March 24 2010 12:00 AM

’Language of performance’ unites an international cast



If you put the United Nations under a big top, it might look and sound something like Cirque du Soleil (which comes to Breslin Center in East Lansing next week for a five-day run).

“We have performers from 17 different countries,” senior artistic director Michael Smith noted as he observed his artists preparing for a stopover of the “Alegria” spectacular in Detroit in February. “We’re very multi-national. That’s the best part of working at Cirque.”

Although conversations in German and Russian could be heard backstage during warm-up exercises, the official language of Cirque is English; newly hired Cirque stars study English at the company’s Montreal headquarters during a six- to nine-month-long training period before heading out on tour.

“But the language of performance is kind of universal,” the British-born Smith said. “When I’m working with artists, language is not an issue. Everyone embraces the different ethos of the company. There’s so little racism or prejudice ingrained in everyone at Cirque. You embrace the differences to enhance the life.”

Cirque shows have been celebrated for their astonishing displays of athleticism, and “Alegria” is no exception. As Smith talked, a young man took the stage behind him and slipped into the cyr wheel, an oversized metal hoop; within seconds, he was spinning himself around the performance area, his taut body perfectly balanced inside the whirling wheel.

Around the corner, five acrobats were using the Russian bar — two slender, flexible pieces of wood bound tightly together — to launch each other high into the upper reaches of Joe Louis Arena. The performer stands in the center of the bar as two partners support opposite ends of the beam. A couple of quick bounces later, the daredevil was soaring up to the rafters — but he had to be sure to land precisely on the narrow space at the middle each time.

“Incredibly dangerous,” Smith said of the act. “And also incredibly beautiful.”

A sizeable percentage of the Cirque cast come from the world of sports (even a couple of former Olympians). “How do we make a sports person an artist? That’s very different from show business,” Smith said. “There, it’s not about ego, it’s about discipline.

“Our challenge becomes: How do we get them to work as a group? They’re used to working on their own.”

A management consultant might suggest a few team-building exercises, but Cirque has its own strategies.

“We’re more organic than that,” Smith explained. “Shared responsibility for the show is what brings them together. When people are proud of what they do, it’s a great thing to tap into.”

At this point, Smith was told he had an important phone call coming in from Austin. Excusing himself, he headed back to the office.

“Austin? Texas, right?” he asked publicist Genevieve Laurendeau. Smith chuckled. “Am I gonna be able to understand his accent?”