3 Things I Learnt From Cirque Du Soleil
Last June we started creation on a brand new show for Cirque du Soleil. We’ve visited over 50 cities, done three hundred and something shows, created complicated tax liability in over 20 different states and we’ve met and worked with some truly wonderful people.
I was also chosen to be Artist Coach for the twenty-something cast of acrobats, which is a role CDS has that sits underneath, and works with the shows head-coach. This mean I was responsible for helping to organize and plan the various trainings for the shows, figure out which cast member needed to go into which spot should the situation arise where we needed to cover another artist and generally help keep the show running smoothly.
It was a stressful and challenging year to say the least. But, it was an extremely educating, inspiring and humbling year as well.
Today, I’d like to share some of my biggest lessons, and how I think those lessons can be applied to you, your training, and your practice.
Survival Of The Caffeinated
The human body is this incredible thing, and everything we do with it, especially acrobatics, is only possible because of it’s amazing ability to adapt to an external stimulus. When your body is exposed to something, it says
‘ohh boi. We’d better be ready for that next time’
and makes a little progressive march forward towards adaptation. I would describe the external stimulus of a CDS creation and show schedule as: ‘boi. You want me to do what?’.
But, in the greatest way ever. You’re so tired because you get to spend all day throwing ideas, tricks and suggestions around in the pursuit of creating something amazing.
Our days across the three-month creation ranged from eight hours towards the beginning, to twelve hours towards the end. Doing acrobatics for eight hours a day is always going to be tiring, but being a part of a creation and creating new work general is tiring in a completely different way!
So, I was tired all the time. It’s not surprising, the demand I was putting on my body was significantly higher than what it was used to. It needed to adapt.
Adaptation is only possible if you give yourself enough rest.
All training is just a game of finding balance between stimulus and rest. Too much stimulus and not enough rest? You’ll become over-trained. Too much rest and not enough stimulus? You’ll make no beneficial adaptation and your progress will stall.
Enough stimulus and enough rest? That’s the sweet spot. That’s what will keep you marching ever forward towards your goal. It’s what kept me from falling asleep on the ice in the middle of rehearsal, that’s for sure! That and four cups of coffee a day.
You need to prioritize rest and recovery as part of your training schedule. This means (among other things); sleep, nutrition, and deliberate active recovery.
I would make sure I got at least nine hours of sleep a night. I’d figure out when had to wake up, and subtract nine and boom. My bedtime. Out of everything I did, this made the biggest, most noticeable difference to my energy, focus and overall level of ‘ouchie’ the next day.
To ensure I had adequate nutrition, I would meal prep over our days offto make sure when I got in exhausted from a ten hour long rehearsal day I had something to eat. Being able to collapse back into my room at the Cirque Residences and just throw a meal in the microwave was a blessing.
Rather than just laying around in bed all day on our days off, one thing I started doing was taking ice baths. I think the science is still out on this, or a little iffy still, but anecdotally: ice baths are amazing. If you’re sore, or your body is feeling beat up, grab a big old bag of ice or two, run a cold bath, dump the ice in the bath and make you a you-cocktail.
Being active in my recovery also meant being diligent with my stretching and prehab / rehab routines. I know my body and if I neglect certain stretches or neglect working out, it only makes things worse. So we would finish an 8 hour day of rehearsal, pop over to the CDS HQ and workout or stretch before it closed. I didn’t want to do this, I’d much rather go collapse into bed. But doing this was important in ensuring I felt good, and was able to do my job, the next day.
If you want to take your training seriously, take recovery seriously. There’s only so much you can do before you’re gonna burn out, and by maximizing your recovery, you’re maximizing your potential in training.
There’s a joke in the circus that; ‘no matter how hard you work or how good you are, there’s always a 12 year old Russian girl somewhere who’s working harder, and doing it better.’
