How the performers of Cirque du Soleil stay at the top of their game

27 February 2018 by
First published: 25 February 2018

If you’ve ever been to see a Cirque du Soleil performance, you’ll know what we mean when we say it’s completely out of this world. Not only do the stunning visuals of the production completely captivate you, but the performers are some of the most athletic, skilled and super strong out there.

Having to nail every performance night in, night out, touring with one of the biggest shows in the world can surely take its toll on your body, and when you’re training and performing at such a level, you need to be confident that you’ve got the best team surrounding you. We caught up with Cirque’s head therapist/performance medicine, Roisin McNulty, and head coach, Emerson Neves to find out what it’s like working with such high-level athletes – and what it really takes to be an elite Cirque performer.

Your jobs must be two of the most sought after in your field. How did the opportunity to work with Cirque arise?

Emerson Neves: I performed for many years in diving shows in Europe and Asia before I started to work for Cirque du Soleil. I was working in Taiwan in a diving show when they invited me for a general formation, training for the Vegas show O, in the Russian swing and high dive discipline. Instead, I received a contract for the show Saltimbanco to be part of the Russian Swing act both as a flyer and a pusher. While I was working for this show, I became a multidisciplinary artist and was asked to participate to the Chinese poles and bungee acts. After my career as an artist, I became coach for Cirque.

Roisin McNulty: I was looking for a change. I had done some touring work with sports teams and athletes which I quite enjoyed so I liked the idea of combining work in professional sport/performing with travel. I wrote a letter to the Performance Medicine head of touring shows at Cirque du Soleil and fortunately there were some positions open for interview. It all happened quite quickly. A few weeks later, I was hired and was preparing to move to Montreal! I literally ran away with circus almost overnight!

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in working on Cirque?

EN: Changing cities and new arenas and the need to adjust to a different environment every week to ensure the safety of artists and continual high show quality. Space for training is another challenge as we are very limited to the stage access.

RM: Cirque provides unique challenges day to day. Arena touring is a fast-paced environment – usually one city per week! – and things are constantly changing! Sometimes the best made plans need to be adapted on the spot and decisions taken under time constraints.

Although your roles are to coach/treat the cast, What is something readers would be surprised to know that the cast has taught you?

RM: The cast has shown me that anything is possible with a vision and very hard work. They are an extraordinary group of individuals, many of whom have overcome all sorts of obstacles to get to where they are today.

What is the most common injury you’ve seen while working on Cirque? How was it overcome?

RM: We have a very diverse cast with many different body types and skill sets to support the variety of acts in our show. This brings with it an array of different injuries. Certain groups do have their particular areas of overuse risk and we aim to identify this early and implement prevention strategies. Overcoming any injury relies on an accurate diagnosis, appropriate early protection whilst maintaining the conditioning of the whole body and rehabilitation exercises to promote a sustained return.

How has working with the Cirque cast differed from any other athletes you’ve worked with?

RM: Our artists are different to sports athletes even though many of them were sportsmen and women prior to their Cirque career. The blend of being an athlete as well as an artist brings different considerations to the table – they are not preparing for a weekly match, or a one-off tournament. They have to be in shape to perform 7-10 shows per week! As a physio, it involves collaborating with a wider range of team members than a sporting team environment, including artistic director, coaches, stage managers, wardrobe department and technicians!

EN: When you work with athletes (I was a diver, coaching only divers) you coach only one discipline. With Cirque du Soleil, an artist has to learn and adapt their techniques from sports to the apparatus they have to perform, besides choreography and cues. Some of them do back up in a different act. The circus performers need to work on multidisciplinary apparatus and need to be multi skilled.

The cast go through so many performances, how do you make sure they don’t overtrain?

EN: Every artist is different. What could be overload for one can be a normal training for another. Performance Medicine (Pmed) keep track of injuries and performance readiness. I need to ensure they train enough to keep in a good shape and able to deliver a high-quality performance and within Pmed reduce the possibility of chronic injuries.

How do your roles play into getting them ready mentally for performance?

EN: Everyone comes from a strong background of sports or circus and are self-disciplined to prepare mentally. However if an artist is struggling, we focus on this area and at times introduce a sports performance specialist to give them tools to work within their discipline.

Walk us through a typical day of training with the cast.

EN: Usually I’m the first one to arrive (regarding the artists) as I need to ensure there are no changes from the previous show and complete emails, performance reviews and meetings.

I’m on stage with the artists usually from midday to 5pm; that’s when we do the show line-up and check the show load for the artists. I grab dinner quickly and after I use that time for meetings with some artists or Pmed or with my artistic director. I watch parts of the show to check performances or if they are doing new skills in the show to see how it was. If there is anything out of the ordinary during the performance we catch up to discuss the best option to fix the problem. The show finishes around 10pm and after that sometimes I work with some artists or I have meetings.

Outside of training and treatment, do you recommend the cast take any other wellbeing measures, such as meditation, mindfulness or yoga?

RM: For wellness, I am a big believer in getting the simple things right – adequate sleep, good hydration and a healthy balanced diet. Alongside this we recommend and strongly promote strategies for mental recovery. The Headspace app is one tool we use on the road and many artists have it on their personal device. This is a great app for our environment as there is such a wide range of sessions from 1 minute to 30 minutes and with various goals so it can be tailored very much for the individual in that moment.

Do the cast have to adhere to any particular nutrition plans in order to perform at their peak? What kinds of foods are they recommended?

EN: They do have to keep track of their weight and if for some reason that becomes an issue we can support them recommending a nutritionist. Otherwise I can make suggestions and some recommendations after checking their eating habits, energy levels, etc. We have our own catering on tour and meals are designed to enhance nutrition and performance but we do have temptations of desserts too!

Talk to us about the importance of preventative and remedial treatment when performing at a high level such as in Cirque.

EN: Every time an artist is modified or out of the show, someone will take that load. It can become a chain effect as the artist that is now overloaded has a higher risk of an injury. We make sure everyone is properly assessed, show load and training load controlled and if there is any imbalance, they have a mandatory preventative program to avoid injuries.

RM: Our artists perform 7-10 shows per week. Coupled with training and a constant striving to improve their skills and performance, this can involve a high volume of workload. Added to this physical load is travelling to a new city each week – it can be a lot! Strategies to promote wellbeing and robustness are important to support longevity of our artists’ careers and of course to maintain the high quality of performances in our show.  We take a wide approach to injury risk reduction on the show and it is often the combination of multiple things that result in preventing injuries including good warm-ups, targeted preventative exercise routines, hydration/nutrition, addressing environmental factors and paying close attention to workload management. Remedial and ongoing management strategies including massage and mobility/self-release exercises to name just a couple also play an important role in maintaining wellbeing and tissue health.

Want to see the Cirque du Soleil performers in action? You can catch them in OVO at arenas across the UK from 16 August – 7 October 2018.