Video exclusive: Behind the scenes as Cirque du Soleil pitches up in Leeds

Zoe and Zara McLean are the only British performers in Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria. Chris Bond talked to them.

Zoe and Zara McLean
Zoe and Zara McLean

WITH the exercise balls and punch bags you think for a second that you’ve walked straight into a gym. It’s only when you see the acrobats ladder and row upon row of bright and elaborate-looking costumes that you remember that you’re backstage with the world’s biggest, and arguably most famous, theatrical performance troupe.

Cirque du Soleil is a world famous name and its shows have dazzled and astonished audiences across five continents since its humble beginnings in Quebec 29 years ago. I’ve been invited to watch a rehearsal of Alegria, one of its longest running and most popular shows. For the past 19 years it has circled the globe, bringing its colourful mix of theatre, music, dance and circus skills to more than 10 million people.

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The show is now on its final tour and draws to a close this winter, but before it does it’s back in the UK and this week it’s landed in Leeds, culminating in two performances tomorrow night in Leeds.

Zoe and Zara McLean

As with all Cirque du Soleil shows, Alegria is a feast for the senses, a colourful riot of flamboyant costumes, stunning choreography and breathtaking acrobatics. Sitting by the edge of the stage and watching the two contortion artists practising their set it’s hard not to be impressed by their seemingly gravity-defying prowess. The performers – whether it’s the acrobats on the high bars or the fire-knife dance troupe – make it look effortless, which it certainly isn’t. It takes months of dedicated training to hone their routines to perfection.

Any Cirque du Soleil show – and this year it’s presenting 19 around the world – is a huge operation and Alegria is no different. The masks worn by cast members are hand-made in Montreal and moulded to an individual artist’s face.

Getting the show and all its entourage from one city to another is no mean feat, they use 22 lorries to transport the scenery, costumes and fitness equipment, and when they head to a new country or continent they even charter their own flight.

There are a hundred people working on Alegria, including 55 performers from 17 different countries, as well as four chefs, four wardrobe assistants, two physiotherapists, not to mention the IT team, security staff and office workers. The performers in the show come from far and wide, including Canada, Russia, Poland, Mongolia and...South Yorkshire.

Zoe and Zara McLean come from Darton, a village just outside Barnsley, and are part of the show’s Power Track group that somersaults and flips across the stage in perfect unison using a trampoline track built into the floor.

Zoe, 26, has been with Cirque du Soleil for the last five years, while younger sister Zara, 23, joined just under a year ago. They are the only British performers in the show and their remarkable journey from South Yorkshire to performing around the world in front of hundreds of thousands of people each year began when they were barely out of nappies.

Their parents are both PE teachers and Zoe says they were supportive from an early age. “When I was about four years old I used to climb up the open stairs and one day I swung off and went through the couch. So my mum and dad were like ‘okay, let’s put her somewhere where she can do this more safely.’”

That “somewhere” was a local gymnastics club and a few years later Zara followed in her footsteps. “I started going because my older sister went to gymnastics and I wanted to go as well.” Zoe says it was their “playground” when they were children. “It had all the apparatus but you didn’t really think of it as being gymnastics, it was just a big monkey gym.”

By the time she was 11, though, she’d lost interest. “I stopped enjoying it, but a couple of years later I went to an athletics meeting and I saw the gymnastics going on inside and I thought ‘I can still do this.’”

She, along with her sister, joined Wakefield Gymnastics Club where they learned the art of tumbling, an acrobatic sport which combines the skills of gymnastics and trampolining.

By the time they were 14 they were both competing for Great Britain in gymnastic events both home and abroad. “When you’re younger it’s more fun and then training gets harder and you start doing more competitions,” says Zara. “You really have to want to do it and you have to put in the hours to move up,” adds Zoe. “At Wakefield we had a really good coach and he kept the fun in it, even as we were growing up, and that definitely helped.”

When I ask if there’s ever been any sibling rivalry between them they glance at each and laugh. “We were never in the same age group ... thankfully,” says Zara. “We never competed against each other but in training there was a little bit of competitiveness.” “Only from you,” adds Zoe.

The sporting life of a gymnast is a short one, they usually retire by their early 20s, and for the chance to join Cirque du Soleil came out of the blue for Zoe. “I had no plans to do this at all. I’d retired from international competition and the company approached me and asked if I’d be interested in joining them. I thought ‘okay’ and I sent them a video and a year later I was in Montreal training.”

Although they’re gifted gymnasts neither sisters is an extrovert, so how did they cope with performing in front of huge crowds? “It was pretty daunting because I’ve never had the urge to be a performer and show what I can do to the rest of the world,” says Zoe. “They had to teach me to be a performer and I really struggled with that to begin with, but at some point it clicked and it became fun.”

Like all the other performers they’re taught how to do their own make-up, which can be a painstaking task and to begin with takes them a couple of hours. Zoe now has this down to a fine art and says she’s grown accustomed to her on stage persona. “It was strange to start with but now I kind of identify myself in my make-up and my costume.” For 
Zara, the novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet: “It’s really exciting, the costumes are beautiful and you feel privileged to able to go and perform on stage with crowd cheering.”

After five years, during which time she’s travelled to far flung places like Russia, Israel and Hawaii, Zoe is leaving in January when the show finishes.

Zara, though, hopes to get a job in another show having been bitten by the circus bug. “You get to see all these great places and you’re getting paid for doing it at the same time. It’s hard work but it’s a nice life.”

And what is it that makes Cirque du Soleil one of the greatest shows on earth? “It’s got the magic,” says Zoe, simply, “and if you want to be entertained for two hours then this show’s got it all.”

Alegria plays at the First Direct Arena, Leeds, tonight and tomorrow. For tickets go to www.firstdirectarena.com/events or call the box office on 0844 248 1585.

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: A GLOBAL SUCCESS STORY

In 1984, 73 people worked for Cirque du Soleil. Today, the business has 5,000 employees worldwide, including more than 1,300 artists.

The company’s employees come from nearly 50 different countries and between them they speak 25 different languages.

More than 100 million spectators have seen a Cirque du Soleil show since 1984 and around 15 million will have seen a show in 2013 alone.