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Peer inside private world of Cirque du Soleil

By Katherine Shapleigh, The Free Lance-Star

OXON HILL, Md.—It literally takes a village to pull off Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem.”

That village includes tents that visitors to the Grand Chapiteau, or Big Top, never see.

The fantastical  “Totem” has 120 touring employees—including 53 artists from 18 far-flung countries.

 During the show’s Washington-area stint, which continues through Oct. 7 (details below), the workers are living in nearby apartments. Some are accompanied by spouses and children. Two memorable roller skating lovebirds in the show, for example, are married and have a 6-year-old who travels with them.

 There are 23 children—between 6 months and 17—traveling with “Totem.” School-age kids and some of the younger performers attend classes.

Workers practice and prepare for shows in the Artistic Tent. They socialize and eat in The Kitchen, where 200 to 250 meals are prepared each day.

Last weekend, I got a brief look inside the Artistic Tent, which houses costumes, makeup stations, dressing rooms, training space and a physiotherapy room where I spied a pair of hospital-style beds.

Everything in the wardrobe section is meticulously organized and labeled.

Large cubbies, for example, contain bags of shoes. A towering makeup cabinet, also labeled, is nearby. It’s a dress-up dream. Drawers open to reveal piles upon piles of glittery, brightly hued MAC Cosmetics.

One performer, the first one prepping for the day’s first show, was having lizard-like spots airbrushed onto his face through the holes of a plastic template.

With the exception of details like the airbrushing, performers do their own makeup. It takes up to three hours at first, and then, after they get familiar with the routine, between 45 to 90 minutes depending on the complexity of their costume.

Each performer has a thick photo binder documenting each step required to transform his or her own face.

Performers remain in makeup, touching up between shows, on days with multiple performances.

The same attention to detail is devoted to costumes. One table was lined with monkey masks made to fit the unique measurements of each performer’s face. Hair is hand-sewn.

Thick, leotard-like body suit fabric is custom painted, allowing some costumes to take on new looks as lighting changes.

Costumes are laundered, maintained and repaired by staff members.

In the training area, a recording of a previous show played on a large television screen. A dry-erase board nearby was like a giant playbook, with the day’s date and time, names of performers and more.

As pre-show activity picked up, it was curtains for my behind-the-scenes visit. But I walked away with added appreciation for the human efforts behind a superhuman show.

Katherine Shapleigh: 540/374-5461;


WHAT: Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem”

WHERE: The Plateau at National Harbor, 201 Har borview Ave., National Har bor, Md., 20745 (Take I– 495/I–95 Outer Loop. Stay in local lanes. Cross Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Ttake Take National Harbor Exit 2A.)

WHEN: Through Oct. 7.

TICKETS: From $33 adult, $25.75, child. Online: du-soleil-totem/about.html