I performed in five Cirque du Soleil shows during my time with the company. Each production presented a different challenge and became a new lesson in my performing life. Each gave me the opportunity to grow as a person and to explore new territory as an artist.
My first show, Mystère, prompted me to leave New York and move to Las Vegas.
I’d seen Cirque du Soleil in New York in 1988, the year I left Juilliard and began my work with Moses Pendleton, who was the founder of Pilobolus and MOMIX dance company. I’d heard about a circus from Montreal that had no animals and, since so many people recommended it, I bought a ticket. The afternoon performance was sold out, but somehow I was able to get a seat in the last row. My heart was filled with anticipation as I entered the chapiteau. I was enchanted by the magical environment and completely absorbed by the space and the energy it held inside. The show began while the audience was still walking into the tent. A clown dressed in an usher’s uniform would expose any stragglers by declaring in a loud voice, “You are late!” On other occasions, he would take new arrivals by the hand and deliberately bring them to the wrong seat. I was mesmerized when the first masked commedia dell’arte-like characters took the stage, and was especially taken with the stage presence and magic the lead character and contortionist brought to the performance. I thought to myself that I wanted to perform like her. What immense power these performers had! Everything I saw that afternoon put me in a sort of trance. Although I enjoyed the acrobatics, I was most impressed with the theatricality and stage presence of the performers. I imagined myself performing for Cirque du Soleil, but assumed that they would not be interested in employing someone of my professional background.
That all changed in 1993 when Cirque decided to hire dancers for the first time. An auspicious coincidence occurred just in time through my lanky tap-dancing Juilliard friend, Owen. He tipped me off about an upcoming Cirque du Soleil audition. Owen, who performed on Broadway, somehow knew that Cirque was looking for dancers. He said that if I was interested in becoming a “muscle man” I should go to a Cirque du Soleil audition. I had no idea how to get in touch with casting. By chance—or shall we say, harmonic convergence or yet another auspicious coincidence—Cirque’s Saltimbanco happened to be playing in Battery Park City in New York at that time. I bought a ticket to see the show, then went to concessions and asked how I could get in touch with casting. The sales staff member was kind enough to write down a phone number to call. Little did I know that five years later I would end up in the very same spot performing for Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam as an aerialist/dancer in a principal role.
I called the Cirque headquarters and was immediately connected to casting. The company was still small enough that I could talk to a real person right away without having to upload a profile onto a website and then wait to see if I would even be considered for an audition. The casting director, Nicolette Naum, said that Cirque was only hiring black dancers (from around the globe) at the time, but to send a résumé and video anyway. She told me that no one ever knew for sure and if it was meant to be it would happen. I had some video from MOMIX on a VHS tape and asked a friend with a typewriter to type out my resume. I put it in the mail and waited. Defying all odds, Nicolette called back and invited me to audition in New York. It helped that she was a huge MOMIX fan. Cirque still had its tent up for Saltimbanco which meant, for this audition, traveling to the Montreal headquarters was not necessary. I told Owen about the audition. Excited, we rented a dance space and choreographed a piece with as much acrobatics in it as possible. The audition was run by Cirque du Soleil Choreographer Debra Brown. I proudly showed off my acrobatic skills, but Debra wanted none of it. She was looking for dancers, not acrobats. At least I tried, I thought to myself, and now it’s time to go home. Then she said, “I really want to see you improvise.” She needed to see me move naturally and if there was something I was good at, it was precisely this. Debra liked what she saw and invited me to come to Montreal to meet the director, Franco Dragone, in person. As I later learned, Debra had been strongly considering me throughout the process, but I was not at all sure I’d be offered a spot until after I auditioned for Franco.
As it turned out, I never had to book a separate ticket to Montreal for my second and final audition. Auspicious coincidence arranged it so that, during that exact moment in time, I was already in the city filming the 3D IMAX movie, IMAGINE, with MOMIX. All I needed to do was take the metro to the Cirque headquarters and see Franco after the shoot. He took an immediate liking to me and especially enjoyed my ability to leap through the air. Soon after this meeting, I was offered a contract.
Once I found out that I would have to move to Las Vegas (the other Ciirque headquarters in the U.S.), I was not no longer sure that joining was such a good idea. I liked living in New York and having to move to Vegas was not at all appealing to me. My dream was to perform in the chapiteau like the artists I’d seen in Battery Park City. Nevertheless, I believed that Mystère could be my springboard to get on tour, and my wish came true a few years later.
In April 1993, I received a letter with terms and conditions that said, “Regarding your salary, it will be approximately $70 US per show.” I was somewhat disappointed since I made more money per show dancing with MOMIX. The difference was that, for MOMIX, I performed about three shows a week, while Cirque required twelve. This meant doing close to five-hundred shows a year! Of course I agreed, nevertheless, and soon received another letter: “… Consulting our Artistic Department their wish is that you come to Montreal at the latest on June 27th 1993…”
Before relocating to Montreal for the creation of the show, I consulted an opera singer friend in New York on how to negotiate a contract. She told me that one could always get $20 more. She was wrong. When I sat down with Gilles Ste-Croix, who was one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, I made the request. He was not happy. I mentioned to him that the Broadway minimum (in 1993) was about $120 per performance. “Then you should go back to New York and work on Broadway,”he retorted. Producer Roger Parent, who was sitting next to Ste-Croix, jumped in saying something in French to the effect of, “Let’s not scare him away.” Eventually, I received a contract that guaranteed $85 per show. This was $15 more than the original offer, but was still less than what the acrobats were getting paid at that time.
