If you’ve ever seen Cirque du Soleil and felt like you were watching a Fellini movie — or maybe a Fellini movie with Lycra — the reason could be Carmen Ruest. Ruest, who arguably has one of the coolest job titles around — director of creation — says that while she was attending Rimouski College in Quebec, Canada, she would watch Fellini movies constantly; her favorites were “The Clowns, “La Strada,” and “Fellini Satyricon.”
Fellini, it turns out, would come into her life once more, a few years later, when she moved to Montreal to dance at the Louise Lapierrre Dance School. While there she took a part-time job at a Christmas exhibition selling jewelry for a designer. “I heard this music, like a street band,” says the Canadian native in a phone interview from Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters in Montreal. “I saw this band playing beautiful music, dressed like clowns, really a Fellini-type spirit. I met these people. They became my friends. I would dance (with the Louise Lapierre company) in the winter and then spend the summer with these people. Some had gone to clown school in Europe.” When she began to learn trapeze with them, she says, “I was already a dancer; it was easy for me to fly around with these guys.”
This was the end of the 1970s and Ruest says she was intoxicated with the freedom of that little band of street performers. “It was not ordinary. Rather a lot of pleasure and a mix of art — music, dance, a lot of creativity, performers doing it for the love of it. A beautiful spirit. The pleasure, the craziness, no boundaries, no contract to deliver. Some of this was really beautiful,” says Ruest with an exquisite French accent.
A few summers later the street band was touring and stopped in a tiny village near Quebec City, where they met up with another performer, Gilles Ste-Croix. “We gathered together a group of performers,” says Ruest. “We created a show on stilts and toured for three years.” The group called themselves the Club du Talons Hauts, or the High Heels Club. In 1984 there was a big celebration in Quebec City to commemorate the discovery of Canada, and Ruest says there was a lot of money for special projects. One of the members of the High Heels Club, Guy Laliberte, a fire-eater who had traveled and performed in Europe and America, presented a proposal for a circus touring show for the summer. And that, says Ruest, is how Cirque du Soleil was born. Twenty-five years later, Cirque du Soleil is still run by the same two guys, Ste-Croix and Laliberte.
Cirque du Soleil comes to central New Jersey for the first time on Wednesday through Sunday, September 17 to 21, with eight performances of Saltimbanco.
Suddenly Ruest found herself traveling the world, far from the house she grew up in, which her father built with his own hands in Rimouski, three hours east of Quebec City, in the countryside by the water. It was very rustic, says Ruest, the fourth of seven children. She remembers listening to her mother play the piano by ear in the dark of night, with no electricity. Her father did manual labor — he built a second house for the family in the country later in her childhood — and started his own company driving trailer trucks for transporting gasoline. “My dad is going to be 88 and still goes hunting and fishing,” says Ruest.
The concept for Cirque du Soleil, according to Ruest, sprung from Laliberte’s “wish to create shows with a mix of theater and circus without animals and with original material. “Since the first show, we have always had original music and choreography.” And the music is always performed live. She adds that Cirque was also born out of the particular culture of Quebec, “a special place that is artistically influenced by European and American culture — it gives a different flavor.”
Cirque’s first formal touring show, Saltimbanco, opened in Montreal on April 23, 1992, with a cast of 36 performers. It has visited some 75 cities on five continents during its 14-year- tour under the big top, for a total of more than 4,000 performances given before a combined audience of over 9.5 million people worldwide. Last year the show was reconfigured for arena audiences. The acrobatic grid is 30 feet long and is suspended 45 feet above the stage, it takes 12 53-foot trailers to transport the tour’s 270 tons of equipment from city to city, and the technical team is made up of 20 specialists and 12 truck drivers.
The performers in Saltimbanco, like all Cirque shows, come from all over the world, says Ruest, who spent her first 10 years with Cirque performing as a stiltwalker and assisting Gilles Ste-Croix in art direction. After a short stint away from Cirque as a production director and a costume designer, she came back to join Cirque’s casting department, scouting the world for artistic talent. She later became the assistant to the casting director, where she saw the casting department grow from five to more than 30 people. “I met so many beautiful performers all over the world,” says Ruest. As Cirque added shows through the years — Alegria, Mystere, La Nouba, Corteo, Varakai, Quidam, Kooza, and permanent shows in Las Vegas and Orlando — there was a tremendous demand for new talent. “We needed more artists, so that’s when we started to really look all over the world.”
Ruest says there is a long tradition of street festivals in Europe and she covered dozens of them, as well as circus festivals and dance and theater events. She quickly developed an eye for the particular kind of performer that fits Cirque’s unique persona. “Talent is everywhere but artistic personality does not always come with talent,” says Ruest. “I developed an intuition for this.” She says she often found such talent even in little acts on the street. She remembers an artist doing a street show in a little town in British Columbia. “He was doing a solo show, passing the hat. But he was fantastic, the way he was seducing the public. I remember looking at him and seeing where we could go further with this guy, to see more than I was seeing, which was really interesting. He ended up on our stage.”
Like any field, the circus world is a small one and Ruest says that Cirque performers would also recommend and hear of other performers who might be Cirque material. Ruest remembers someone she had already hired telling her of a young girl in a tiny town in Russia. Ruest went to see her. “She was 18, very young, and had never really been out of her little milieu.” Ruest didn’t see her perform but interviewed her on camera, and the girl gave her a video. “When I looked at the video, she was the fastest spinning hula-hooper I had ever seen. I said, we have to have her. When I came back to Montreal and started work on Delirium, I said, I want this girl. She is still the fastest hula hooper.” Ruest has hired performers as much as five years after first seeing them perform.
