Listen Cirque de Soleil's Minnesota influence
Jul 2, 2009
Listen Listen to Lee Thompson tell the story of how he became a clown
Jul 2, 2009
Over the next few weeks, thousands of people are expected to enter the big top on the edge to downtown St. Paul to see Cirque de Soleil. The Canadian troupe has brought acrobats and clowns from all over the world to perform its new show called "Kooza."
The show is of special significance to the growing number of Minnesotans who are honing their own circus skills.
In the recently-erected Cirque de Soleil warm-up tent, Lee Thompson described how he became a clown. He's a tall Englishman who describes an unlikely career of going from a street magician in London, to a comedian in a Japanese hotel, to what he now does as a clown in "Kooza."
"I get in the way of everything. I just cause trouble basically," he said. "And have great fun doing it."
Thompson is living the dream, working on a show where clowns and acrobats perform a story in a place where people literally fly.
"So the sound you hear behind us, that's called the teeter board," he said. "Those guys are a very major part of the show too. They are called the house troupe. They've all got different skills. Some people can do five somersaults, some people do three somersaults on stilts. How crazy is that?"
Not as crazy as it sounds. It just takes talent, and a whole lot of practice. Cirque de Soleil's Mattias Ulakokkala did a lot of his practicing in St Paul. He began developing his circus skills as a trapeze artist while studying in Florida.
"I moved up here straight after college for a year and a half to coach circus with the goal of continuing to move on," Ulakokkala said.
Ulakokkala taught at Circus Juventus, the St. Paul Circus School set up in the early 1990s by Dan and Betty Butler. Veterans of traditional circuses, Dan Butler said they started what was then called Circus of the Star some years before they even heard of Cirque de Soleil.
"It was probably not until '98 that Betty and I saw our first performance and knew from that moment on that we were not going to follow our roots, which are red-nosed clown circuses like Ringling and Shriners," Butler said.
The focus is now on circus skills within a story line with sets and scenes rather than stand-alone spectacles. Some 2,000 students a year now take classes at the custom built Circus Juventus facility in Highland Park.
Butler said there is a symbiotic relationship between Circus Juventus and Cirque de Soleil. The Canadian company has taught and critiqued student acts during visits to St. Paul. Two years ago, it even invited students to perform.
"And we actually opened up, we had three of our acts from Circus Juventus open up for them," he said. "Which meant all the world to our organization and our students and I think the audience got a big kick and enjoyed it also."
Butler said Cirque de Soleil has also raised at least the possibility of a career in the circus. Several youngsters from Juventus have auditioned for the troupe.
In return, Circus Juventus has advised Cirque de Soleil's outreach programs, which include dozens of schools around the world teaching circus skill to homeless youngsters. Dan Butler also hopes to help with a new Cirque program to train coaches and help the spread of circus skills.
Across town in Minneapolis, Xelias Aerial Arts has also enjoyed a bounce from Cirque de Soleil. Founder Meg Elias Emory said Cirque has raised the visibility of circus arts and inspired people to exercise.
"We have people who have never worked out before and I have students who are pilates instructors and dance teachers at the universities and they just want to expand their vocabularies in the way they are working out," Emory said.
Such is the interest she has also been teaching at the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.
Back at Cirque de Soleil, former St. Paulite Mattias Ulakokkala now works as a rigger. He sets up the equipment and safety gear for the performers. He said, even after all these years, the thrill of the circus never gets old.
"I think its the marvel, the fantasy, it's just like the human condition," he said. "Seeing people flying through the air, you just don't see that every day. It's still amazing, it still raises the hair on your arms."
Just then a performer on five-foot-tall stilts launches off a teeterboard and does a backflip, landing easily on his stilts.
The Cirque de Soleil run in St. Paul goes for several weeks, and it's likely the visit will be rippling through Twin Cities circus classes for some time after that.