The creation process with Cirque du Soleil was not too different from my work with MOMIX. It occurred through an organic method that used my improvisational skills and took many months. Just like MOMIX, Cirque created new shows very inefficiently, but in the end the product was stunningly beautiful. Through trial and error, we would find new and unexplored realms in what was, for me, the alien performing environment of Circus. Of course, with Cirque du Soleil, the sheer size of a production was much larger than what I was used to. I also had to fit in with acrobats and clowns, which was intimidating for me as a dancer, but ultimately the experience was a perfect continuation of the creative process with which I was familiar. I was also able to expand my performing horizon to a new level. I eventually learned how to act, became an aerialist, and even jumped into two clown roles.
There was some fixed choreography I had to learn. The dancer’s role in Cirque productions was mostly to create transitions between the acrobatic acts. It did not excite me to perform in a group and I decided to practice on my own. I went into the Cirque studio on weekends to devise my own character.
A lizard character I had worked on a few months earlier for MOMIX moved more and more into the foreground. I observed real lizards and birds closely trying to imitate their movement. When I met with Franco and Debra in the studio, I now had something to offer. Debra liked what she saw and helped me further develop the movement vocabulary for the character.
The rehearsals eventually moved from Montreal to Las Vegas in the fall of 1993. Since the theater at the Treasure Island Hotel was not ready, we practiced in a dance studio run by tap dance legend Gregory Hines’ father, Maurice. It was blazing hot that September in Vegas, and working in an air-conditioned studio was a blessing. Ballet class was on the menu every day before general work on choreography began. I also continued to work on my lizard character and eventually was rewarded with a costume that fit my movement ideas.
Soon after Costume Designer Dominique Lemieux arrived in Las Vegas, she began working on my ensemble. Things were rather primitive at the beginning of Mystère’s creation. The costume shop was set up in an air-conditioned trailer in a parking lot behind Treasure Island. There was nothing to indicate that we were working on one of the most successful Cirque du Soleil shows ever made. Dominique was clever and skillful in her design process. She first observed the way I moved wearing a simple white unitard. Then, after careful consideration, she drew directly on the spandex. The outlines were cut out and eventually the costume began to resemble a bird-like reptilian creature. Green fabric replaced the white and soon the look for Green Lizard emerged. Makeup was added, translating the avian and reptilian qualities to my face.
Once the Mystère theater was ready, I explored the stage in its full glory. It felt like a big playground with many ramps, elevators, and railings to climb on. Gilles Ste-Croix by now acknowledged my talent. He mentioned that he’d observed my way of working and noticed that I was giving it my all whenever I was on stage. He also remarked that, in his eyes, I was a mover and not a dancer. What he meant was that he could not discover a particular style in the way I moved. The other dancers, who were mostly trained in classical ballet, had difficulty escaping from that form. I was just being myself.
Franco, who also appreciated my creative talent by this point, asked me to explore every nook and cranny of the stage. Once, in a general rehearsal, he said,” Karl, whenever you see an empty space onstage, or if there is nothing happening, that is your time to come in.” I waited in the wings attentively to make sure I never missed an opportunity. There were so many openings to fill out the empty space that my little dancer role gradually became a bigger and bigger character. The Green Lizard wound up a visible and well-known presence onstage.
Initially, I had to wear several costumes and many exits and entrances were needed to make the changes, but soon the Lizard took over. With the discovery of all the empty space, there was no more time to change in and out of the Lizard costume. I was allowed to let go of my other characters and make the Lizard my only role in the production. Franco said to me, “You need to be free,” and I truly felt I was. Now that I was at liberty to roam, I continued to find new ways to make the Lizard shine. I crawled onto railings, slid on ramps, climbed poles, and surprised the audience by eating their popcorn. To add to the adventure, I walked on my hands on a narrow bridge some forty feet above the ground.
I did not play the Green Lizard, I was the Green Lizard. Inside and out. My movement and my thinking were that of an animal to the point that even the audience did not know if I was for real. Although I still used my dancer’s athletic ability, the actor part of me was now in the foreground. I’d never used facial expressions when I was dancing with MOMIX, but now I had to play a character that was equal parts animal and human and my face was an important part of the equation. Through this monumental process I created a principal role for myself.
After the premiere of Mystère, Franco told me I was great. Since he stayed in town after the opening, I invited him to join me for dinner at my apartment. I was beyond excited when he accepted and looked forward to an evening full of discussion about the creation process, directing a show, and theatre philosophy. Once at the dinner table, Franco actually spoke very little. I think we were both so exhausted after going through the grueling rehearsal process that enjoying a good dinner without much talk was simply the best thing we could do. Nevertheless, I do remember him telling me that night that I was an “accidental actor,” a designation I still carry like a badge of honor.
