Mei Bouchard wanted to be a dancer. At 20, the Orlando native balanced a job at a lululemon athletica clothing store with regular performances at the Universal Studios theme park.
If you go
What: Cirque Du Soleil: QuidamWhen: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-March 29, 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. March 30, 2 p.m. March 31Where: North Charleston Coliseum, 5001 Coliseum DrivePrice: $35-$90 for adults, $28-$72 for ages 2-12more info: www.cirquedusoleil.com/quidam or www.northcharlestoncoliseumpac.com
“I’d always done traditional dance, but I started taking aerial classes for fun, climbing the ‘tissue’ (a term for aerial performance suspended from a silk fabric), and I liked it even more,” Bouchard said.
The young performer put together a video of her skills, perfected during long nights in the gym, and submitted it to Cirque du Soleil, which has a permanent show running in Orlando.
A year-and-a-half later, Bouchard is one of 52 performers (among the 100 crew members) touring with the national production of “Quidam,” one of Cirque du Soleil’s marquee shows.
Begun in 1984 by a pair of friends and street performers in Quebec, Cirque du Soleil has grown into a worldwide phenomenon that redefines the idea of the “circus” in a modern world. All in all, the Montreal-based company now employs 5,020 employees, including 1,300 performers like Bouchard.
In 2012, the group presented 22 unique productions around the world, from a Michael Jackson tribute in Las Vegas to touring the classic “Alegria” throughout Europe, a show that has run consistently since 1994.
Every Cirque production finds its common thread in showcasing the remarkable capabilities of the human body, from balance to strength and banquine, an Italian style of acrobatics full of human pyramids and twisting bodies tossed high into the air.
“Quidam” is no exception. Debuting in Montreal in 1996, the premise differs from other Cirque shows with its basis in the real world of humanity. The central figure is Zoe, a girl ignored by her parents and bored with life. To her, excitement seems out of reach until the faceless character Quidam shows her a path to a world of enchantment and adventure. Fantastical characters like The Target and The Aviator then enter her world, each with their own challenges, not unlike the Scarecrow or Tin Man of “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Target is like Zoe’s best friend,” explains “Quidam” Artistic Director Luc Ouellette. “He’s the one that’s always with her, to bring her to different worlds. What Zoe witnesses can sometimes be a bit scary, but she has fun with it. It’s really a journey.”
A winning formula
“Quidam” began as a performance under a big top tent and was converted to an arena show in 2010. Fifteen tractor-trailers are required to move the set and its revolving stage between cities.
Over the course of six performances in the North Charleston Coliseum, the stage will be set in the center, with only half of the arena used for seating, creating the feel of a giant theater.
“We don’t want to have the audience too far from the action because ‘Quidam’ is a very intimate show,” explains Ouellette, who has worked with various Cirque productions for more than a decade, from Vegas to Japan. “I’ve been impressed with how we can re-create the mood and intensity that we would have under a big top.”
In his position, Ouellette ensures that the lighting is set up appropriately at each venue and that the score works with the acoustics in the room. A band of six musicians leads the music from a stage, including violin, cello, saxophone, percussion, keys and guitar.
“I have an artistic say in just about everything that concerns the show,” Ouellette said. “I’m kind of the protector of the concept.”
The concept of “Quidam” follows the loose plot of Zoe on her adventure, and although there is no dialogue, Ouellette says it’s easy to understand the storyline. He compares Zoe and the characters in her “real world” life to those in a Charles Dickens novel. Unlike other Cirque productions, “Quidam” focuses heavily on the individualism of characters with unique traits. Still, Ouellette says that enough details are left untold that the “audience can make their own story and create their own little world.”
In addition to her roles in the Spanish web acrobatic act and a rope-jumping segment, performer Bouchard plays a bunny rabbit character with floppy ears (“Look out for me!” she urges audiences.).
After landing the job in September 2011, Bouchard traveled to Montreal for two months of intensive training. Even after a long performance, she continues to train daily, oftentimes late at night after a show.
“After a show, you have a pump of adrenaline, so you’re still up and ready to go,” Bouchard said. “When I’m performing, I go off the audience’s energy. I’ll do something a little different each day.”
The traveling performers with “Quidam” hail from 18 countries, adding to the cultural appeal and international popularity of Cirque.
In addition to the acrobatics, the show also features diabolo performers (Chinese yo-yo), juggling, human statues and hand balancing. One act includes a device called the German Wheel, two large metal hoops manipulated by a person inside performing spins and somersaults.
Artists use 250 costumes throughout the show, which includes an intermission. Each performer wears between two and seven custom-tailored and hand-dyed costumes during the course of the evening, each of which is meticulously maintained by the traveling wardrobe team.
“Cirque’s brand is all about making beautiful, well-made costumes, with live music and scores that are good for years,” Ouellette proclaims. “Everything is unique to each production, and each production is an experience by itself.”
The nature of circus
The Cirque du Soleil experience is far different from what a spectator might experience at a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Whereas “The Greatest Show on Earth” relies on a dramatic ringmaster to lead the performance, which includes wild animals and more brute feats of strength, Cirque draws its roots from theater and dance. Although many of the acrobatic maneuvers may find similarities with a three-ring circus, Cirque strives to create art.
“When I look at a traditional circus, its mainly one act after another,” Ouellette said. “There may be a big segment and then a blackout to change the set. What Cirque tries to do is to really flow from one act to another, with or without stories. ‘Quidam,’ in particular, is very seamless.”
Apart from the awe factor of each of “Quidam’s” segments, Ouellette hopes that spectators will walk away feeling inspired.
The character of Quidam, portrayed as a big man with no head and carrying an umbrella, is meant to convey the image of a nameless passer-by, such as an anonymous person you might see on a crowded street or someone sitting a few seats down from you at a Cirque performance.
It is this character that shows Zoe the door to an escape from her dull life, starting her on a voyage through the ethereal world of Cirque du Soleil.
“Without giving too much away, ‘Quidam’ comes back at the end to encourage the audience to take their own adventure,” Ouellette said. “Sometimes people say that ‘Quidam’ is dark, but I think it’s very bright — it’s just theatrical and poetic. The message of ‘Quidam’ is that it’s possible to make choices to go on your own journey and have an amazing life. Anything is possible.”
A few fun facts
In 1984, 73 people worked for Cirque du Soleil. Today, the business has more than 5,000 employees worldwide, including more than 1,300 artists.At the Montreal International Headquarters alone, there are close to 2,000 employees.More than 100 types of occupations can be found in Cirque du Soleil.The average age of employees is 37.The company’s employees and artists represent nearly 50 nationalities and speak 25 languages.More than 100 million spectators have seen a Cirque du Soleil show since 1984.About 15 million people saw a Cirque du Soleil show in 2012.Cirque du Soleil hasn’t received any grants from the public or private sectors since 1992.The food service director is charged with cooking for all of the show staff and performers, some of which are burning more than 5,000 calories a day.There are about 250 costumes, 500 accessories and 300 pairs of shoes in “Quidam.” Each artists has between two and seven costumes and applies his or her own makeup.