We Spoke To A Cirque Du Soleil Contortionist About What It's Really Like To Be In The Circus
"It’s a lot of pain, sweat, and tears."
For the first time in history, Cirque du Soleil is bringing one of its shows out of retirement., a timeless story of resilience and hope, is a magical performance that has been a favourite for decades. When the show stopped in 2013, it had been running for almost 20 years and had been seen by more than 14 million people worldwide.
But rather than just bring the show back, Cirque du Soleil has decided to give(the Spanish word for “joy”) a distinctive and modern twist in time for its 25th anniversary. The revived version, like the original, boasts beautiful costumes, invigorating music, and an ongoing sense of spectacle. The acts are tougher, the set is more impressive, but the story is just as inspiring as ever.
And few people are better positioned to talk about the, its significance, and how it's changed than Elena Lev, one of only two original cast members to return to the revived show.
"touched a lot of people around the world. It’s come back as an icon and a lot of people come with expectations," Elena, who has a 25-year career with Cirque du Soleil, told Narcity in an interview.
Born and raised in Moscow, Russia, to a family of gymnasts and circus performers, Elena performs Alegría's mesmerizing hula-hoop act, combining dance, flexibility, balance, and strength. She first stepped on stage with her act at age 11 and travelled around Russia with her parents performing in circuses.
In 1994, at only 12 years old, Cirque du Soleil invited Elena to join the tour ofjust a few months after the show’s premiere. Elena performed in Alegría for eight years, touring around North America, Japan, Europe, and Australia. Since then, she has performed her act in six different Cirque du Soleil shows, including Quidam, ZAIA, Saltimbanco, Wintuk, and more recently, Zumanity. Now, she's back under the Big Top performing the same act that she did when she was 12—this time, with her teenage daughter in tow.
In this exclusive interview with Narcity, Elena discusses joining the circus as a child, how she balances life in and out of the Big Top, and her 25-year career in the circus.
Questions and responses have been edited for clarity.
You were born into a family of circus performers and acrobats in Russia. Did you always know you would become a performer?
Yes! My parents were both great gymnasts and performers. I began rhythmic gymnastics when I was five years old, and at age 11, my parents decided it was time for me to stop gymnastics and join them touring Russia in the circus.
What was it like being asked to join the biggest theatrical-performance company in the world at just 12 years old?
My father was invited to Cirque du Soleil with his high-bar act and my mother and I came along. I was supposed to tag along for a 2-year contract, but little did I know that a few months later, the show would audition me and ask me to join Alegría.
How did you feel joining the biggest theatrical producer in the world?
I wasn’t necessarily scared as I had already performed for over a year in Russia. Performing in front of large crowds came naturally to me because I had already competed in gymnastics and toured Russia. Now, when I’m on stage, I’m more aware. My mother was my coach and she would tell me what to do. Going on stage was almost like a competition every time. I would always try to please my coach.
What’s the training process like to prepare for a Cirque Du Soleil show? Do you have a specific diet? Do you train all year?
Every discipline depends on what you do in the show and how you train (contortion, flexibility, etc.). Training also depends on how the performer has been raised. My mom was my coach most of my life, so I have been training since I was a kid.
I never really had a diet, but I love to eat healthy. If you don't put that limit on your body and you have what you want, then you won’t binge. I listen to my body, and if I know I have a show, I’ll eat a little before and have my bigger meals after. I’m a solo act, so there are days when I need to prepare more. When I’ve done, say, eight shows in a row, I let my body rest. But group acts train differently because they depend on each other.
We also typically have breaks between cities—about seven days. Some people take complete rests and some people stay in shape. Other than that, we get two breaks a year of two weeks. But our job is a physical one, so we need to keep our bodies in shape and keep training even on our days off.
How do you balance life on stage with your training and coaching, and with your own personal life?
It’s definitely a juggle. I’ve worked in Las Vegas where its a permanent show and you live a completely normal life. On tour, we’re stuck with each other. We live together, travel together, eat together, we’re on the same schedule. We live the circus.
We try to give the kids, and my 13-year-old daughter, more of a normal life. On days off, we try to do normal things—like Niagara Falls, which we will be visiting soon. It’s only taken me 25 years to see it! My parents and daughter have seen the falls, but on our last trip to Toronto—I’ve been to Toronto a few times now—I opted to go to Canada’s Wonderland with my friends instead. I’ll see the CN Tower eventually, too.
We try as much as possible to have a normal life, but it’s hard, because wherever we travel we become tourists, and then we perform.
Do you have any advice for someone who might want to join Cirque Du Soleil?
Cirque du Soleil is a very big company with lots of projects and they’re recruiting different athletes and dancers. I have a lot of fans who write to me, and I tell them that being a performer in Cirque du Soleil is definitely not easy. It’s dedication. It’s definitely professional. It’s not like you wake up one day and you say, “I want to join the circus.” Being a performer isn’t as easy as it looks! It’s a lot of pain, sweat, and tears. But anything’s possible. You can join Cirque du Soleil through public relations or human resources. I say, if you really want something and you have a dream, go for it.
Which of all the different shows you’ve been involved in has been your favourite one?
When I left, I did Quidam. Most recently, I performed for six years in Las Vegas with Zumanity. But my heart is completely full here at Alegría.
How does it feel to be a part of the new version of Alegría, having performed on the original show for so long?
I cannot compare the old show with the new, but when performing in the revamped version of, I’m definitely presently reliving the old shows to kind of bring back those moments and memories into the present and into my performance.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about the new Alegría?
We’ve gotten fantastic reviews!touched a lot of people around the world, as did the original. It’s come back as an icon and a lot of people come with expectations. When they leave the Big Top, they say it’s amazing. It has some of the old aspects to it, but it’s completely revamped. For me, I hope people come with open hearts and open eyes.