Getting into Cirque du Soleil — or staying out of it

Seattle aerialist Jenny Atomik received an invitation from Cirque du Soleil to audition. Atomik will appear in Emerald City Trapeze Arts’ spring show in Seattle.
Seattle aerialist Jenny Atomik received an invitation from Cirque du Soleil to audition. Atomik will appear in Emerald City Trapeze Arts’ spring show in Seattle. Courtesy

When Kelly McDonald auditioned for Cirque du Soleil, she got a gig in “Luzia.”

When Rachel Strickland auditioned, she was told her rear end was too big.

Professional circus is a tough life, but auditioning for Cirque du Soleil, which brings new show “Luzia” to Redmond March 31, adds a whole Kevlar layer of toughness. And some circus artists would rather choose a different circus experience altogether, one that allows you more personal freedom and a grass-roots company.

“Sometimes Cirque will see a unique act that fits in their show, and they’ll want you to perform that,” says Jenny Atomik, a Seattle aerialist who just landed an audition invite for Cirque du Soleil. “But sometimes they’ll want you to fill a role that’s already there. Some people are fine with that.”

But for others, it makes getting into Cirque du Soleil impossible. While McDonald, also from Seattle, managed to get into “Luzia” with her own act — now “Adagio” in the show — Strickland, a San Francisco hoop aerialist, had a different audition experience. Like Atomik, Strickland was invited to audition in Las Vegas after creating her profile on the Cirque website — a time-consuming process that involves a video of your routine, a verbal introduction and a number of strength demonstrations.

Strickland felt she’d nailed her audition, with innovative tricks and flawless technique, strength and flexibility, as she wrote recently on her blog madamerex.blogspot.com. But while others who auditioned with less-advanced acts were called back, Strickland wasn’t. Disappointed, she did stay for feedback and was told that her body type, which includes what Strickland in her blog post calls “my big butt,” wasn’t right for the show. Often, she was told, it boils down to costuming.

It’s a tale you don’t often hear from anxious circus performers unwilling to annoy the biggest company in their industry, or from Cirque themselves: “Luzia” artistic director Mark Shaub, who’s responsible for replacing artists who leave the show, says he’s not looking for duplicates but unique talent.

But Strickland, who performs in the United States and Europe, was determined to tell the truth about her 2014 audition in order to help other artists (and audience members) realize that there’s more to circus than Cirque du Soleil, and a performer can be just as good without that line on their résumé.

“I was kind of frightened to put it up,” says Strickland by phone, “but since then all I’ve got is so many ‘thank yous.’…You have to credit Cirque du Soleil for how much of an audience we have for circus now. They’ve really built it up. But (other circus companies) are not held back by the machine they’ve created. (In grass-roots circus) you won’t get water features and moving stages, obviously. What you will get is boundless creativity and authenticity.”

Atomik agrees. Her aerial chains act, which combines a Gothic vibe with a punishing apparatus that few aerialists tackle, is something unique enough to interest Cirque, she hopes. And she echoes Strickland’s admiration of the Canadian company in creating so many opportunities for circus artists. But some prefer the autonomy of presenting their own act the way they want it.

“You have contemporary circus getting bigger in the U.S.,” says Atomik, who has also worked in Europe, and will appear in Emerald City Trapeze Arts’ spring show in Seattle. “And there’s variety work. It’s very cool, just as cool as Cirque du Soleil. And it’s a lot more intimate show; you can order food and drink and you get to see the artist shining in their own act. Cirque is awesome, but (we shouldn’t) forget the other awesome companies out there.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Puget Sound area circuses

Gig Harbor Aerial Fitness: Upcoming show “The Sublime Infantry of Love,” Saturday at Urban Grace, 902 S. Market St., Tacoma. tinyurl.com/mnlum5k.

Emerald City Trapeze Arts: “Wild is the Wind,” April 28-29 at ECTA, 2702 Sixth Ave. S., Seattle. emeraldcitytrapeze.com.

SANCA: “SASS,” April 7-9 at Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, Seattle. sancaseattle.org.

Moisture Festival: Annual festival of variety circus and burlesque, now through April 9 at Hale’s Palladium, 4301 Leary Way NW, Seattle, and Broadway Performance Hall. moisturefestival.com.

Versatile Arts: “A Length of Rope,” April 7 at 7601 Greenwood Ave. N., Seattle. versatilearts.net.

Apex Aerial Arts: “Stardust,” May 19 at 911 E. Pike St., No. 321, Seattle. apexaerialarts.com.

Open Space: Various events including “Open Air” in August. 18870 103rd Ave. SW, Vashon. openspacevashon.com.

Sparrow Studios: Occasional events. 207 Washington St. NE, Olympia. sparrowcircus.com.

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