Having to perform twelve shows a week was more than a challenge, it was inhuman. With MOMIX’s three-show paradigm, I could always give it my all. To go full out on every one of twelve was immensely exhausting. I was so tired at night that I could barely lift the door handle to slink into my apartment. It did not take long before my body began to fall apart. It felt like glass that was always on the brink of breaking into a thousand pieces. I started to have pain again in my lower leg where I’d injured it at Juilliard and was worried that this old wound would compromise my performance. I wrapped bandages all around the area, hoping that the muscles would not tear from the bone. When I was not onstage, I sat with two heaters on either side of my lower leg to help with the pain.
I knew I had to do something more permanent so I began reading books about healthy eating. I eliminated sugar from my diet, stopped drinking alcohol, and avoided eating meat all together. Eventually I saw an acupuncturist who, to my surprise, recommended I start eating meat again. One day off per week, however, was just not enough for my body to recuperate from twelve shows. Eventually, Cirque decided to move from twelve to ten since this type of performance schedule simply led to too many injuries.
On my search for better health, I stumbled upon a book called Are You Confused? by Dr. Paavo Airola. Inspired by this book, I began adjusting my diet and, to this day, eat a breakfast based on the author’s advice. On other occasions, I engaged in healing sessions with a Shaolin monk. He walked around me in circles and then gave me an assortment of herbs inside different colored bags that I was to wear around my neck. I remember after one such session, I felt I was literally jumping out of my body.
Another book I was introduced to during this time was Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body by Bruce Kumar Frantzis. I was so taken with this book about chi gung and health that I traveled to see the master and took private lessons with him in California. I was deeply impressed when he said, “If you do these exercises, you can be sixty and have a twenty-year-old body.” I began to do standing chi gung every day.
Although all these new discoveries helped, they were barely enough to keep me healthy. I needed help and it came through a healer I found during a New Age convention in Las Vegas. As I was wandering the halls, I saw a man making jokes with his clients while he worked with a pendulum, magnets, and crystals. I continued walking and decided to get a photograph of my aura. I did not know how to interpret the picture and eventually passed by the jocular healer again. When I finally took a session with him, he said that my aura was muddy and brown, which felt disheartening. He continued, “You are exhausted. Let me bring some color back into your aura.” After my session, I felt refreshed. This red-bearded sixty-year-old man with the appearance of a lumberjack did not look at all like a spiritual healer to me. His name was Roger Alan and we remained friends until he passed in 2005. He had powers beyond my imagination. Roger was able to look into my being and find ways to heal my body and spirit that I had never seen before. Since he lived in Mount Shasta, California, he proposed a way of working with me through distant healing. All he needed, he said, was a picture of me to “do his thing.” I would call sometimes when I was in trouble and he would work on my injured back or leg right away. He told me that he could not imagine anybody surviving the physical strain my body had to endure with all these shows without working with a healer. Roger and his wife, Jonna, were rather poor but happy people, and I visited them in Mount Shasta several times. They told me stories about spirits and otherworldly places inside the mountain, and reminded me “to ask permission from the keeper of the glass-mountain before you take a rock.” I always did. Once, while taking a walk on Mount Shasta, Jonna said that a friendly spirit was holding my hand. I do not have the sensitivity to feel such things, but my friends were sure about what they could see.
On one later Mount Shasta trip, I was able to meet psychic medium Joanna Cherry, author of the book Living Mastery. In a session, she told me that she was connecting me to my higher spirit. I thought nothing of it until I started giggling uncontrollably. She said that this was my cheerful spirit guide. It had a blue color, she said, and there was a connection to India. Unfortunately, I never found this spirit’s name. After I left Mount Shasta, she suggested we do an energy clearing with the Violet Flame over the telephone. I was on tour in Dallas at the time and thought to myself, right, how can she do anything by phone? I was in Texas and she was in California. When she started to work on me, however, I began shaking, almost fainted, and fell off my chair. This was real. I have no doubt that distant healing works.
I was still performing with Mystère when I asked Franco and Gilles if I could go on tour with the next Cirque show, which was eventually named Quidam. I had already done more than five hundred performances of Mystère and was ready for a new adventure. Franco told me that he would give me a principal character role from the outset this time. Gilles asked me to become an aerialist since he wanted me to combine my skills as an actor and dancer with acrobatics. I was soon after paired with a coach who introduced me to the ropes. On top of doing two shows per night, I was now training to become an aerialist. Although the instruction was exhausting and painful (I had rope burns all over my body), I managed to become proficient on the corde lisse (a single hanging rope). I learned to fall into, twist, and spin on the rope and soon was ready to join the formation in Montreal. At the end of December 1995, I said goodbye to my friends in Mystère. It was a very emotional event and I could not help crying when I had to leave my female Lizard stage partner behind.
Nevertheless, it was tremendously exciting to finally get to tour in the chapteau.
For Cirque’s Quidam, I let go of the lizard and learned how to smile and move more or less like a human being.