Cirque du Soleil's newest touring show to arrive in Philadelphia, a slip of a girl leans backward, folding herself in half and touching her toes. Another performer stands on stilts perched atop one end of a teeterboard. He flies into the air, stilts and all, turning several somersaults and landing with perfect poise, still firmly on his stilts.
Acrobatics are Cirque's particular hallmark, but in each new show the troupe creates, performers weave a dramatic tale while making extraordinary feats of movement seem effortless.
is the story of the Innocent, a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world. His journey brings him face-to-face with a panoply of comic characters: the King, the Trickster, the Pickpocket, and the Obnoxious Tourist and his Bad Dog. The engaging tale is being performed now through June 15 under a Grand Chapiteau, or Big Top, on the Avenue of the Arts at Washington Avenue.
At every performance, the audience gasps in amazement, and behind each gasp lies a question or two: Where do these people come from? How did they get that way? And what on earth do they do to stay in shape?
Boris Verkhovsky, Cirque's genial acrobatic performance and coaching director, can answer all those questions. The performers came to Cirque the same way artists get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.
"The majority of our physical performers come from competition or amateur sports," Verkhovsky says.
Cirque employs top-level athletes who are accustomed to a high-pressure environment, but with 54 performers from 15 countries, and ranging in age from 12 (contortionist Natasha Patterson) to 51 (Gordon "King Clown" White, the stilt specialist), organizing their training regimen is no easy routine.
Every act has a coach, but since each athlete is an individual, Verkhovsky explains, "the health-services team is comprised of at least two people, and usually the ideal team is an athletic trainer and physiotherapist."
A physiotherapist "comes from a more clinical environment, and uses a greater range of modalities including ultrasound and electric stimulation," while the athletic trainer can "tape you up and kick your butt back up on the stage because there's a show going on and we've got to deliver it!"
employs two physiotherapists, one of whom is health-services supervisor Brad Fernihough, a hulking Aussie with a shaved head. Fernihough arrived at Cirque three years ago, after a stint as physiotherapist for England's Royal Ballet. In addition to treating injuries, physiotherapists also help the performers design a balanced individual diet and exercise program that includes both strength and cardiovascular training. In each city it visits, the troupe hires local nutritionists, masseuses, acupuncturists and orthopedic doctors as needed.
Cirque's artists earn every moment of that personal attention. During creation of a new show like
, the performer's workday begins at 8:30 a.m. with "individual preparation" - taping ankles and wrists, icing joints, ultrasound - and continues to a half-hour group "yogalates" session, a combination of yoga and Pilates stretches.
Verkhovsky says the group stretch "is a physical warm-up, but also demands a lot of concentration and mental effort, and sets the mind for work."
Performers then work on their acts until lunchtime, around 1 p.m. Verkhovsky says he aims for a 11/2-hour lunch break, but it is invariably shortened as some of the artists also use this time for weightlifting, cardio training or additional physiotherapy.
After lunch, many performers find themselves dozing off during a "staging session" with the director, choreographer and acting coach, until they are awakened by the adrenaline rush of having to perform on cue.
Though these staging sessions are less physically taxing, they require the artists to improvise, and for competitors used to being coached, as Verkhovsky explains, "when to inhale and when to exhale," it can often be the most psychologically demanding part of the day.
Staging sessions run until 6 p.m. and are usually followed by an additional hour of athletic conditioning. This schedule lasts five days a week, but once the show runs, there is only one rest day, and the schedule is dictated by show times.
Some artists are more disciplined than others.
Contortionist Patterson, a fifth grader, says she must "stay loose" in her free time, and during her weeklong between-city breaks, she stretches as much as an hour a day. Her eatig habits, though, are dictated more by her whims, albeit sensible whims, than by nutritionist prescription. Touring favorites are the Cirque kitchen's spinach dip with crackers. "Once," she recalls fondly, "in San Francisco, they made sushi!"
Justin Sullivan, a 26-year-old gymnast from Lubbock, Texas, takes discipline to another level.
Sullivan was recently "promoted" after seven years in Cirque's house acrobatic troupe to
Trickster character. And though he no longer performs high-level acrobatics, he says, he still does quite a bit of training and sticks to a strict dietary routine.
On breaks from the show, he'll hit the gym for what he describes as an intense 35 minutes of free weights and Pilates, followed by a half hour on an elliptical machine. He can also recite every food item that passes his lips on any given day (and is only slightly embarrassed by this specificity), because his menu rarely varies, from "orange juice, two strawberry Pop-Tarts, no icing," at breakfast, to "two glasses of water and perfectly proportioned chicken or pork, a starch and vegetables for lunch and dinner, and the particular flavor of Kashi bar he munches in between.
Yet Fernihough says some performers "are from the streets, so they've never had a concept of health service, preventative care, or a conditioning program.
"They don't like aerobic exercise; it's not what they were trained on," he says, clearly frustrated.
"We're not schoolteachers, though," Fernihough says.
"If they don't want to listen to the advice the head coach and I give as a team, it's to their detriment. They'll get an overuse injury, and it will take much longer for them to recover."
Still others, like White, favor a relaxed approach. White says at his age, "being the clown is physical enough," and he's found his way into Fernihough's office for ultrasound therapy (bad knees and feet; when home in Vancouver, Canada, he belongs to a runners' group) and acupuncture to treat pre-show migraines. He is also a vegetarian and has become so disciplined about avoiding junk food that "I don't desire it anymore."
When asked if he's ever wanted to try acrobatics, White answers quickly, "No. They've offered. I'd like to try the Russian swing sometime. . . .
" And I should buff up a bit, because when you get to 357 years old," he jokes, "things start to sag. But I don't worry about it as long as I feel healthy, and I do."
Though he admires the younger artists' athletic accomplishments, White isn't intimidated by them.
"They all respect me for my age," he explains, "because I try to be not one of them, but young at heart - young at mind."
Read Toby Zinman's review of "Kooza" at