I pride myself on having a good work ethic, and I like to think I’m a hard worker. Until I met Jack. Jack is an unstoppable juggernaut of physical activity and work ethic. Jack was my 12 year old Russian girl.
He ran a 5k every day for a month during creation. He would work out multiple times a day during show days. He would come in hours before we were due to start work to train, and would stay hours after. He was always the first to push for new tricks. He was always the first to offer a hand. He was a standup guy.
For a while it made me feel bad. Feel like I wasn’t working as hard as I should do or could do. I tried to push myself to keep up with Jack. I failed. I just wasn’t able to. Which made me feel worse. I then resigned myself to thinking that maybe I wasn’t such a hard worker after all.
Eventually I realized that everyone’s upper limit is different. No one expects a donkey to outperform a thoroughbred. And comparatively, I was a donkey.
Here’s the thing; you can’t compare yourself to others. That doesn’t do anything. It’s all too easy to hop on Instagram and look at all the cool stuff everyone else can do. But it doesn’t matter what they’re doing or able to do, what matters is what you’re doing and what you’re able to do.
What you can, and should, do is look to others for inspiration. So that’s what I did.
If I was in a workout and I was meant to be ‘going to failure’ (doing as many reps as possible until you physically can’t), as it started to burn and get hellish the little voice in my head would say
‘Ok. That’s enough. Put the weight down’
And then another little voice would chime in
‘What would Jack do? He wouldn’t put them down’
And I’d crank out a few more reps, then collapse in a heap. Jack became my weightlifting Jesus.
Don’t look for comparison, look for inspiration. You are not them. You are you. They are them. Ask them for help, use them for motivation, but don’t compare yourself to them.
‘Failure to Plan, is Planning to Fail’ – Benjie Franks
That’s right. I’m dropping quotes on you now.
Part of my role as artist coach was to integrate new artists into the show. This meant it was up to me to figure out what skills they needed to learn, what ‘track’ they needed to do and when we were going to teach them all of this. A track is a catch-all term for what someone does in the show, or in a specific act. We had a fairly constant need to have artists learn new tricks, or new ‘tracks’. Which meant a lot of work for me!
This isn’t anything that’s out of the ordinary for shows, it’s happened in every show I’ve ever been a part of and is very much just part of the game. But Crystal was by far the most complicated show I’ve worked on, and the problems we faced on a daily basis were by no means simple.
In the beginning this was a little overwhelming! The complexity of the show meant it was almost like a house-of-cards. One small change over there, meant big changes somewhere else. I found myself having to be very reactionary; I had no plan, I was just reacting to problems as they came up.
I realized I needed to make a change. I needed to be one step ahead of the problems. At the start of the week I would sit down look at the schedule, figure out what exactly we had to accomplish as a matter of necessity, and what would be nice to get done if we had time but that wasn’t crucial and then I would plan exactly what we had to do in each training session.
This was a game changer. I was now one step ahead of the problems. Suddenly everything was less stressful for me, and all the acrobats were able to have a much clearer idea of what we were doing than before, and as a result of that we were able to work much more effectively and efficiently.
So, my advice for your training is: make a plan. Know ahead of time what you absolutely have to accomplish in a session, like rehearsing a number for an upcoming show, and know what would be nice to get done in that session, like a trick you’ve wanted to work on for a while, and then commit that to a plan.
This sounds a little formulaic, but in practice it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t have to be written down like my training plans for Crystal, it can just be a quick five to ten minute conversation between you and your partner before you start training. It’ll help you make the most of the time you have, and help you to prioritize what needs to be done.
Coming To A Close
We chose not to renew our contract for another year, so our time at Crystal is nearly up. It’s been a hell of a ride, I’ve learnt and experienced so much and it’s given me a new found appreciation for a company that created some of my favorite shows.
We’re going back into the wide world of freelance artists, a world where a whole other set of lessons, stories and experiences await us. If any of them are even half as interesting as 18 months with CDS, I’ll be sure to let you know about them.