When Ruest first started in casting, she says, “we only had a fax machine.” Now, with the Internet, performers can submit their videos online and people working hold auditions all over the world. Ruest says part of Cirque international appeal is that it showcases performers from many different countries. Mongolia, for example, has a special way to train contortionists, starting with kids. The Chinese circus is known for manipulating plates on long sticks. Russian circus performers are known for their trapeze and the aerialists and high wire. And the Chinese do high wire differently than the Russians.
One act in Saltimbanco, taken from Argentine traditional folk dance, features a male/female duo who twirl boleadoras — a simple percussion instrument made of a weight attached to the end of a cord. The weights bounce off the ground and make exploding sounds, either in unison or in counterpoint to the dance steps of the performers. “It’s an example that shows that we can take a traditional discipline and bring it artistically to a performing level,” says Ruest.
The preparation and rehearsal for a Cirque show is extremely rigorous. Athletes, for example, says Ruest, have to learn how to adapt their high level sport abilities to a circus acrobatic discipline and a group act. “For the three acrobatic group acts of Saltimabanco we really had a very short (rehearsal) period of 21 weeks before the arena premiere. For any new creation, it takes an average of nine months of training.
“Saltimbanco is our most traditional signature show,” says Ruest. “It carries the roots of the company. It’s a bowl of joy, lively, colorful. At the time it was created, 1991-’92, there was a big migration to the cities worldwide. By 2020 it is estimated that 60 percent of the planet’s population will live in urban centers. Last year it was 40 percent. With this news there was a fear that it was dangerous to go in cities; it was dark. We created Saltimbanco to reassure people that if you decide to change, and do something new, you can do it with joy; Saltimbanco is like a meeting place, an imaginary city in a park. It follows the transformation of individuals, which are our circus characters. In the second part of the show, each character shows his or her own personality. The message is: Don’t be afraid. Change can happen and be positive.”
Saltimbanco is taken from the Italian “saltare in banco,” which literally means to jump on a bench. According to a press statement, “the show’s eclectic cast of characters draws spectators into a fanciful, dreamlike world, an imaginary city where diversity is a cause for hope. The set is an urban space stripped to its most essential elements. The ‘rosace’ is a canopy of metal rings which hangs above the stage. Light filters through it as it would through the branches of a tree or through a stained glass window. Despite its size and scope, the rosace is constructed from light materials, suggesting the minimalisation inherent in the information age.”
Ruest says that Saltimbanco’s director, Franco Dragoon, wanted the show to be “an elegy of happiness in the sadness of the world, bringing light into the sadness of the world. It’s timeless. It’s very colorful, for the whole family. The stage is symbolically like the park in the city, a place where people meet. (The show says) don’t be afraid to move and meet other people. You can give something and receive something in return.”
On a more metaphorical scale, the show traverses life itself. The show starts with a family act called acrosport, in which three acrobats meld their bodies together to create different figures in three basic colors — blue, yellow, and white, “beginning the cycle of life,” says Ruest. Other characters reflect different aspects of life. According to a press statement, the Ringmaster likes to be the center of attention; the Cavaliers are gentle protectors who, with their lanterns, light a path through the world; the Baroques, who sleep under bridges, are free spirits who reflect the extreme personalities of city characters; the Masked Worms are the masses, the face without a name, the status quo; La Belle reflects all human emotion — serenity and excitement, hope and joy, disappointment and melancholy; Eddie the jester is the child within all of us; the Dreamer lives between reality and illusion, poking fun at the world around him; the Child reminds us that the core of every society is its children and at the heart of the family is the child; and La Mort is an ominous reminder of our own mortality, who challenges us to experience the present as though we were taking our last breath.
Even the music reflects the diversity of the city, capturing, says Ruest, what you might hear “if you travel in a car on a busy Saturday afternoon with the windows open, and you travel slowly from one district to another and hear different sounds.” Saltimbanco’s score was the first with singers, “an invented language,” Ruest says. “It goes from funky beat to opera.” Saltimbanco composer Rene Dupere says, “At the beginning, I understood that the human voice should be part of the performance — in much the same way as the percussion. In addition, I realized that the soundcape of the city is not only the rumble of five o’clock traffic. In downtown New York, the sounds of dawn are the sounds of the countryside.”
The score includes one opera song in 13th century Low Italian. The rest of the songs are in phonetic sequences taken from various languages such as Arabic, Swedish, and German. Dupere believes that although certain cultures can seem totally foreign, their music always succeeds in moving us. “The wonderful thing about all music is that it always gives rise to different emotions in each spectator, emotions that belong to him alone.”
With Cirque still a worldwide phenomenon at age 25, how much staying power does Ruest think it has? “We want to touch people,” she says. “I think we will be here as long as we give that to the public, that they go back home with something better. I think they will have new images. In every performance I go to see, if you’re touched, it worked, and something happened. It would it be emotional memory, a feeling. We want to give good to people.”
Cirque du Soleil: The Saltimbanco Tour, Wednesday through Sunday, September 17 through 21. Sovereign Bank Arena, Hamilton Avenue at Route 129. $41.50 to $96.50. www.comcasttix.com. or 609-656-3222.