Inside the Cirque: An Interview With Director Bruce Thorson

Inside the Cirque: An Interview With Director Bruce Thorson

Q: Filming a behind-the-scenes documentary about Cirque du Soleil, the biggest show on earth, you must have faced challenges? Just as you were following the Varekai team from Taiwan to South Korea, the earthquake hit Japan.

There was no one single challenge; there were many and varied challenges: the radiation leak in Japan released by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the days after the 11 March tsunami forced us to prepare our own evacuation plans day by day as we watched the radiation climb and spread over Asia. Ultimately of course we kept working in Taiwan and South Korea. But at the time it was far from certain that we'd be safe and would stay. But we were and did.

We were covering a big show, a big site, and in the end every member of our small four person crew needed to be able to pick up a camera and shoot. We had six cameras rolling on the final show. Four people shooting and two cameras fixed in the rigging. So that was a technical challenge.

And dealing with an organization as big as Cirque, can at times be like dealing with the department of national defense! Many layers of approval to get through and seemingly endless negotiations on where and how and when to be to get the shots you need to make the film.

Q: There are many remarkable facts that come to light in this documentary. Which was the biggest surprise for you? The biggest surprise for me is the small army of locals brought in after the last show who provide the muscle to tear down the site. Hundreds of untrained workers, who don't speak English, working at night, tearing down the big top, all guided with great skill by the cirque's backstage crew. That was a remarkable feat of coordination and professionalism. To my great surprise, it was all done, on time, with no problems.

Q: Did you know the extent of detailed craftsmanship involved in the Cirque du Soleil? From the soles of shoes, to each hair being sewn on to the wigs? I didn't know a person could make a living from these time-honoured traditions anymore. Yes and no. I have a long lost background in helping produce a street performers and circus arts festival. So I knew that it took a great deal of work to make something not just look good, but also make it functional. Some circus acts really are "death-defying" so what you wear, the costume, shoes, wigs, has to be perfected to a degree, down to the millimeter or gram so that it won't interfere with your flying through the air or fire-eating.

The surprise for me regarding the detailed craftsmanship was just how large the machine is at Cirque. Hundreds of craftspeople working day after day at arcane professions, sewing wigs one hair at a time, for instance. That almost inconceivable patience to spend 50 hours placing one hair at a time on a wig, that in particular struck me as a job nearly as bizarre as being a sword-swallower or contortionist.

Q: Max, Cirque's logistician, seems to be the busiest man on the planet. He oversees 6 big top shows and 700 shipping containers traveling around the world. Yet he maintains a sense of humour - or was that just for the camera? Max will be the first to tell you he talks like a trucker because he has to deal with truckers. He knows how to motivate the hardhats, get the show on the road and keep one step ahead of the clock; though he lives in his own time zone as he travels so much and so far so many days of the year.

But the other side of Max is the master logistician, the chess-player who has to project years into the future, all those hundreds of trailers moving through dozens of cities. So again, a man of two minds: one very much at home when he's got his boots on the ground and kicking ass to get the show moving. And the other, the master chess-player projecting multiple moves years in advance.

To get straight to your question though, Max is indeed a very funny guy who uses humour to motivate people and to diffuse those inevitable moments of conflict when you're trying to corral so many people and get them moving in one direction.

Q: One of the characters, Natasha, expresses such love for the Cirque. Yet she decides to leave. Lots of people who work for Cirque leave the road after awhile. Nat just wanted to return to Montreal for a little while and then join a new Cirque show. This is quite common with crew on Cirque. They like to mix it up and experience new shows in new locations. It's also good for Cirque as it means that their talent pool among crew circulate through the shows and bring fresh ideas to the tours. Remember, these tours can last over a decade; it would be near impossible, and not desirable to keep the same road crew for that long.

Q: Guy Laliberte. He's a sort of Canadian Richard Branson - but different. High-stakes poker player, philanthropist, space-tourist, the subject of alimony controversy, father of five - how involved is he these days? Guy wasn't in the orbit of this show Varekai so I can't say.

Q: Who composes the scores for these shows? Cirque hires composers, some do one show; others might do a few. For Varekai it was Violaine Corradi.

Q: Did you ever want to join the circus? I sort of did. I spent four years helping produce one of the largest street performers' festivals in the world. In that time I learned a lot about the international network of circus arts performers: sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, contortionists, acrobats, etc. So I know a bit about that world, its economics, demands, and the personality types attracted to it. As well as the sheer professionalism needed to succeed in that very competitive career choice.

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