Backstage thrills at the most daring acrobatic circus you have ever seen
Ever wish you'd kept up the gymnastics? Andrea Smith did when she went backstage at the thrilling Cirque du Soleil in Paris
I'm sitting in the stalls of the empty AccorHotels Arena in Paris, watching a woman in tracksuit bottoms curl herself into all kinds of graceful shapes on stage. As she bends over backwards and contorts into the most unbelievably complex shapes - leaving me to wonder if she actually has any bones inside her lithe body - the most mind-bending thing of all is that she's doing all of this while balancing on one hand.
Darina Mishina is from Russia and has been a hand-balancer since the age of four. Later tonight she will take the lead female role in Cirque du Soleil's signature production, Varekai. I'm watching her rehearse in Paris as I'm attending the show before it comes to Dublin, as part of its first-ever Irish and UK arena tour. How I suffer for my craft...
Darina doesn't look like she's suffering for hers, as she effortlessly bends herself into a series of poses that will bring the house down later tonight. She'll be dressed in a sequinned bodysuit and exotic headpiece then, but for now, as she warms up on stage, it's a ponytail and trackie bottoms. As I watch Darina and her fellow performers dangle elegantly from wires in the air and do effortless triple somersaults across the stage, I'm raging I didn't keep up the childhood gymnastics lessons.
And that I'm too fat to touch my toes, let alone backflip across the stage.
Cirque's fabulous PR Julie Desmarais is looking after us, and unlike other productions where they give you a vast set of rules and embargoes and you're practically strip-searched before you're let anywhere behind the scenes, she encourages us to take photos and videos and goes to huge trouble to make us feel welcome. This extends to inviting us to dine with the cast and crew an hour before the performance in their own canteen, serving what looks like the most amazing meals. I can't eat dinner as we're not long over dining in a lovely nearby French restaurant (suffering again, of course), but I manfully nibble on a few of their crackers with grapes and fromage, and swill down a bucket of tea. As I watch the cast having their evening meal so close to what is a very physical aerobic performance, my mind boggles at how they can keep it all down. I guess they're well-used to it.
Backstage is a jaw-dropping hive of controlled activity, as performers and musicians warm up, costumes get prepared and the crew put everything into place. There are 100 people working on the production between performers and crew, and everyone plays a vital role. The logistics are incredible, as the colourful show performs every Wednesday to Sunday in a different city or country. It spends every Monday and Tuesday moving to the next place and setting up all over again.
A convoy of 22 trucks transports the set, equipment and 600 costumes, and the logistics of taking it all down and setting it up again are astounding. It all runs like a well-oiled machine. It takes an entire truck alone to carry the 330 metal trees that form the forest where the action is set.
They also bring six washing machines and two tumble dryers with them, as they can't risk trusting local services to launder the delicate, hand-painted fabrics. While we're backstage, there are people curling wigs, mending tears and giving massages to performers.
Cirque du Soleil began life as a group of 20 street performers in 1984, and is now a major Quebec-based organisation with 4,000 employees. There are various shows going on around the world, and they have been seen by more than 160 million people in 40 cities.
Drummer Paul Bannerman, 48, from Belgium is the longest-serving cast member in this particular production, and he has been with the show for an incredible 15 years. He applied after he saw the show in 1999 and joined in early 2002. He is one of the seven live band members, and there are also two singers. I'm fascinated to know what it must be like to travel the entire time, and Paul says he loves it. For the first 12 years, the show based itself in cities for three months at a time, but now it travels to a different arena every week.
"It's a nomadic existence," he says, "but I really embrace it. My passion is playing drums and I'm also into photography, so I take pictures wherever I go. I also love meeting new cultures and learning new languages. I can't wait to get to Ireland as I visited before and loved it, so I'm looking forward to getting out to explore."
Paul doesn't actually unpack from one venue to the next, as he has two cases and keeps everything in the exact same spot. He's single and says that having a relationship is impossible because you're only ever in each place for a week. How does he deal with that?
"It can be challenging, but I get by because I enjoy my own company and keep focused on my projects," he says.
Later that evening, as I take my place among the thousands of people in the arena, I keep a keen ear out for his excellent drumming. For those unfamiliar with the story of Verekai (pronounced ver-ay-kie), it means "wherever" in the Romany language of the gypsies.
It concerns a young man who is let go by the sky (don't ask, just go with it) and is parachuted into the shadows of a magical forest. This is a kaleidoscopic world imbued with fantastical creatures, in which the young man takes flight in an adventure that is both absurd and extraordinary, and, of course, falls in love with the aforementioned hand-balancer.
The storyline comes second to the amazing performances though. Aside from the outstanding acrobatic and aerial stunts that will literally have you holding your breath with suspense, the costumes, lighting and special effects are outrageously good. There is a massive wooden stairway designed to look like the spine of an immense bird at the heart of the set, plus three Russian swings and a hot-air balloon. The thing that surprised me was that there was so much slapstick humour in it, as I wasn't expecting that at all. It's not all jaw-dropping stunts and feats that seem beyond human endurance - there are side-splitting exchanges peppered through the show.
The show is a great one for families and will definitely hold the kiddies' attention. All of the petit enfants sitting around me in Paris were utterly enthralled by the sheer spectacle - and the gasps and cheers from them were only drowned out by my own.
Cirque is truly stunning, and if ever you'd be tempted to ditch it all and run away with the circus, this is the show to make you do it. If only I hadn't got fat, I'd be off to balance on my hand and see the world tomorrow.
Cirque du Soleil's signature production, Varekai, is at the 3Arena from February 8-12, 2017. www.ticketmaster.ie www.cirquedusoleil.com/verekai