Sun dance festival

Cirque du Soleil is about far more than acrobatics, as a recent audition proved

Scott Doctor

In a dance studio south of the Strip earlier this month, a long table of casting personnel—in this Dancing With the Stars era I so want to call them judges—sat at attention in a large mirrored room where an impeccably built young dancer named Mas slithered about in nothing but extremely tight blue underwear.

Mas was trying his hand at an improvisational dance number with music he’d never heard before. With every turn and beat, he felt over his bare body or shook out his tight, barely concealed bottom or did something else intended to fulfill the command of casting director Krista Monson to give her something seductive.

When the music (unfortunately) stopped, he stood there catching his breath—did I mention he was now glistening with sweat in addition to being nearly naked?—waiting for Monson to offer some feedback. And happily for those enjoying Mas’, uh, work, she wanted him to do it again, only this time, she said, he was to add some menace to the seduction act. “This character, you’re never sure if he wants to kill you or ... he wants to fuck you,” she said.

Monson seemed to enjoy Mas’ second effort, but just as quickly as he was at the center of her world, he was moved off to the side so a succession of equally attractive men and women could strut before her, all of them having flocked here from across the United States and even from overseas for a chance of landing a job at one of the most significant dance companies in the world.

That company: Cirque du Soleil.

Of course, it wasn’t always thus, and you’re forgiven if it wasn’t at the top of your list. For most of my career covering Las Vegas, I’ve described Cirque variously as “the Canadian acrobatic” or “human circus” troupe or some other similar construct.

Yet with each of its newest shows in Las Vegas—Love, Criss Angel Believe and the still-unnamed Elvis-scored production opening in December at Aria—the company has become a new force in the world of modern dance. Really, it dates back at least to Zumanity, the first production to go easy on the aerials and serve up modern dance, ballet, tango and more. I recall being impressed that two of the dancers, real-life couple Johan Silverhult King and Patrick King, had been recruited from the respected Cullberg Ballet Company to open the New York-New York show.

The cast of <em>Believe</em>.

The cast of Believe.

Yet hiring a handful of pedigreed dancers is a far cry from becoming so respected within the worldwide dance community that more than 400 hopefuls from across America and Europe would turn up for four grueling days of open auditions.

“To work for Cirque, that is the dream,” said Tessa, a dancer from Paris who planned her visit to friends in Las Vegas around the Cirque auditions. “Everybody knows that Cirque is the best company right now.”

That’s probably debatable, and, certainly, the job-seekers being interviewed by a journalist at this event were likely to offer such over-the-top praise of the folks they hope will hire them. But Cirque is certainly unique as entertainment companies that employ dancers go, because the company has so many different shows that require so many different dance styles and disciplines. (Even some of the acrobatics-heavy Cirque shows have a few dancers.)

Because of that, the audition process was probably a bit different from others. After the hopefuls were narrowed down to about 100 through quick initial performances, the remaining folks got a chance to both exhibit their creativity and prove they could conform to an ensemble dance piece. Just as Mas was asked to perform, dozens of other dancers were given a word—maybe it would be “airborne” or “electricity”—and they’d improvise to music they’d never heard before. They also were split into Love and Believe groups and were given a one-hour lesson on a sequence of choreography from those shows. It was stunning how quickly these people mastered the steps and then performed them for Monson’s crew as though their lives—or at least their livelihoods—depended on it.

“It’s very, very tedious, and it’s extremely intense,” Monson admitted. “We’re looking for the pearls of the world. Sometimes when you let your guard down, you’re missing an opportunity. It’s very, very draining. We bring a lot of people through a huge process.”

Of the 400 or so who auditioned—and this ranged from a Chippendales dancer to a Crazy Horse Paris burlesque performer to several Juilliard graduates—Monson told 60 they were “in.” Some, like Dreisy Hernandez, did not seem quite clear as to what that meant. “I’m in the Cirque du Soleil at this time,” said Hernandez, who has lived in Las Vegas since being one of 44 Cubans to defect in 2004 as part of the Havana Nights troupe that enjoyed a brief stint at the Stardust. “I’m excited, I’m very happy.”

The Forest People of <em>Ka</em>.

The Forest People of Ka.

Yet, by “in,” Monson explained, she doesn’t mean they’ve got jobs, but rather that they join hundreds of others deemed Cirque-worthy. They’re “on file” and will be called upon for further auditions should an appropriate opening arise.

Monson said she and her crew try to keep an arm’s-length distance from the men and women who audition so they can remain objective and not fall in love with a dancer’s life story. And, of course, each and every one of them has a story.

Mas, for instance, is like a Middle Eastern Billy Elliot. Born Mustapha Hijazi, he grew up in southern Lebanon with an impulse toward dance that gripped him as early as age 5. Afraid of familial and social ostracism, he would “wait until my family is out, lock my door, put the music loud, and I would dance to myself.” At 18, he moved to Los Angeles to study film and TV and has made a living mostly as a male belly dancer, with bit parts in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan and The Hottie and the Nottie mixed in.

Alas, Mas wasn’t told he was “in” this time around. Monson liked him, or she wouldn’t have asked him back for this final day of auditions, but the role she seemed to be inclined to want him for in Zumanity isn’t vacant.

“She said they liked my look, but they think it’s not the right timing right now,” he said before driving back to Los Angeles. “But she wants me to come back when they have another audition. For me, that’s very encouraging. Just for her to like one thing about me, that’s pretty amazing.”

Actually, what’s “pretty amazing” is that Cirque is now so revered among dancers that just getting a compliment at an audition is seen as a success.


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