If anyone was born to skate in a Cirque du Soleil show on ice, it was Shawn Sawyer.
“I would idolize every single show they would do," said the Olympic figure skater from Canada.
Sawyer spent years creating his own Cirque experiences. He bought the soundtrack to each new production and often used them for his competitive programs. The music spoke to him, and his hyper-flexibility worked with a circus theme. “I would watch the videos of the show to see what I could do with the music.”
A native of the Canadian province New Brunswick, Sawyer kept Cirque as his mainstay when he became a professional show skater. An example of his obsession: “I’ve seen Alegria 500 times on VHS.”
Meanwhile, Crystal’s artistic director, Fabrice Lemire, knew nothing about ice. A former dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, he was always interested in choreography and collaborations.
“Anything in the creative world was attractive to me,” said Lemire, who lives in Tucson when he’s not on the road. “I was curious to grow in that platform.”
So when he left the stage, he moved to Canada to be an assistant director and ballet master for Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. But it was part-time work and he needed to fill in the gaps. One position was with Celine Dion’s show in Las Vegas, where “someone from the casting department from Cirque found me.”
For a couple of years, he heard nothing more from Cirque du Soleil. And then “in a couple of weeks, I had to pack up life and move to Asia," working on a resident Cirque show in Macau.
He transferred a bit in the Cirque universe, moving to the frozen “tent” in late 2017, when Crystal was launched. It was his fifth show and it recently had its 500th performance. In October, Lemire will shift to the role of artistic director on a second Cirque show on ice called Axel.
Lemire describes Crystal as having more of a story than most Cirque shows. It follows a girl, Crystal, who doesn’t know how to fit in. She finds her place in the world with help from her Reflection, a character who shows her it’s OK to be herself.
The show is a marriage of acrobatics and skating. Most of the performers had to learn a new skill.
For Sawyer — who plays a businessman, which Crystal originally finds mundane — the new skill was tap dancing.
“There are unique sounds we can make with the blades on the ice; really small microphones capture the noises.”
His role also includes triple jumps, backflips, and spins.
Sawyer, who emphasizes that Crystal is a Cirque show on ice rather than an ice show, found his way to his dream job partly thanks to Kurt Browning, a four-time world champion, fellow Canadian, and friend. They were in many touring shows together over the years.
“He had a secret he wasn’t able to tell me, and Kurt doesn’t keep secrets from me,” Sawyer said. The secret was that Cirque was planning an “ice experience,” as they call it, and Browning had signed on as the skating performances senior designer. He knew Sawyer would want in.
Meanwhile, Sawyer was living in Montreal, where Cirque du Soleil is based. He heard elsewhere that the company was interested in ice and immediately applied to help workshop the show he would later join full-time.
“The second that door was open to get skaters for that workshop, I was the first getting my skates tied up.”