national tour begins in Sydney on 25 August, before moving on to Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. Tickets can be purchased online at www.cirquedusoleil.com/kooza or by phone on toll free 1800 036 685

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