Vv Magazine’s editor-in-chief Nicki Laborie chats with Varekai’s artistic director, Michael Smith, about what it’s like to work with Cirque du Soleil and how Varekai came about.
I have been watching Cirque du Soleil since I was a young ballerina with wide eyes and big dreams. Growing up in the same town as the Cirque’s founder, Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil has always been one of my favourite shows to see. Varekai, a show created in 2002, was in Toronto for just five days over Labour Day weekend and I was lucky enough to be a guest on its opening night at the ACC. I also had the opportunity to chat with the man behind the latest version of Varekai – artistic director Michael Smith, one of the most enchanting men I have had the pleasure of meeting.
Days before I got to enjoy the Varekai performance at the ACC – which was great, but keep in mind that the venue is not the same as when you see the show in their famed tent – I spoke to Smith about the show’s evolution, his life as an artistic director and what it’s like to live in the world of Cirque du Soleil.
We immediately get into the story of Varekai as I am unfamiliar with it. Having first launched in 2002, the show has undergone regular updates in order to keep it comprehensible as audiences evolve. The story focuses on a young man who falls from the sky into an enchanted forest where he experiences a magical adventure with some fantastic creatures of the forest. Varekai means “wherever,” so ultimately this is the story of a nomad following a magical path leading him to Varekai.
“Varekai has been through quite a few changes with the choices of actors changing to make it more accessible and relevant,” he tells me. He explains that shows go through facelifts on the regular.
“I’ve been with the cirque since 2005 and I usually get called on to update a show. I am typically on a show for 9 to 12 months and then I move. My signature is to come and kick ass. You create your own reputation within the company,” he says with a chuckle.
As we chat, I’m endeared by his commitment to this company and how passionate he is about his life. Now living in Paris, but originally from England, Smith doesn’t have a typical life. He worked for 15 years in traditional theatre, musical theatre, cabaret, music hall and cruise ship shows, which is likely what makes him so successful at his job. It’s obvious that in order to be a part of Cirque du Soleil, a person cannot be average.
As he continues to describe the multicultural performers he works with, I can tell that the gruelling hours make it so that the cirque becomes your family and living a “normal” life is rarely in the cards.
“You cannot work in this company without profoundly changing as a human. Because of the cultural diversity within the company everyone has to accept the other. We invite the audience into our universe where everything can’t be defined by culture and that’s what makes the cirque work.”
I consider the differences between being part of the cirque and being an actor or performer: there aren’t many. Perhaps the income but the hard work is 200% necessary or you just won’t make it. It’s obviously not for everyone…
“Being a part of the cirque you have to practice hard work and dedication. It’s a lifestyle choice and the gift is so rewarding. We all strive for excellence and people who aren’t good can’t survive here. I’ve never had to tell anyone to work harder. New things and new challenges fascinate them.”
The company works as a unit and people aren’t required to step outside their job description. Smith explains that as an artistic director, this is what makes the cirque such a well-oiled machine. If he has an idea during rehearsal all he has to do is call on the right person and boom, it’s done.
“At Cirque du Soleil you have the luxury of doing exactly what your job is. Resources are in abundance. I just have to have an idea and then call on people.” This is a rare privilege in today’s world.
As we finish our chat, Smith tells me he is living his dream and the cirque is the best company he’s ever worked for. I thank him because as many people as I meet on a daily basis, it’s rare to speak to someone so passionately grateful for his life and the company that allows him to love it so much.
Did you see Varekai? What were your thoughts? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below, or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.