Athletes, Art and Anatomy

By: Michael Connors Issue: Sports Section: Collaborator Profile

Medical Collaboration and Cirque du Soleil

Athletes Art and Anatomy

Cirque du Soleil has the unique ability to transport its audience to a magical and mystical place using, almost exclusively, the expression and wonder of the human body. The founder, Guy Laliberté began the unique circus in the early 80’s with a small loan from the Canadian government. He packed up the show and gambled everything on a performance in Los Angeles and would not have had enough money left over for gas for the return trip if he had failed. The result: he revolutionized the world of entertainment.

A cacophony of color and motion, elite athletes bring to life a narrative and weave tales of wonder combining precision choreography, spectacular costumes and props, and, most importantly, an almost super-human display of the body’s potential. When watching Cirque du Soleil it becomes apparent that on display is a physical manifestation of collaboration. Like a professional team of any kind, Cirque du Soleil performers rely on one another at a fundamental level in order to create an event that is focused and unified in its form and meaning. Each artist closely works with their team and organization, and intimately depends on their support. Each routine is choreographed to work in conjunction with the whole of the performance, much like a Rolex.

A demonstration of such skill, beauty and precision could not happen without a great deal of effort from hundreds of support staff. And, arguably, one of the most important parts of the whole may be the medical care and treatment of the performers.

Cirque du Soleil artists re-define the image of an athlete/performer, but they are athletes at the core nonetheless. Thus, much like the collaboration that takes place on stage, there is a symbiotic relationship between the performers and medical staff that requires close cooperation and complete trust. Here we take a closer look at the dynamics of these relationships and the rewards that grow out of these collaborations.

Cirque artists endure a grueling training and performance regime that may mean they are working for weeks at a time with little time to rest. Bryan Burnstein, the strength and conditioning advisor for all Cirque du Soleil shows, notes that each show has a full staff of physical therapists and massage therapists to work with the athletes before, during and after each show. As many would assume, Cirque artists work a demanding show schedule that subjects them to repetitive motion injuries and trauma. Burnstein notes, “The injury patterns are similar to what you see in high level athletics. The human body is still the human body.

You see everything. You have your acute stuff, but you also see the wear and tear of doing the same thing 476 times a year, which is what we do.”

Yet, Cirque du Soleil may be one of the best organizations to fully support their performers with a staff of trainers, physical and massage therapists, and even nutritionists. It truly takes a village. There is no doubt that the stage shows put extraordinary demands on the performers bodies. Perhaps the best way to highlight the conditions these artists live under is to take a closer look at an individual example. According to an article by Andy Isaacson from the APTA (American Physical Therapy Association) in March 2007, he highlighted Tracy Bonner, a 32-year old former collegiate diver from Houston. He said, “In her main act, a metal swing catapults her 30 feet above the aquatic stage. If all goes well, she will feel the impact of the performance on just her shoulders and wrists.” But sometimes things don’t always go well. In fact, Bonner has landed flat on the stage, knocking the wind out of her and causing her to suffer a full body blow. Isaacson even describes how she was even hospitalized after missing the water entirely during an act.

Clearly, to execute such a well-timed and coordinated athletic spectacle, it takes a great deal of teamwork and human resourcefulness on a multitude of levels. Consider that there are performers from 40 countries across the globe on the Cirque staff. The sheer level of diversity makes it extremely difficult to cross perceived boundaries and make everyone feel comfortable. There are considerations like home sickness, culture shock and language barriers that have to be overcome. Imagine the pressures of not only executing complex acrobatic routines but doing so in a foreign land with a large disparate assembly of individuals. Isaacson quotes Janet Pundick, former director of health services for Cirque du Soleil, “If someone tells me that for the last 15 years they’ve been using a type of methodology with respect to their rehabilitation, I’d be at a disadvantage to suggest they change that if they believe it’s working for them.

Athletes Art and Anatomy

That mind-body connection is what motivates the preventative and acute medical teams at Cirque every day. In fact, the benefits of collaboration are not exclusively enjoyed by the athletes. As a result of close partnerships, the physical therapists are exposed to a wide range of injuries and an equally diverse approach for healing. As mentioned, the medical staff often encounters folk remedies and treatments that are used within specific disciplines.

“Cultural background can make quite a difference in expectations and needs. What a performer thinks they want, may be at odds with what clinicians might think is best. The education works both ways. There’s also a great opportunity to learn the approach they would use and ask, ‘Is it something that would help me grow? What can I learn from that?’” said Janette Powell, a Cirque therapist. As a result, doctors and therapists are exposed to a wide variety of injuries and treatments confined within one performing organization. They run the gamut from lower back spasms from the gymnasts to shoulder and wrist injuries from divers. And, just imagine what the contortionists go through!

In our profession, we all have to believe in a mind-body connection, and if you don’t believe something’s going to work for you, it absolutely won’t.”

Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that Cirque du Soleil sees the performer as a whole person. Burnstein touches on the depth of their care when he notes that each team works closely with the athletes - beyond just the physical training and therapy, there are integration teams that help athletes transition to a life beyond performing. He says, “There are people who help them with those transitions. As artists are integrated into new shows and new places, there are people who help them with those transitions, physically and emotionally. When they are in their career and start thinking about what to do after we help educate them about what skills they can use out in the world or even within the company. That helps with the stress of what they are going to do when they can’t perform. The levels of support don’t just stop with the coaching and training. There are a lot of people that put time into making sure they are doing well.”

This comprehensive collaborative strategy is a major reason Cirque du Soleil has been, and remains, a spectacular success. Imagine the job satisfaction rating most companies would enjoy should they choose to adopt such a model. It is vital to visualize the acrobatics and precision movements of the athletes as a true metaphor of collaboration. The levels of support throughout the organization run deep and wide and the results are apparent for all to see and enjoy. So the next time Cirque du Soleil comes to your town - GO. Be sure, as you gaze at the spectacle on the stage, that there are hundreds of people you don’t see.

And remember the dance in the sky is only possible with the help of those on the ground.

Michael Connors is a Colorado native who grew up in the shadow of the Rockies, enjoying hiking and skiing. He has an M.A. in Literature and once taught writing, skiing and the English language overseas.